The Architecture Programme Leader at Northumbria University offered advice on tackling challenges in the sector, and revealed ‘a quiet but growing revolution’ in the UK. Here we explore the value of putting wellbeing at the heart of the design process, and look at the research that sits behind it.


Evidence Space - Wellbeing Revolution

Putting wellbeing first

In an age where synthetic materials and shortcuts are readily available, occupant wellbeing can become secondary to cost savings during the design process. But the issue goes further than design. For buildings to be fully geared towards health and wellbeing, those at every stage of the construction process must understand how they help shape the end user experience.

This should begin with architects and specifiers who consider how materials work together to boost wellbeing, and extend to tradespeople who think about the impact of products and installation methods on occupants’ comfort. For example, insulation and plasterboard installers will know the importance of products’ thermal and acoustic performance.

In his interview, Dr Jones argues that architects and specifiers should work with others in the industry to demonstrate the influence of healthy buildings on both physical and mental health. He also urges collaboration with the Government to ensure policy is informed by this understanding, and that this contributes to standards and certification systems that are robust enough to support occupant wellbeing.

The value of quality

Despite the short term cost savings achieved through value engineering, there is a price to be paid for specifying the bare minimum when it comes to wellbeing. While synthetic materials release VOCs that are linked to cancer and heart disease, poor thermal efficiency puts occupants’ health at risk, and low acoustic performance threatens mental wellbeing. Indeed, indoor environments can be even more toxic than outdoor ones [1], causing what Dr Jones describes as an ‘epidemic of health issues’.

In contrast, specifying high quality, natural materials has plenty of benefits for the inhabitants and owners of new buildings. Dr Jones emphasises the potential savings to the NHS that could result from healthy buildings, and research has shown that factors such as views of nature, natural light and ventilation in healthcare buildings has a positive impact on in-patient recovery times [2, 3].

Many healthcare organisations have used this knowledge to benefit patients, including Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland, which was recently shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize. In 2004, The Center for Health Design in the US carried out a cost-benefit analysis using the hypothetical Fable Hospital [4], finding that the operating cost savings resulting from reducing infections, eliminating unnecessary patient transfers, minimising patient falls, lowering drug costs and decreasing employee turnover rates would heavily outweigh the costs of an enhanced design. While the building would cost an additional 7.2% ($26m), the annual savings would be $10m, achieving payback within three years.

Healthy buildings beyond healthcare

But the benefits of healthy buildings go far beyond the healthcare sector, and it is the buildings where we spend most of our time that could have the greatest impact.

In the workplace, inadequate design reduces employee engagement and performance, while a focus on wellbeing can help these factors soar. In fact, there are differences in productivity of up to 25% between comfortable and uncomfortable employees [5].

A study of factories experiencing extreme temperature conditions found a 30% decrease in productivity [6], while other research shows offices that make use of daylighting are linked with a 15% reduction in absenteeism [7]. As in other areas, much of the recent research into workplace wellbeing links back to nature and the impact of biophilic design.

Research into educational environments also reveals a link between design and outcomes. The University of Salford recently revealed that moving a child with ‘average’ performance from the least effective to the most effective classroom can increase performance by 1.3 sub-levels of the national curriculum within one year [8]. With pupils typically progressing by 2 sub-levels each year, this is a significant finding. The factors that influenced learning outcomes were the built environment’s connection with nature, and its ability to provide individualisation and stimulation.

As 90% of our time is spent indoors, with 65% of this at home [9], the design of our homes has perhaps the greatest impact on wellbeing. Aside from the influence of thermal performance on comfort levels, every £1 spent on reducing fuel poverty results in 42p in NHS savings, with Age UK estimating the annual cost of cold homes to the NHS in England to be £1.36 billion [9]. Thoughtful design can also address other factors that affect wellbeing in the home, from daylight to noise levels.

By collaborating with those both inside and outside of the construction industry, architects and specifiers can shift the focus from profits onto people, and spur on the revolution towards designing for wellbeing. 

[1] Environmental Protection Agency (2018), ‘The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality’ [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 August 2018].
[2] Health Facilities Scotland (2011), ‘Research Report: evidence-based design’.
[3] Ulrich, R. (1984), ‘View through a window may influence recovery from surgery’, Science, Vol. 224, pp. 420–421.
[4] Sadler, B. L., DuBose, J. and Zimring, C. (2008), ‘The Business Case for Building Better Hospitals through Evidence-Based Design’, HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, Vol. 1 (3), pp. 22 – 39.
[5] Leaman, A. (2003), ‘Productivity Improvement’, Building in Value, Vol. 3.
[6] Oseland, N (2001), ‘To what extent does workplace design and management affect productivity?’, Presented at the 2001 British Institute of Facilities Management annual conference.
[7] Thayer, B (1995), ‘Daylighting & Productivity at Lockheed’, Solar Today, Vol. 9, pp. 26-29.
[8] Barrett P, et al. (2012), ‘A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning, Building Environment. Available at:
[9] UK Green Building Council (2016), ‘Health and Wellbeing in Homes’.