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Why designing for humans is really important

According to the British Design Council, which did a study examining the ways office accommodation can create economic and social value for businesses, salaries of occupants constitutes 85 per cent of a company’s annual budget, while just 6.5 per cent goes on construction and 8.5 per cent on furnishing, maintaining and operating the facility.

Source: The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance, British Council of Offices, 2008 Source: The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance, British Council of Offices, 2008

Source: The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance, British Council of Offices, 2008

Humans are quite obviously the biggest expense. Conventional projects see the client’s focus on cost of construction and the facility manager’s focus on operations. In reality, a three-dimensional approach to the ROI analysis of buildings of the future is needed, yet the third leg of this approach (namely humans) is often neglected. More attention needs to be given to the way in which a building and its facilities can actively support or disrupt the people in it.

In a landmark study, for instance, Roger Ulrich found that patients with views of nature, as opposed to buildings, recovered faster, received fewer negative evaluations from nurses, and received fewer moderate-to-strong doses of analgesics, proving the significant effects of building design on human health and psyche. 

Intellectually and emotionally intelligent buildings

Traditional and business view of Buildings of the Future Traditional buildings industry view of buildings of the future Business and the wider community buildings of the future

In a survey by Management Today magazine, 97 percent of respondents said they regarded their place of work as a symbol of whether or not they were valued by their employer. Yet alarmingly, only 37 percent thought their offices had been designed ‘with people in mind’.

It’s easy for some engineers to get so caught up in technology and digital tools that they forget the humans using them. An historical approach has brought about a misalignment between how traditional engineers view ‘intelligent’ buildings and how owners and occupiers view ‘intelligent’ buildings.

Buildings were never meant to operate in isolation from users; rather in 'synchronisation' with them.

For a building to be smart and connected, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s up to the building designers to consider all the complexities involved in designing a human-centred and emotionally intelligent building – and then to design ‘simple’ ones. This means having empathy for the needs, challenges, daily tasks, desires, and long-term goals of the people who use them.

Creating buildings that are both intellectually and emotionally intelligent will be the currency in the future as companies start to realise that their bottom line depends largely on the wellness, happiness and productivity of their people.

In a recent Facts & Figures report by Solatube, research indicates that people prefer to work, buy and recreate in spaces illuminated with glare-free daylight.

The report refers, among other examples, to a WalMart store in Kansas’ cost-cutting decision to install skylights over half the store. While it did result in significant energy savings, Wal-Mart’s famous real-time inventory system quickly found that sales per square foot were also significantly higher in the daylit half of the store, and higher than the same departments in other stores. 

In this article, author Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg goes beyond productivity to explore the benefits of natural light on human health and biological functions, relating its effects to a recreation of the natural human circadian rhythms. The fact that humans in modern cities spend upwards of 90 per cent of their lives indoors, means that a disassociation with this natural cycle has become common, and well-lit, well designed spaces actually help restore that balance.

Instead of seeing buildings of the future as an extra cost or a social responsibility that is divorced from business objectives, we need to analyse the broader set of topics that they encapsulate. This new value proposition considers the environment, social equity, health and wellness, and ultimately the emotional intelligence of the building. These buildings have been shown to improve time, energy and user efficiency.

Customising and optimising buildings of the future for each client and their specific occupants is helping businesses differentiate their brands, and it’s also the driving force behind ongoing innovations and efficiency within the building. The results that are achieved post-occupancy highlight the benefits of designing both emotionally intelligent and intellectually intelligent buildings.


Theory in action Aurecon Smart Centre in Melbourne

When Aurecon established our new Melbourne base camp at 850 Collins Street, we did so with our staff’s needs driving the design.

The 8-storey Aurecon Centre houses 700 Melbourne-based staff and we focused on designing a building that would foster co-creation, engagement, collaboration and innovation. Carefully planning everything from digital platforms that connect a range of sensors throughout the building, walkways, bike racks, recreational areas and living plants enabled us to design a space that not only provides useful data and insights, but one that people enjoy.

We wanted to prove that our people’s overall comfort and wellness would result in higher productivity and satisfaction.

The data that is studied allows Aurecon to review these correlations by looking at scenarios such as: comparing stair vs. lift use; measuring bike facility usage; monitoring indoor air quality; using wearables to promote health initiatives; understanding drinking water consumption; and optimising daylight, temperature and humidity levels.

Together, these factors determine the success of the building’s design for our people who work in it and occupy its space.

Aurecon Centre Melbourne

What's driving the change?

Importantly, technology isn’t the (only) driving force behind change: it’s how people are using buildings of the future, supported by technology, robotics, automation, new materials and new approaches to energy creation, use and storage. 

‘Workplace design’ has become far more important than ‘building design’ due to massive changes in the way people work. The more these interdependencies between building systems, building design and occupant needs are understood, the more changes can be made to the building. This type of ongoing optimisation in workplace design reduces building maintenance, boosts staff engagement and increases the ‘rentability’ of the building.

The mobile workforce, coupled with the changing ways that people work, has led to us designing and constructing buildings that are vastly different from the buildings of a few decades ago. People’s expectations are changing and so must our buildings.

With the correct collection of data, we can demystify the design process by designing and building on facts rather than experience. Instead of focusing on conventional business drivers and environmental imperatives, the spotlight needs to be shifted to the results of post-occupancy research in building design, answering questions such as: 

  • What building functions do we really use?
  • How do we use them?
  • Is it making our jobs more efficient?

This shift will require a deep understanding of the drivers of buildings of the future, namely:

  • A mobile workforce
    Employees value mobility, flexibility and remote connectivity to work, which means that businesses need to invest in collaborative technologies, cloud computing solutions and even virtual and augmented reality. The actual office designs need to support everything from standing meeting rooms and couches to gathering areas and creative spaces. 
  • Changing social context
    Employees' social contexts will need to be supported by their work environments (consider how many businesses already have crèches at their offices). The way that people choose to live and work will continue to change in the future. Changes in transportation, such as car drones and autonomous vehicles, will lead to changes in how building design needs to accommodate these technologies.
  • War for talent
    Attracting and retaining top talent means investing in a physical environment that can match the innovative spirit, enthusiasm, lifestyle needs and creativity of the people that a business employs.
  • The ability to respond to human needs
    Analytics and sensor technology can track how, when, and where people move throughout the building and these insights can be used to optimise everything from the indoor temperature and acoustics to natural lighting. Responding to human needs leads to a healthier workforce, with less absenteeism and more engaged workers.
  • A sharing economy
    The rapid rise of the shared economy will also play a role in buildings of the future. Tenants will increasingly start to question whether they really need a large amount of space all the time. Companies like Airbnb and Uber are set to become mainstream in the property industry as well, with many small businesses already sharing offices. This concept will continue to evolve and we may see changes such as smaller tenancies or services and spaces being shared between companies. Buildings of the future will support shared infrastructure and services, and result in better utilisation between companies, tenants and individuals. Instead of having many different spaces for separate businesses, people and tasks, spaces will become increasingly flexible to support different tasks and needs. 
  • Aligning with corporate and city strategy
    Millennials especially want to work in buildings that are reducing their impact on the environment. A future ready building not only benefits the environment, but it also creates the right perception of value that influences the talent a business attracts as well as the rental returns that the building can generate. On top of this, it supports corporate strategy elements such as collaboration, innovation and social responsibility. No building operates in isolation though. Buildings of the future will need to integrate with the broader community. Smart buildings within a smart precinct will be the focus. In future, innovative city management will form an alliance with major developers to drive smart precincts, and will require the right data, people movement monitoring and legislative frameworks.


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