Sound/Acoustics
Wellbeing
Noise pollution

Healthier people through better buildings – Our sense of hearing is always 'on'

Susanne Dyrbøl
Susanne Dyrbøl
29 July 2020

The second sustainability wave is refocusing on the health and wellbeing of a building's occupants. Here's how healthier buildings help society and businesses.

Healthier people through better buildings – Our sense of hearing is always 'on'
Man holding hands over ears inside office, noise pollution

The hustle and bustle of city life is a good thing for the economy, but if it comes at the expense of a healthy population, it simply will not be sustainable. Modern life has become a deafening experience. In some cities like Mumbai, India, the ambient noise levels can exceed 100dB, making it one of the most noise-polluted cities in the world.

Continued exposure to elevated noise levels has been proven to negatively affect our health, increase stress levels, and stifle productivity. To improve the overall wellbeing of urban populations, designing better buildings will result in healthier people while also providing additional societal benefits.

Benefits of a healthier indoor environment for populations

Advances in our understanding of the effects that noise has on human biology and psyche led to changes in how we view our built environment. Healthy buildings that provide an improved indoor climate will positively affect the economy and society while reducing the financial burdens on companies and the public sector.

Recently, researchers started studying and quantifying the benefits of improved indoor acoustics. At the request of Buildings 2030, the Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE) reviewed more than 400 academic articles, results of case studies, and expert interviews to create the 'Building 4 People: Building the business case for better office, school, and hospital buildings in Europe' report.

To measure the impact of improved indoor climates, the report assessed four parameters that influence the quality of indoor environments, including acoustics, thermal comfort, lighting, and indoor air quality. Although there are some knowledge gaps in the literature, the results show that improved indoor climates can have major positive impacts on the populations of the EU's Member States.

Quantifiable benefits of healthier buildings on European populations

The study highlighted the potential benefits available from renovating the buildings that make up almost half of the entire floor area of non-residential buildings in the EU. As these buildings will still be in use for decades to come, investing in energy efficiency and improving indoor climate with renovations now can provide a direct, positive impact for the people who depend on these structures.

In the EU, nearly 90 million students and young people spend the majority of their weekdays in school, university, or college buildings. About the same number of patients spend more than one week in the hospital every year, and one in three adults work in offices. Improving the indoor climate of these buildings will have drastic impacts on the health and wellbeing of a large portion of the European population.

Positive impacts of healthy indoor climates for office workers and employers

Accounting for 23 percent of the non-residential floor area of European buildings, around 80 million people will benefit from a holistic renovation project in offices. With a renovation project, the average office will experience an increase in productivity of 12 percent, which could add up to €500 billion to the EU annually.

In open offices, companies can gain a 2-3 percent improvement in productivity with optimised acoustics, which amounts to €1,600 annually per person. Working in an environment that provides thermal comfort further enhances productivity by 7-12 percent. Additionally, optimising the use of daylight and providing adequate electric lighting boosts employee performance by 6 percent. Taken together, these interventions could add €9,700 every year to a company's bottom line.

Increased educational performance from better buildings

Educational buildings make up 17 percent of the non-residential building stock in Europe. As children and young adults are still developing, providing healthy indoor climates can have a drastic impact on their future performance. Specific benefits from healthy buildings include improved academic performance, increased speech legibility, and fewer absentee days from students. Enhancing the acoustics, thermal efficiency, and indoor air quality is vital for ensuring adolescents develop into healthy adults.

With poor indoor acoustics, children could miss as much as 25 percent of the words spoken by an instructor in a classroom. Additionally, with improved indoor climates, students can learn the same amount of information while shaving off two weeks from the academic year. According to the World Health Organisation, any noise levels above 35dB will impair cognitive abilities in schools and educational environments.

Speed up recovery in patients with a healthier indoor environment

Building better hospitals or renovating existing building stocks (which make up 7 percent of the total, non-residential floor area) can help reduce the bottom line of public and private health sectors. Reducing the time of a patient's stay in a hospital can save €42 billion annually in healthcare costs. Healthier buildings also saw a drop in mortality rates in children's hospitals by as much as 19 percent.

Better buildings help decrease employee turnover rates (by up to 20 percent). It also benefited patients, as the cost of medication dropped by 21 percent, according to the available literature.

Building standards that focus on improving the indoor climate of buildings

Considering that 90 percent of a company's operational costs go towards human resources, investing in improved office environments is good for business. The International WELL Building Institute™ (IWBI™) provides a holistic and sustainable standard for improving the indoor climate of the world's building stock.

While the first sustainability wave focused on increasing resilience and reducing the energy demand of buildings, the second wave is prioritising the health and wellness of the inhabitants. Refocusing sustainability on a human-centric view can provide greater comfort, health, and enhance (instead of compromise) society's wellness. The human ear is always listening, making ambient noise one of the pillars for measuring the health of an indoor climate.

Optimising the acoustics of the built environment (especially as populations spend roughly 90 percent of time indoors) can improve our learning, healing, and comfort. Ultimately, buildings with an improved acoustic design will promote the overall wellbeing of current and future inhabitants. Modern technologies like stone wool insulation products can help absorb and reflect sounds to ensure a comfortable, sustainable indoor climate.

As governments, policymakers, and private companies redouble their efforts to improve the health of their human resources, investing in renovation projects that address all the issues relating to the health and wellbeing of the built environment will ensure a better outcome going forward.

By remaining committed to renovating the world's building stock, we continue to increase the resilience of buildings and the wellbeing of occupants around the globe.