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Green buildings are the next big thing in office design

September 6, 2017

An artist's impression of Mirvac's Olderfleet development on Collins Street in Melbourne, which is targeting 5-star Green Star sustainability rating and an international platinum WELL certification.

It’s set to be the next trillion-dollar industry, and now developers of office space are jostling to capitalise on one of the world’s biggest growth trends: health and wellness.

In Australia, companies like Mirvac and Frasers Property are among those leading the way, designing workspaces that encourage employees to walk longer distances to hold meetings, and to climb stairs rather than catch lifts. They’re also pushing management techniques to change people’s behaviour and lifestyle choices, offering carrots – literally – rather than sticks.

For a great office, they believe, will help both build and retain a fit, healthy, happy workforce which will boost productivity and, in turn, improve any firm’s bottom line.

“We know that 31 per cent of the burden of disease can be prevented, and that we spend $8 billion on mental health services a year, with poor mental health in the workplace costing Australian businesses an estimated $11 billion a year in absenteeism and reduced productivity,” CEO of the Green Building Council of Australia Romilly Madew told Commercial Real Estate’s Symposium17 last week.

The headquarters of Frasers Property in Rhodes. Photo: Supplied The headquarters of Frasers Property in Rhodes was designed to maximise employees’ health and wellbeing, the company says. Photo: Frasers Property

“But healthy buildings make healthy people, and we know that wellness can really support productivity and performance. Now Australia is really leading the way in creating healthy, sustainable workplaces.”

A report from international management consulting firm McKinsey singled out increased spending around the world on health and wellness as a major driver of the global economy, and predicted that it will soon be an industry worth $US3 trillion ($3.76 trillion).

In Australia developers of office space are taking that to heart. Andrew Butler, Mirvac Property Trust group executive of office and industrial, said health and wellbeing was one of the top three considerations now on trend for developers, alongside employee engagement and technology.

Anchor tenant, Deloitte, at Mirvac’s Olderfleet building in Melbourne, requested, for instance, that their new building be WELL-certified by the International WELL Building Institute. As well Mirvac has just secured a Platinum Pre-Certification for Core and Shell.

“Tenants are looking for environmentally conscious buildings and healthy workplaces to improve the wellbeing of their employees,” Mr Butler said. “Most people expect to go to work now and come out as healthy, or healthier, than when they go in. They have huge expectations.

“So we need to encourage people to be healthy in the workplace. For instance, we put staircases between multiple floors and not tucked away in corners behind closed doors. We make them a centrepiece, a well-lit and architecturally attractive connection between the floors. A lot of companies are now also trying to have one plant per person in their offices for the supply of fresh air. It’s all pretty exciting.”

Frasers Property’s executive general manager commercial, industrial and IP, Reini Otter, said measuring the impact of the environment of his company’s new head office at Rhodes on employees had shown a substantial positive effect on health and wellbeing.

''Australia is really leading the way in creating healthy, sustainable workplaces'', said Green Building Council's CEO Romilly Madew. Photo: Louise Kennerley ”Australia is really leading the way in creating healthy, sustainable workplaces”: Romilly Madew. Photo: Louise Kennerley

“In many ways, the built form is the easy one,” he said. “If you have enough time and money, you can get the best people to create the most amazing spaces…We wanted to make sure the space was well-located, allowed people to work flexibly with collaborative space and foster a strong sense of community, so they would identify with their workspace, which impacts on their sense of wellbeing too.”

Physical innovations in the office include adjustable LED lighting that changes throughout the day as well as individually-set heating and cooling temperatures. Air quality is also kept as high as possible.

While technology reinforces sedentary behaviour, there has also been a lot of thought put into how to push people to move around more. A large hole was cut into one level of the building to create a double-height central space so everyone could see each other better, encouraging them to physically visit different work stations, mingle more and talk.

In addition, four kitchens were merged into one, so people have to walk further to reach it, and meeting rooms were places around the perimeter of the office, which also involved walking more. “The fundamental question is then how to change behaviours,” Mr Otter says.

For starters, fresh vegetables – particularly artfully arranged carrots – and herbs were put into the kitchen every day, so people could munch on healthy snacks and put mint into their water, so they drank more. Books and magazines about health were put in the library or in shared spaces, and there was significant investment in locker rooms and showers, allowing people to have showers if they cycled to work, or went to the gym on the way.

Outside, there were walking trails created, clearly signposted and with maps detailing how much time they’d take, promoting the idea of having walking 30-minute or 40-minute meetings.

The Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star system, Australia’s only national and voluntary rating system for buildings and communities, is also helping to improve the health and well-being of people, said Ms Madew. Currently, 30 per cent of office space is Green Star-certified and 5 per cent of the workforce head to a green office each day.

“We’ve learnt that people perform dramatically better in a well-functioning green building,” she said. “They have 30 per cent fewer sick days, and report much having better sleep. As a result, healthy buildings are now being embraced with gusto.

“We see tremendous opportunity for the wellness, sustainability and real estate communities in Australia to come together to support human health through the buildings where we spend more than 90 per cent of our time.”

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