The built environment and our health

The built environment is a key impactor on our lives. It can either support or harm our physical & mental health, our wellbeing and overall quality of life. Our homes where we live, our workplaces (which could be our home, office or another location), our leisure space and our learning space. They all cross over as environments serving multiple purposes. And because of this they have a significant importance in life. 

The positive is that the built environment can be opened up and provides huge potential for improving our quality of life. Those who bring forward schemes, whether contractors or developers, have a purpose to play – from how materials are sourced to how a building is operated. There are opportunities at each level. The impacts on life are wide ranging:

  • Education: The physical space in which education is delivered plays an important part. The indoor environment and surrounding areas need to be beneficial to learning. 
  • A significant proportion of most people’s lives is spent indoors. I envy those who spend more of their time outdoors. Therefore, whether living or working in an indoor space has a big impact on us. 
  • Having buildings that have basic amenities such as water and electricity but also appropriate air quality is key. 
  • Communities that benefit from healthcare services, sufficient affordable housing and infrastructure are going to be more positive than those who lack these basic amenities. 

A good example is simply indoor air quality which has received a strong focus recently (and given the spread of a recent infectious disease even more so). Indoor pollution can be caused by a number of factors including simple things like cooking to compounds used in construction. Water quality is something we take for granted in the UK but significant parts of the work still lack the sanitation and therefore water quality needed. In recent years there has been an increase in the use of technology, with tools available to rate buildings. The impact of Covid-19 has really shone a firm light on the quality of the space. 

Through the lifecycle of a building, wellbeing can be put at the front:

  •  Design: The design of a building can really embed key features around net zero emissions, resilience and health parameters (for example air quality) from the start. They can be used to promote active lifestyles in their original design. Lighting that is natural and energy-efficient will enhance wellbeing. 
  • Building: Real thought can be applied to the welfare of workers, we’re in 2022 not 1900. They account for 7% of the global workforce and are exposed to extreme conditions that could harm their health. How can the build contribute to the community and make a real social impact (remember than “S” in ESG). The source of materials – are they the right ones in terms of sustainability and particularly embodied carbon. Making nature accessible with a building – whether in close proximity (like parks and green corridors) or within and on the business. 
  • Operate: In the life of an asset there needs to be strong monitoring of key KPIs around health and wellbeing – data can help here. Particular monitoring of emissions will become normal very soon. A building needs a purpose in the community – a continued contribution and social impact. This could be creation of employment but also managing noise pollution during construction. Benefiting our physical health by promoting activity – could be a running track but also making stairwells a better environment to encourage walking rather than taking the lifts. 
  • End of Life: Let’s not just knock down buildings. Can the building have a new use once its existing use meets an end (maybe relative more and more as the shift in working dynamics occurs) and where needed if deconstruction is required think carefully about the approach – what could be reused in other buildings, could be recycled and what is the community impact of removing an asset. 

So from start to finish there are opportunities. And the ever changing environment around us will ensure that more options and solutions are available, and in some cases needed, to move the build environment forward. There has been a huge focus now on the benefits that the quality of our built environment, indoors and outdoors, has on our health. There is a need now to take action in the built environment. The emerging commitments to net zero is a start but there is much more that needs to happen to allow the built environment to contribute to a healthier society. 

A great read to understand how cities can be improved the benefit our wellbeing is available: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/restorative-cities-9781350112889/

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