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Targeting & Achieving Occupant Wellbeing in Interior Design

We all love well designed, comfortable and impressive interiors; this is an assumption I’m going to make for the sake of this article and one that I believe the majority of you dear readers, will agree with. 

The type of interiors that make us, clients and visitors stop in our tracks and look around in wonder… Interiors that capture us and require a double take when flicking through a magazine… A hotel we’ve booked based on photos of the bedrooms, the bar, the spa… A restaurant we chose because it looked inviting while walking by… We can all relate to a moment where an interior space affected us.

Then there are other interior spaces that we enter without the trumpets and eye watering moments, and although they may or may not have stopped us in our tracks, we have a happy, pleasant experience and leave them ‘feeling good’.

Now, please take a moment to list the top three ‘best’ interiors you have ever entered, make a mental note of them as we will come back to them further down the article…

Defining Wellbeing in Interior Design

The definition of Wellbeing by the World Health Organisation is “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. As an interior designer and co-owner of a design practise championing sustainability, I see it as my responsibility to ensure that occupiers of spaces we design can experience this definition: the space’s fantastic look, creativity and environmental friendliness will not impose on users’ state of health in such a way that it deprives them from physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. In fact, I feel it is the responsibility of all designers to meet this as a minimum and to add value from there on.

Let’s quickly deal with the position of wellbeing in interiors within the bigger picture of achieving total Wellbeing and ‘happiness’. We do not believe for one moment that by creating an interior that meets all the environmental Wellbeing needs of occupiers, it will automatically provide complete Wellbeing and ‘happy people’. The interior environment is part of the puzzle that we can work on and contribute through, to create the best ‘background’ for occupiers to achieve Wellbeing. We can’t make anyone ‘be’ their best but we can provide the best possible environment for them to try.

According to Wellbeing evaluation case studies such as those shared by Dr Bridget Juniper of Work & Well-Being Ltd during the Feeling Good[1] series at The Building Centre in London, from the key drivers of intentions to quit an organisation and absence, 16% and 19% were attributed to facilities related issues respectively.

And as pointed out by Richard Francis of Gardiner & Theobald, in terms of a company’s life cycle or annual operating costs, personnel comprise 85-90% of costs.[2]

The physical environment of interior spaces impacts occupants in a variety of ways: from general air quality through to individual elements such as a polished floor finish, a comfy lounge chair, a balanced HVAC system, to the feel of a cold door handle on our hand. These elements and the requirement to achieve an expected level of ‘specification for Wellbeing’ can sometimes contradict each other and it all ends up being a highly complex task to achieve; one that we now know is worthwhile accomplishing.

The issues that affect our Wellbeing are listed very simplistically below. Some of these already have quantifiable data, with recent research efforts progressing them further. Other issues are still in the early stages of evidence research: we know they affect people but investment for further research into how exactly they impact humans is hard to come by at present.

  • Acoustic Design Quality. Sounds become noise when they are unwelcome. How much wasted productivity time and physical discomfort is generated through lack of action at design stage?
  • Indoor Air Quality, Temperature & CO2 levels. What ventilation filters are specified and how frequently are these changed? Is there awareness of the VOC and CO2 levels in the interior spaces at any one time?
  • Lighting Design Quality. The impacts of interior lighting on our perception of quality and ability to perform our task or direct us towards a specific psychological state.
  • Local control and occupier contribution. Sometimes we need to do nothing more than provide control to local users to achieve big steps towards Wellbeing.
  • Respect and social inclusion. Design out physical restrictions and consider all the users that will occupy a space and how their comfort or sense of decency may be compromised in any way.
  • Soft Landings, Occupancy Evaluations and Design Team feedback. Critical approaches restrict improvements and innovation. Allow teams the space to learn and contribute through occupancy to refine the spaces’ performance through use; many times clients change the way spaces are used and expect them to still perform as delivered so any initially integrated wellbeing features are lost.
  • Impacts of colour, symbolism and behavioural responses attributed to these.
  • Environmental psychology and the enhanced communication enabled through understanding. Interactions and how occupiers use the interior space in ways that will sustain newly introduced work patterns, especially in current cases tackling environmental reductions and enhancing team communication.
  • The impact of fine arts and music within an interior. How art provides a rest to the ‘processing’ side of our brain and through balanced use, enhances learning or is seen to inspire faster healing times in medical environments.
  • The relationship between material properties (colour, shape size, textures), the spaces they are used in and the relationships between these two issues.
  • Circadian rhythms of our bodies in relation to quantities of natural and artificial light, and changes between these throughout interior spaces.
  • Spatial volumes and interaction between these. How spatial proportions affect our perception of quality and how they impact on tasks and emotional states moving between them.
  • Biophilia. The soothing effects of reminders of nature around our daily life.
  • …and let’s not forget the now familiar benefits of using ergonomically designed furniture and equipment

