The Sensation of Sound

Sound is an essential part of the employee work environment— a healthy workspace improves wellness benefits.

Developers and architects have learned to deliver buildings that are kind to the planet. Now, their focus is on the effect that buildings have on the people who work in them.

Studies show healthy workers tend to be more productive—a concept that is behind a growing trend to create offices with measurable wellness benefits. Research also reveals a direct correlation between our surroundings and our health, outlined in a frequently cited Harvard study connecting improved air quality to elevated mental cognition.

Certification programs have sprung up to guide the way, including the WELL Building Standard, introduced in 2014 by Delos, a real estate and technology firm.

“If we can engineer the box we spend 90 percent of our lives in to deliver health care automatically, that’s a very big impact,” —Paul Scialla, CEO of Delos.

A 282-page manual explains the standard, which is administered by the International WELL Building Institute. The system examines seven categories that promote the health of a building’s occupants—Nourishment, Air, Comfort, Fitness, Light, Mind, Water—and the Delos offices are certainly the poster child.

Triple-filtered air whooshes in from floor vents, while ceiling ducts suck out carbon dioxide. Plants cascade from walls and partitions, naturally purifying the space and satisfying the biophilia hypothesis—our innate need to connect to nature.

The Delos cafe offers an abundance of nutrient-rich options, including almond butter, whole-grain bread, and organic apples.

Standing desks are everywhere, and a wide oak staircase stretches between the lower and upper floors, encouraging staff to walk up and down rather than take the elevator.

Occupants benefit simply from being in an office designed to optimize their health. For instance, the circadian lighting that changes throughout the day, keeping pace with the brightening and dimming of sunlight, has been shown to improve sleeping at night.

The WELL standard is not alone in these corporate health and wellness ventures. Fitwel offers a certification program with similar goals but a different origin and methodology. Developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fitwel is based primarily on public health data and promotes strategies shown to have the greatest effect on health.

National commercial real estate firms, including Tishman Speyer, which has a seat on Fitwel’s advisory board, are applying the program across their portfolio of buildings.

The expected improvements in employee wellness from either program can result in productivity gains, including reduced health care costs, lower rates of absenteeism, and increased revenue from better employee performance.

The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) said it had achieved a 16 percent productivity gain after moving into its WELL-certified headquarters in Washington two years ago. The organization tracked the impact of the design and found increased engagement and reduced absenteeism, according to ASID CEO Randy W. Fiser.

Mr. Fiser said the organization added nearly $700,000 to its bottom line in the first year from the productivity increase and energy cost savings.

Space Matters — Mashore Perspective

"Sound in a space affects us profoundly. It changes our heart rate, breathing, hormone secretion, brain waves, it affects our emotions and our cognition. Noise, defined by scientists as ‘unwanted sound,' puts a burden on our hearts and brains, as well as our ears.” —Dr. Wolfgang Babisch

Sound. Neither of these certification systems has placed a proper emphasis on sound. As I noted last year, we experience every space in five senses, so we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of our ears.

Multiple studies have shown that too much noise in the office can seriously reduce productivity and increase stress, not to mention lower job satisfaction and employee morale. Research further demonstrates that office noise changes people's behavior; it makes them less helpful and more frustrated, and we see raises in rates for absenteeism and sickness.

My pal, Travis Price, shapes an architecture informed by ecology and technology. The celebrated architect, environmental pioneer, author, educator, and philosopher, has award-winning works around the world.

During my video interview with him, he explains how sound is an integral part of experiencing spaces.

He calls it a "subliminal reality that softens you and makes your shoulders drop."

“In today’s economy, people can change jobs,” said Paula McEvoy, an architect and Co-Director of Sustainable Design for Perkins & Will, which completed two WELL-certified projects and five Fitwel certifications last year. “They can choose their workplace.”

I’m betting most are choosing healthy ones!

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