How do we know if a building is doing well by the building occupants and the environment? Answering this question is tricky. For instance, LEED measures sustainability within a building by focusing on the built environment including location and access to daylight, materials, building systems, and energy performance. The WELL Building Standard and Fitwel take a different approach, by examining how the built environment can support a healthy workforce through access to fitness facilities, the outdoors, and contemplative spaces.

There are also many other programs completely independent of the A/E industry that measure occupant and/or employee satisfaction, like Fortune magazine’s “Best Companies to Work For.”

To truly understand if a building is “high performing” (another industry term for just about anything deemed important for the outcome of your building design) we must consider how to tie all these things together. What are the key elements to a physical space that supports a high performing occupant AND an optimal operational performance (indoor air quality or energy use, for example)? Can there be a correlation between “feeling a lack of control” at work and how space is designed? Similarly, can we find a connection between “it’s too hot, or too cold” with “lack of sleep” or job satisfaction?

At EYP, we became so intrigued by this challenge that we began a quest to see what we might learn if we were to measure for a single building the combined elements of well-being, productivity and energy performance. We called our research project: “In Search of Zen.”

We started by working with several strategic partners, including academic and technology experts, to establish the various ways to effectively and efficiently measure key elements of our study.

Our in-house workplace expert, Leigh Stringer, developed an important strategic relationship with the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and introduced us to their SHINE (Sustainability and Health Initiative for Net- Positive Enterprise) program, where they are developing an innovative survey tool that measures the Health and Human Performance of building occupants while identifying innovations that can improve the health of people and the environments in which they work. In this relationship, EYP provided important expertise and guidance to both the SHINE program and the development of the HaPI (Health and Human Performance Index tool that evaluates well-being, productivity, engagement, culture and the built environment) relating to the building environment and our understanding of the impact of physical space. Here are some of our key findings:

Exercise is connected to office location
Our employee data shows a correlation between the amount of exercise employees are getting and office location. Employees assigned to an office with a shorter commute, in an urban vs. suburban location, access to public transportation, access to a park and views to the outdoors were more likely to exercise more.

Lack of sleep is connected to work commute and workload
Lack of sleep was attributed to heavy workload, increased stress and longer commute time. Interestingly, the demographic of employees who sleep the least (and reported being the most stressed) are women, particularly those under 45. This falls in line with nationally reported data.

Stress impacts performance more than physical health issues
Overall, employees claimed mental health issues (stress and/or anxiety) were more impactful to presenteeism and absenteeism than physical health issues. This number went up for women and younger staff. There are many reasons employees might feel anxious like lack of sleep, lack of exercise, a heavy workload, or feeling a “lack of control” as to how, when, or where they get their work done.

Culture affects everything
When Harvard tested questions about culture, the work environment, amenities provided and workplace flexibility and then compared them to job performance and life satisfaction, their analysis confirmed what we suspected. Culture has a stronger impact on our health outcomes than the other factors by a long shot. Organizational factors like trust, respect, fairness, vibrant atmosphere and authenticity were correlated with job productivity and life satisfaction more than anything else. Though not as highly rated as culture, there were some physical workplace elements that more strongly correlate with job and life satisfaction than others. These include: a place to lie down at the office, a place to meditate, bike storage and showers.

“Job Control” is the most influential factor when it comes to job engagement
Factors like autonomy in decision making, learning new things, using creativity, using individual skills and abilities and “having a say in what happens with your job” impacts employee engagement more than other factors.

We also teamed with Crowd Comfort, a software and services company that aims to transform the real estate management space with its crowdsourcing platform. With a user-friendly mobile application, occupants can become the eyes, ears (and nose) of the building with input like: It’s too hot/too cold/too loud; hey what IS that smell? The input by our employees is then tracked over time and attributed to various zones within the building that were predetermined by our research team.

Initially, employees were consistent in sharing their feedback through the Crowd Comfort application. Over time, though, the novelty seemed to wear off and less feedback was shared. However, the feedback we did receive was consistent relative to temperature issues and acoustical issues. There was less consistency from people relative to perceived brightness. We think that this may have been due to the fact that the daylight harvesting automatic shade devices were not fully commissioned at the time of our study and may not have been functioning properly. Ultimately, though, we were able to identify specific areas in the space where we could make improvements in temperature and acoustics that resulted in improved employee feedback.