Where does Wellbeing sit in relation to Sustainability and the biggest issue currently being focused and tackled, Energy and CO2?  What is becoming more and more evident is that some efforts towards solutions for Energy efficiency in building design have direct impacts on Wellbeing. 

Due to the lack of focus that has been traditionally placed on Wellbeing, we are being provided with highly Energy efficient buildings that provide unhealthy indoor environments, which are in fact equally, unsustainable! To add to this, how realistic is it to propose solutions that may reduce energy use/waste but also reduce quality of life and productivity in such a way that occupiers avoid implementing and thus fail in both Energy and Wellbeing achievements? Each environmentally friendly issue considered must ensure it encompasses human Wellbeing for its successful implementation and sustainable on-going operation.

Through the recent Feeling Good events that our practice has been involved in, we are supporting an Evidence Based Approach to all the issues affecting design and specifically Wellbeing. We need to uncover the data behind all the Wellbeing issues that are as tangible as some readings of energy and water consumption, but we also need to allow for a wider array of value metrics. Just because some impacts are not reported with a number, this does not make them any less real, valuable or impacting. Many research organisations and universities are currently working on such issues with great results, and designers must use these in their day to day efforts to include and enhance Wellbeing features in interiors.

Feeling Good video…

Once again through the Feeling Good series on Wellbeing in Interiors, we have been provided with a very good example of the impact a Wellbeing related feature has on occupier performance by Derek Clements-Croome, Emeritus Professor of Reading University, relating to CO2 levels and academic results in primary schools. The results demonstrated a direct link between pupils’ performance in a set of academic tests and the amounts of CO2 in the classroom air. There were a variety of outcomes with this research but one of the main outcomes included: higher concentrations of CO2 in classrooms (>1000-5000ppm) were linked to lower academic performance; lower CO2 levels (<1000ppm) in the classrooms were linked with higher performance. In summary, the performance of students was higher when fresh air change rates were higher and levels of CO2 were lower.

Now imagine a similar setting in a commercial business, with staff typically forming the biggest cost of a company’s annual expenditure (Typical Annual Operating Costs: 2-3% energy; 15% rent; 80% salaries – source:  National Institute of Building Sciences and Carnegie Mellon University) and then consider if the value of their efficient performance (including creative thinking, meeting deadlines, general cognitive performance) is a good investment?

Ska Rating and Wellbeing

In the recent launch of Ska Rating for Retail[3] by the RICS, the system addressed the lack of good practice in the Wellbeing category by introducing more specific GPMs (Good Practise Measures).[4]  Industry good practice and awareness of issues around Wellbeing is very low – even though we now know they can directly assist in preventing ill health, so the first steps have to be small and achievable in order to ensure buy-in from the industry and clients.

As an example, the introduction of measuring VOC levels during the fit-out process which is their highest emission point, has been introduced to tackle poor Indoor Air Quality. Following wider adoption in the future, this action will become part of standard practice and data collected will be used to create benchmark levels and then target reductions. In the meantime, and until such time when data is available, analysed and agreed by the industry as achievable, we are not in a position to set targets.

