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Five key elements that impact our health within office interior spaces

23 Sep. 2020

Katherine Bruce, Senior Sustainability Consultant at AESG, delves deep into the five elements that wreak havoc on our health and the steps we can take to make an improvement within the working environment.


Air contaminants, artificial lighting, background noise, crowded spaces and poor ergonomic design; all stressors that have a major impact on the health and wellbeing of an individual.  From purchasing decisions to stabilizing our body clock, we need to recognize the social pillar of sustainable development. It is more important than ever not only to design ‘efficient buildings’ but also to design buildings that optimize our health and productivity.

Our perceptions of health and wellness vary from person to person and across countries and cultures. They can be subjective according to how each person is affected by their individual health status.

The World Health Organization defines health as the complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

With buildings influencing a big portion of our day to day activities, it is of great importance to identify and understand how our health is impacted by the built environment. More importantly, by understanding how each part of our surrounding environment contributes to our overall wellbeing, we can help to reduce the harmful effects and perhaps even improve our physical and mental wellbeing. Here are five indoor items impacting our health and a quick insight as to what we can do to make improvements.

1. Materials contribute to indoor air pollution that is often 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors

Materials surround us. If you take a few minutes to observe the room you are sitting in, walls and ceiling coating cover almost 80% of the space. Flooring tiles, paints, carpets, furnishings and fixtures also constitute a large portion collectively. Each of these items has been manufactured through a process of design, fabrication and production. Many toxic chemicals are introduced in the production of these elements and contribute to our interior environment. Therefore, materials matter!

In fact, the quality of the air we breathe is determined by the composition of these materials. We all know that ‘new car smell’ or the smell of a freshly painted room?

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Well, this is in fact due to toxic chemicals off-gassing from the interiors, these chemicals are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Concentrations are highest when materials are newly installed, however, products will continue to off-gas throughout their lifetime. High concentrations of indoor chemicals can cause unexplained flu-like symptoms, which are classified as ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ or ‘Building-Related Illnesses’. Long term exposure through breathing or ingestion of toxic chemicals has been linked to leukemia, breathing disorders and asthma. VOCs such as formaldehyde and benzene are known carcinogens.

Inhaling the off-gas from materials is a major health concern. Each day we breathe 4 times more air than we eat and drink combined. We expect the food we buy to have an ingredients list, and we should demand the same from our furniture.

Next time you repaint your house, watch out for the VOC content in paint. As a rule of thumb, select paints with VOCs less than 200g/L. When purchasing furniture, be aware of the materials that may release toxins into the atmosphere, avoid and minimize products that use flame retardant chemicals, plasticizers and urea-formaldehyde. Instead, opt for natural products where possible. If in doubt, look for products with certifications, there are various voluntary programs that allow suppliers to be recognized for their low-toxic products (Cradle-to-Cradle or GreenScreen). There is also a scheme called ‘Declare’ which is a labeling program that gives consumers transparency about the ingredients in their products.

2. Our circadian rhythms are being disrupted by artificial light

We all function on a 24-hour body clock known as our circadian rhythm. Light is the strongest cue for our bodies to know what time of the day it is. Being exposed to bright white-blue artificial light in the evening suppresses the production of melatonin, which stops us from feeling sleepy. On the contrary, working in a dull, dark room during the daytime will make us feel lethargic and negatively impacts our productivity. Long term disruption to our circadian rhythm is linked to various chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes and depression.

In recent years, there has been a rise in sophisticated circadian lighting systems (check out Luctra and Phillips) that mimic the sun’s lighting level and color throughout the day. Starting with shades of orange-yellow in the morning, the lights automatically transition to blue-white light during the day, enhancing our productivity.

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During the evening, the light mimics the colors of the sunset. The systems have been proven to stabilize our body clock, enhance our quality of sleep and promote wellbeing and performance. In spaces that don’t benefit from natural daylight, we should also aim to increase the LRV (light reflectance value) of surfaces to maximize the available daylight, this means installing light-colored furniture and paints. Although be aware that too much daylight can lead to glare which has adverse effects. Glare can be a source for headaches and visual impairment. Placement of reflective surfaces like screens and mirrors and adequate window shading should be considered to avoid discomfort caused by solar or electric glare.

3. Background noise is putting our bodies in a constant state of alert

Acoustic comfort is key to managing productivity and reducing stress. Being exposed to a constant dull background noise whether from external traffic or from internal HVAC systems, can increase stress levels and may even increase blood pressure and resting heart rate. We may not even realize how attuned our bodies are to the constant background noise we are exposed to.

The constant chatter of surrounding colleagues also reduces our productivity, especially in rooms with high reverberation times. Noise has been shown to negatively impact the quality of our sleep, even if we are not consciously aware. The careful design of interior spaces starts with understanding the functions and activities which will take place in a building.

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This allows designers to develop an acoustic plan which caters to these activities offering both loud and quiet zones as well as the isolation of noisy equipment and consideration of external factors such as highways, aircraft routes and train lines. In existing buildings, partitions, furniture and acoustic panels can help reduce disturbing sound levels in case the arrangement cannot be altered. Even adding a rug to a bare room will help absorb conversational noise. Furthermore, in open offices sound masking systems can be installed to improve confidentiality in conversations and to provide privacy. Sound masking works by applying a ‘white noise’ to a room to cover up noise created by talking.

4. Crowded spaces are linked with biological and psychological signs of stress

For optimized use of the space and users’ productivity, the spatial layout is key to provide all occupants with dedicated zones for all functions and activities taking place. In an office, for example, spaces should be available to facilitate different working types such as collaboration, teamwork, individual focus and conference calls. They should be allocated to allow employees to perform their day to day tasks comfortably.

Furthermore, we all experience varying degrees of thermal comfort inside a room. Thermal comfort is influenced by personal factors (such as an individual’s metabolic rate and clothing insulation) and environment factors (humidity, air speed and temperature).

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In a multi-use space, areas of varying temperatures would allow employees to select and work in a space that meets their needs. Another technique used to improve our mental wellbeing inside is to increase our access to nature. ‘Biophilia’ is a term used to describe a human’s natural affinity to nature.

Rooms with biophilic design features (e.g. plant walls, indoor plants and water features) promote a sense of wellbeing and relaxation to their occupants.

5. Sitting down is taking years off our lives

Ergonomics impact posture and play a significant role in mitigating both physical and mental stress. Poorly adjusted furniture can affect muscles and ligaments and may cause discomfort and strain the body over time. Plus, sitting down for extended periods results in reduced circulation, which slows our metabolism making us more prone to weight gain.

The choice of furniture is important, but so is the flexibility to adjust parameters to suit individual needs, such as height and depth adjustment in chairs for example. Some tips to check the ergonomic layout of your own desk can be found here. When possible, furniture items that allow users to alternate between sitting and standing positions can also be provided, this helps to increase opportunities for movement throughout the day.

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On a larger scale, spaces can be designed by creating opportunities to keep active such as, placing elevators in a discreet area and installing an aesthetic staircase to encourage stair use, including dedicated exercise spaces or designing spaces with enough flexibility to cater for these uses and functions.

Take action today.

We spend 90% of our time indoors.

Our internal environment is having a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Sustainability is often tied to environmental impacts, but it is as important to address the social impact of sustainability and design spaces that allow us to thrive. Being inside spaces that promote our health and well-being will foster innovation and creativity. With careful design and organization of equipment, furniture, lighting and selection of materials, user experience in a building can be truly enhanced. Simple adjustments and considerations can be implemented in our homes and offices for improved comfort and wellbeing today.

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