Cost versus health and wellbeing in buildings


When it comes to health and wellbeing and society and industry, it’s a journey we have only just begun.

Saint-Gobain with its 170,000 employees worldwide is that delivery mechanism. Our aim to ensure our materials and solutions help increase the comfort of people today, wherever they live, work and travel. But we need to do this sustainably.

To deliver this promise, our industry needs to go beyond current regulations: not in monetary terms, but in the fundamental principles that benefit the occupants and wider society.

In 1984, the first statutory building regulations were introduced with some reference to insulation to try to reduce the impact of the 1970’s oil crisis. Since this point, as an industry, we’ve been focused on energy efficiency and carbon compliance but often in isolation overlooking other contributing factors that are required to provide a balanced, optimal and comfortable environment that puts the individual at the heart of the design.

What’s often forgotten is that we, as human beings, were never designed to be kept in boxes that don’t respond to our sensory needs. But some of the buildings we are still designing today in 21st century don’t acknowledge this fact and as such, create health problems like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), depression and lung disease.

When you think we spend up to 90% of our time within buildings or vehicles, it’s hardly surprising that the spaces around us have an impact on our health and wellbeing. To this end, since 2004, Saint-Gobain has been collaborating and researching heavily on a concept that defines health and wellbeing and looks to achieve a balance between the three sustainable pillars – environment, economics and social – as set out by the 1987 Brundtland Report. At the same time, this concept would also address the sensory requirements of thermal, acoustics, indoor air quality and visual.

This concept came to fruition in Multi Comfort.

But many people in our society, and in our industry, are still focused on the cost is king model. So why do we need to re-consider the effects of buildings on our health and wellbeing now, more than ever?

Firstly, productivity. Productivity in the UK is lower than most developed countries. However, a study by Harvard in the USA showed that cognitive abilities increased by 61% when in a green building and up to 101% when additional ventilation rates were introduced rather than using standard practice. It begs the question: how would the UK’s productivity increase if we improved the design of our workplaces?

To have a strong economy now and in the future, and especially after Brexit, we need the next generation to be in the best learning environments. We know from the Salford University HEAD project that buildings constructed to higher comfort factors and ventilation standards can increase pupil attainment to 30% above the normal base line. So just imagine what that could mean for the UK’s educational performance versus the rest of the globe if we get school buildings right.

We talk about the NHS being at breaking point over funding, yet our buildings might be causing the need for the service in the first place.

For example, currently 20% of the UK population suffers with asthma which is the highest in any developed country. According to research, many asthma attacks are triggered by dust mites and their droppings, and dust mites are a primary result of high relative humidity (moisture) homes in the UK often caused by cooking, showers, breathing and poor air changes in the homes. To this end, studies by Sefton Council showed that introducing other methods of ventilation other than standard practice can improve the quality of air within the home. And high humidity also increases leaching of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – some of which are considered to be carcinogenic – from fixtures and fittings.

There are countless examples that show the benefits of optimal air quality and comfort in homes, schools, hospitals and our places of work, so it’s about time that building regulations are updated to reflect health and wellbeing and dismiss the argument that ‘cost is king’.

After all, there are benefits for all parties in the UK if we think long term rather than short term gains.