The current Ska Rating Wellbeing measures in the Retail version will also be introduced in the forthcoming Offices revision due out in Q3 2012. In summary, the Wellbeing GPMs look at:

  • Levels of VOC, metering in both the fit-out process (where emissions are highest) and encouraging measurement and awareness throughout occupation by tenants
  • Low emission interior materials and furniture
  • Lighting and Acoustic quality of the design
  • Provision of a Breakout Space
  • Ventilation rates relevant to CO2 levels at any one time in the occupied interior space
  • CO2 indoor air monitors
  • Fine air filters and cleaning existing ventilation ducts

Case Study – Starwood Hotels & Resorts EMEA Trade Show Stand

Earlier this year we delivered a project for Starwood Hotels & Resorts at ITB in Berlin in the form of a sustainable trade show stand that would be used in their annual European-wide exhibition programme. Starwood’s ambition was to be the first to tackle their environmental impacts through their exhibition activities and to be held accountable officially through a recognized assessment rating.

We were appointed to develop a sustainable design concept and to provide a Ska Rating assessment against the design concept and its delivery. Starwood were starting from the exhibition industry’s current high levels of environmental impact but were looking to ‘do the right thing’ and approach it holistically with the long term in mind. (While this article is being written the Ska Rating assessment data is being collected and it currently indicates a Silver Ska Rating) But putting ratings aside, Starwood’s approach included changes that are not necessarily picked up by a typical construction environmental assessment and included efforts such as local, seasonal sourced food and on-site bottled water, because the idea of doing good inspired all staff that got involved.

In fact the whole approach was a reflection of Starwood’s corporate sustainability strategy which includes the statement “Through collaboration with our hotel owners, franchisees, suppliers and business partners, we will actively work to reduce the environmental impact of our business activities and to continually improve and innovate on practices aimed at conserving natural resources, minimizing waste and pollution, enhancing indoor environmental quality, establishing and reporting on key environmental performance indicators, and raising environmental awareness among our associates, guests and communities.”

Real ‘action’ of the team reviewing furniture in the workshop for reuse.

This stand’s design includes many examples of the above points and it was incredibly exciting for us to work with such an inspiring and forward thinking company. All who we worked with from the Starwood team had a passion for meeting aspiring objectives and took real steps towards achieving them.

Following the project’s delivery our client Oliver Bonker, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Starwood Hotels & Resorts EMEA, stated “Upon lifecycle replacement of our trade show booth, we seized the opportunity to align this very costly and important showcase for our company with our corporate sustainability strategy.  We were hopeful, but did not imagine we would have such overwhelming positive and enthusiastic reaction from our partners, clients and associates.  The more details we shared of what we accomplished, the more enthusiastic and supportive everyone was. Again, another first in the industry for Starwood!”

We recommended a variety of Wellbeing measures to be implemented right from the start that also happened to be inline with Starwood’s internal policies and global approach. These included actions such as measuring of impacts, which is a big step towards long term sustainability, to quick fixes through specification of materials. Wellbeing issues included some of the following features:

  • Passive air movement by introducing penetrations in the solid ceilings of meeting rooms
  • Biophilia, smell and air filtration by the introduction of fresh plants and herbs in various locations
  • CO2 metering in a couple of key locations and the ability for the metering system to be upgraded to include VOC metering as a next step
  • Low emitting paints and adhesives, upholstery fabrics and wall hanging feature materials
  • Indirect lighting and softer lighting levels
  • Provision of facilities such as a centrally located Body and Tool recharge station for staff
  • Spatial shapes and proportions that provide visual feelings of spaciousness, coming from the view that exhibition spaces are traditionally heavy on visitor’s physical and mental senses and one is suffering from mental fatigue.
  • Felt wall panels were introduced in the meeting spaces to respond to sound reverberation

Closing Summary

Picking up the point we raised earlier regarding funds for research and for inclusion in all interiors; would it be sensible to proactively invest in prevention rather than react posthumously with costly medical treatments or worse, simply accept an uninspiring and unhealthy environment to live our lives in?

Let’s go back to your list of the top 3 best interiors you made earlier; now list which Wellbeing features were included in your choices and which can you assume/be sure were not. Is the term ‘Best Interior’ awarded appropriately in the industry and wider market or should it be redefined? I look forward to making and seeing changes happen in this field; in the meantime our practice will continue working towards achieving sustainable, healthy and inspiring interiors!



Why are user profiles important within interior design?

Understanding the impacts on occupants' wellbeing is important and part of the clarity sought on

What is design for wellbeing?

What does design for wellbeing actually mean? Design for wellbeing focuses on creating spaces


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