Local microclimate was measured and recorded using space-mounted Bluetooth-enabled HOBO sensors and data loggers. Temperature, relative humidity and carbon dioxide was measured in seven locations. The floor plate was divided into three unique “zones” including East, South and Corporate zones. For the larger East and South zones, three sensors for each zone were distributed across the perimeter, center and interior areas to enable correlation of microclimate parameters to occupant feedback. Plug load data loggers were connected to several workstations to measure the actual energy used by the typical office equipment. The devices used were also HOBO Bluetooth-enabled data loggers.

Last, we partnered with Rifiniti, a company that reinvented workspace utilization by introducing a cloud-based data analytics tool allowing us to measure utilization, collaboration and mobility over time and then compare that to energy performance. This tool helped us tie together occupant behavior with building performance.

Tying it all together
We learned that there were areas of our building that were designed for higher occupancy levels than we anticipated. So a conference room, for instance, that was designed for 20 was most often being used by 4 or 5 people at a time and was typically being used from 9:00 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon. Those same conference rooms were consistently getting complaints about being too cold. This information allowed us to identify adjustments to our system such as modifying the variable air volume terminal units serving the conference rooms to shut off when the room is unoccupied, thereby minimizing over-cooling of the space. Of course, we also questioned if we needed that many large conference rooms or if smaller conference rooms would be more efficient in the future, both in terms of how people were using them and in terms of energy performance.

We also found that when we had the highest utilization at 40–60 percent occupied between 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the space temperatures were less of a problem for our staff, averaging around 74 degrees F with a corresponding relative humidity (RH) of approximately 35 percent—conditions that most people found comfortable.

We were also able to compare carbon dioxide (CO2) levels to our utilization throughout the day. As expected, we could see the CO2 levels peak as utilization increased; peaking at 800 ppm and then dropping as the mechanical system responded by increasing outside air volumes. One observation we made is that the mechanical system responds to a return air-mounted CO2 sensor which is set to increase outside air to maintain a maximum of 725 ppm. The local sensors peaked at 800 ppm, indicating that the CO2 setpoint should be reduced to account for the mixing of all spaces in order to achieve a maximum of 725 ppm at the space level.

Plug load was also something that we were able to correlate to our utilization studies and found that perhaps most importantly, equipment was not being turned off after hours in the way that we had predicted. To solve this, it was a matter of determining what equipment was still running and implementing an office protocol to limit after-hours usage.

Overall, the results of our study were also helpful to us in communicating to our staff the impact that they were, by their very behaviors, having on the energy performance of the building.

So what’s next?
In the future, we will be taking a closer look at the new frontier in building research—what we cannot see. Microbiome research is helping to analyze indoor environments along with their dynamic systems to better understand connections between occupant health and the built environment. Through our new strategic partnership with the University of Oregon and their Institute for Health in the Built Environment, we foresee an opportunity to further our research in the ZEN Building by studying the microbiome during periods when the HVAC systems are operating in outside air economizer mode versus minimum outside air operation. We are interested in understanding if the microbiome during outside air economizer mode looks more like the outdoors as research suggests and learning if occupants are more satisfied with the indoor environment during this time of year.

Additionally, research conducted through the COGfx Buidingomics Study by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and SUNY Upstate Medical University has shown that exposure to blue-enriched light during the day led to improved sleep quality scores and improved cognitive function. Based on these findings and other similar research, we’ll be investigating how buildings impact the indoor microbiome, air, chemistry, thermal and visual comfort, perception, psychologic and physiologic response in order to better design for health, energy and the next evolution of high performance buildings.

What does this mean for our profession?
Several years ago, before we launched EYP’s research program, a client in an important meeting asked our design team if we could guarantee that his new building would help increase enrollment in the sciences—would the investment in bricks and mortar be worth it?

Our clients are changing, and as we gain more access to data and information about how people live, work and learn in our buildings, it has and will continue to be incumbent upon architects and designers to create not just physical space, but expected behavioral outcomes for the people using our spaces and buildings. We have found that by forming strategic public and private partnerships, we have become more conversant in a wider range of disciplines which has resulted in more accurate and sophisticated building research.

Today, with the enthusiastic support of our clients, we have enough data, information and examples that we can answer the question “is it worth it?”; maybe not with a guarantee, but with a very high level of certainty that if we are able to incorporate certain elements into the design of the building, we can, in fact, influence enrollments in the sciences, for example. Based on our research, we can now prove that building design does have that kind of impact.

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Leila Kamal—at the time of this writing—was chief design strategy officer and principal at EYP.
Teresa Rainey is director of high performance design at EYP.
Leigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert with EYP.

This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018.