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Positive Impact: Ben Channon, Ekkist

Architect and healthy buildings expert Ben Channon is a director at Ekkist and the author of Happy by Design and The Happy Design Toolkit. We tasked him to tackle common industry grumbles in our recurring feature exploring social, economic or environmental sustainability.


5 min read

Ben Channon Headshot

This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 219

So firstly Ben, why does the industry need ‘healthy building consultants’? Don’t regulations make buildings healthy already?

Well there’s definitely a temptation to think that if we build something to meet existing building regulations then it must be inherently healthy, but in reality there’s still a big gap between where the regs currently sit and what the latest science tell us about how buildings affect our health

One of the issues is that people are often unaware of such knowledge gaps, so may think they’re making a ‘healthy’ design decision – like specifying a more natural material such as plywood – without understanding that it may end up off-gassing harmful substances like urea-formaldehyde, for example.

Building regulations still focus far more on the ‘safety’ part of health and safety, such as protecting people from falls, fire and the most dangerous materials like lead and asbestos. This is important of course, but ensuring safety should really be seen as a bare minimum. At the moment, simply sticking to the legal construction guidance won’t guarantee a truly healthy building. This is why we recommend going above and beyond by using something like the WELL Building Standard which demands things like higher ventilation rates, better water quality and more stringent restrictions on toxic materials – not to mention considerations around designing for mental health and better social connection.

This all sounds pretty expensive. Why would a developer pay more when funders and shareholders are expecting returns on investment?

You’re right, it absolutely can be more expensive, although often not by as much as developers or funders might think. We typically see an increased build cost of somewhere between 0.5% and 4% when buildings target WELL, but obviously this can vary depending on how good their ‘baseline’ product was already and on which healthy building features they choose to target.

However, we now have a growing body of evidence showing that people are prepared to pay more for healthy buildings, be they homes or offices, meaning that the wellbeing ROI more than covers its additional outset costs. Environmentally sustainable buildings no longer stand out from the crowd and some research is actually showing that consumers are now putting health above sustainability in terms of desirable building features.

With investors also making this a key part of their models via corporate ESG strategies, we’re nearing the point where the forces from the top and bottom of markets look likely to meet in the middle. We do, of course, have to be careful that this doesn’t simply become a second wave of greenwashing, so it absolutely must be done in a sincere and evidence-led way, which places even more value on certifications like the WELL Standard.

Nevertheless, because our understanding of how buildings affect health is evolving year on year, there is areal risk that by not considering these issues developers will end up with outdated or undesirable building stock on their hands, which could also potentially harm their brand. I’d argue therefore that the real question should be whether or not developers can afford not to invest in creating better, healthier buildings.

Aren’t we all becoming a bit too fixated on employee well being and comfort? Have we forgotten that people go to work to… work?

Well, again, the idea that looking after staff wellbeing means reducing their output and giving them an easy ride is a misunderstanding of the situation. It’s not all about putting in pool tables or allowing staff to turn up at 10am and clock off at 4pm – although, side note, these may actually increase output, but that’s a conversation for another day.

In fact, investing in healthier buildings will improve productivity; reduce staff turnover; enhance creativity; decrease sick days; and encourage better relationships with colleagues and clients to name but a few benefits. There are many, many more.

Employee mental health problems, for example, result in around 70 million lost workdays each year, working out at roughly £2.4 billion in costs to UK businesses. As I’ve explored in both of my books, the built environment plays an enormous role in supporting good mental health or nudging us into poor mental health, so where we work is likely to have a significant impact on how we feel each day.

Fundamentally, designing buildings with a focus on wellbeing and comfort is actually all about helping people to do their work better, faster and happier – benefiting them and the company. It might even mean that one day we can all clock off at 4pm having delivered everything expected of us and more.

We’re in the midst of an environmental crisis – does all of this come at a cost to the planet?

Well, it’s definitely true that some ‘healthy’ building systems require some energy use. Ventilation is a good example: if your child goes to school next to a busy city road, natural ventilation could be fairly detrimental to their health. Opening windows for ‘fresh’ air would mean they’d breathe in all kinds of nasties, from damaging particulate matter to Nitrogen Dioxide, the gas that was deemed by a judge in 2020 to have played a role in the tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah.

The alternative is to use a mechanical ventilation system with high grade HEPA or MERV filters, which, of course, does require energy use and often gets a bad rap as a result. However, in the UK if we need to open windows, we’ll probably also need to turn up the heating. This requires energy too, but instead of coming from cleaner electric sources like your MVHRs, heating is still likely to be gas-powered, which does more damage to the planet. This all just goes to show that it’s not as black and white as ‘mechanical bad, natural good’.

When we drill down into it though, there are actually far more synergies than clashes between ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ design approaches. Recycled materials, for example, are generally better for both people and planet, as are active means of commuting like cycling or walking and locally sourced organic foods. Ultimately, although we’re healthy building consultants not environmental consultants, we care passionately about both issues – not least because damage to the environment will have enormous negative impacts on human health too.

Channon’s second book ‘The Happy Design Toolkit’ has just been released and explores ways in which we can design buildings that are better for our mental wellbeing.

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