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Can Office Design Help You Live Longer? DFW Firms Hope Healthy Buildings Will Bring Back Workers

Companies desperate to coax employees out of their homes are banking on wellness design as a way to entice workers back to the office, offering features they say can boost fitness, lower stress, enhance mood and creativity, and even prolong lives.

Boston Consulting Group’s Dallas office

Though wellness design has been in the design mix for years, the pandemic served as a tipping point in the conversation around healthy interiors, especially as studies show that Americans spend close to 90% of their life indoors.

Now, workplaces that promote physical and emotional well-being are not just recommended, but, some would argue, a necessity. In its 2022 design forecast report, Gensler predicts these considerations will be essential for office buildings moving forward.

“In the past, organizations thought, ‘I’ve got a fitness center in my building, so I’ve met the requirement,’” said Paul Manno, principal of Gensler’s Dallas office. “Now, we are seeing a new perspective as to how organizations think about what it means to create and have an impact on somebody’s health in their work environment.”

Encouraging movement is one way companies are trying to reframe what has traditionally been seen as a low-energy, sit-down environment, Manno said. Stairs are being brought out from behind closed doors and becoming a focal point in shared areas, for example.

“What we are seeing now is that stairs are more embedded in the workplace as an opportunity to allow that vertical movement to happen in a space,” he said. 

A study by the National Library of Medicine found that regular stair use was associated with lower risk of stroke in men who climbed 20-34 floors per week. It also reduced the risk of lung cancer. Ron Stelmarski, principal and design director at Perkins & Will's Dallas office, said this study and others are playing a pivotal role in how his firm thinks about living design or the idea that the incorporation of sustainability and well-being can impact performance.

“We are trying to see how we can make decisions that really inform these healthier environments,” he said. “As architects, we don’t choose our context — usually the context is given to us — what we can do is choose solutions or designs or concepts that help glue all of this together.”

Materials are another major consideration in healthy design, said Ana Pinto-Alexander, principal and director of health interiors with HKS Architects. Her firm has begun advocating for the use of nonporous materials — such as wood laminate instead of real wood — that are able to withstand harmful pathogens that embed into surfaces.

“Because of the digital advantage, the photography is so real, that you have to touch it to feel that it’s not wood,” she said of the plastic laminate. “It’s so real-looking.”

Designers are also incorporating biophilia as a way to expose workers to the benefits of nature, Manno said. Bill Browning, environmental strategist and founding partner of sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, said in an interview with Coalesse that biophilic design can reduce stress, improve cognitive function, and enhance a person’s mood and creativity.

Part of a colorful interior moss wall aimed at improving indoor air quality at Boston Consulting Group.

One of Gensler’s clients, Boston Consulting Group, recently opened its Dallas office building, which includes a living moss wall. To the untrained eye, this may look like an aesthetic choice; however, the wall also helps to purify the air, which improves productivity. Michael Hale, BCG’s South system head of consulting and business services, said designing the Dallas office with health in mind was not just a feel-good move but a wise business decision as well. 

“It’s a huge recruiting tool for us,” he said. “Having a space that people want to come to, that they’re proud of and want to show off, is super-important in getting people back to the office.”

In addition to the living moss wall, the building also includes an office for an in-house counselor and several fully equipped lactation rooms for breastfeeding mothers. These amenities are essential in convincing employees that their time is better spent in the office than at home, Hale said.

But adding these features can be expensive. Pinto-Alexander said she still finds herself educating clients on the value of these improvements, especially as time spent at the office becomes more fragmented. This is where the importance of space adaptability comes into play, she said.

“If a space is only used 30% of the time, the real estate is too expensive, so we may convert it from one [use] to another,” she said. “No one can afford to have a yoga room and a conference room.”

Despite added costs, Pinto-Alexander said the value of healthy design for employees is well worth the money. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, missed workdays caused by chronic diseases and risk factors such as diabetes and obesity cost U.S. employers more than $36B per year. But physical work environments that support health and wellness can reduce that cost by up to $1,685 annually per employee

“If you have happy, joyful individuals working in a space, it improves everyone’s lives,” she said. “When you are in your best frame of mind, you’re better with other people, you produce better work and you go the extra mile.”

As many office buildings remain vacant or partially occupied, there has to be an incentive for companies to make these investments. The payoff of third-party certifications, such as WELL, may be driving some of those decisions, Stelmarski said. According to a joint study led by the Real Estate Innovation Lab at MIT, buildings with WELL or FITWEL certifications obtain between 4.4% and 7.7% more rent per SF than nearby, uncertified peers.

In Dallas, there are 16 office properties in various stages of the certification process, per the International WELL Building Institute’s website.

“There’s only so much money that any of us have to spend, but developers are looking very strategically at where the best place is to spend that money to get the best value and to give something that is the most relevant to their end users,” he said. “It's pretty interesting that they are asking those kinds of questions.”