Designing for health and wellbeing in MENA

AESG’s Dalia Wagdi on the importance of healthy buildings

The discussions around healthy buildings have increased noticeably over the last three to five years. In the hot, arid climate of the MENA region, most of our time is spent indoors. It is our role to encourage planning and designing the indoor environment with comfort and wellness in mind, in addition to the promotion of public spaces and active cities.

Creating an environment that nurtures health and wellness, especially in offices, schools and healthcare facilities, is vital. This concept of putting people first, especially more sensitive and vulnerable users such as young children and individuals with chronic illnesses, is a necessity, not a luxury. As such, there is a big movement towards the promotion of improved indoor environmental quality (IEQ).

IEQ benchmarks the quality of the built environment and addresses many factors including lighting, air quality, water quality, thermal comfort, acoustics and ergonomics. In the Middle East, the UAE is leading the implementation of these measures in new buildings, with fourteen projects now registered under the WELL Building Standard. With this growing market trend and in consideration of the principles of healthy living that involuntarily affect our health on a day-to-day basis, it is important that developers, designers and the public are aware of how the built environment affects our health.

Green Building Standards

The transition towards sustainable design and construction has increased exponentially in recent years, along with the development of new green building rating systems. Systems such as BREEAM and LEED, as well as other local systems such as ESTIDAMA, DGBR, Saafat and GSAS, have been widely adopted for new and existing buildings. While they address topics related to health and wellbeing and integrate requirements that address healthy buildings, new standards that adopt a much deeper assessment of health and wellbeing are available.

The WELL Building Standard was officially launched in October 2014. It is divided into seven chapters, with a framework to improve health and wellbeing through design. Another certification system is Fitwel, launched globally in March 2017, which similarly considers community health, social equity, nutrition, physical activity and occupant safety and wellness.

The WELL and Fitwel requirements focus solely on the health and wellness of building occupants. Nevertheless, simple steps to improve indoor air quality, increase natural light and introduce greenery have ancillary benefits related to building efficiency and performance. They also have a significant impact on the bottom line by improving employee productivity and reducing absenteeism, staff turnover and medical costs.

Although most studies and work around the topic of healthy buildings has focused on office buildings, it is prudent to apply these principles in schools, universities and hospitals, where building users are greatly affected by the quality of the built environment, given their typical increased occupancy and vulnerability.

In a study conducted in the UAE to evaluate IEQ conditions in elementary school classrooms, results show that acoustic, light and air quality did not meet recommended limits specified by local regulations. Poor indoor air quality in schools can lead to long-term respiratory problems including bronchitis and asthma. Meanwhile, poor lighting, acoustics and thermal comfort can compromise student learning ability and performance.

What are the benefits?

While it is difficult in many cases to provide an exact quantification of the direct benefits on ROI, employee satisfaction has been proven to have long-term financial impacts. Given the evidence on the positive impact of optimising the indoor built environment for human comfort and wellbeing, from reduced sick leave and improved productivity to the impact of ROI, the importance of occupant-centric design is non-debatable.

In a study conducted by Saint Gobain, a 90% improvement in indoor air quality and 40% improvement in acoustical comfort was reported. Approximately 40% of employees reported feeling more productive in the Malvern headquarters and 53.7% reported an improvement in perceptions of health and wellbeing.

In another study, it was recorded that an average of 3.5 fewer workdays due to sickness were missed in Skansa’s remodelled office in Northern Hub, Doncaster, compared to its other offices in the UK. This saved the company approximately $37,500 in staff costs in 2015 as well as improving employee satisfaction by 20%. As the uptake of health and wellness in the MENA region increases, we anticipate that projects will start recording the benefits gained in this transition.

What can we do?

The approach to enhancing IEQ is multifaceted, with several key factors to consider when establishing workplace/corporate wellness. These include promotion of physical activity, healthy nutrition, stress management, smoking control and team building. Other considerations include programmes that encourage employee community engagement through volunteering activities and charity work, as well as promoting a culture of health through design and visual cues.

The recent trend towards healthy buildings emphasises the importance of designing buildings while keeping in mind the primary element – the users who will inhabit them. The good news is that the uptake of certification schemes has helped improve wellbeing and satisfaction of building occupants in different countries. As demand for healthy buildings continues to grow, materials and tools are becoming available in the UAE. It is our role and responsibility to become more mindful of the concepts that contribute to our feeling of comfort, happiness and wellbeing.


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