One of the most interesting developments in the way we talk about the design of buildings in recent years is how the issue of wellbeing has found an overlap with environmental concerns. We know instinctively that these are natural partners. What is good for the environment almost always has a direct beneficial effect on people’s physical and mental health, as well as their productivity.
As it turns out, it also has a beneficial effect on how they feel about the buildings in which they work and their employer. We all want to feel good about our impact on the world and know that the organisations for which we work share our values. This may be less tangible than an issue like the use of plants, natural light and ventilation, but its effects can be just as profound.
This kind of thinking is now mainstream. The links between the environment and our wellbeing have now been embedded in guidance and a range of standards worldwide, including from the likes of the Green Building Council and the Building Research Establishment, in particular in its BREEAM Building Standard.
Last year, the International Well Building Institute signed up to the United Nations Global Compact, which sets out an extensive framework of responsible business practices including human rights, labour, environment and wellbeing. IWBI’s WELL Building Standard, a rating system for the creation of buildings and communities that aim to enhance human health and wellbeing, identifies in its standard how each of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are supported.
We have an inbuilt understanding of these links, complex though they may be in practice. This partly explains the enduring love affair with Scandinavian design and the way it fits into our perceptions of a lifestyle that blends a concern with the environment with our own wellbeing.
An enduring affair
This too is now embraced by business organisations and has led to the anglicisation of Scandinavian vocabulary that expresses such ideas. In a piece for the Architects Journal last year, the BCO President Paul Patenall extolled the virtues of a Danish idea called Arbejdsglaede, which translates as something like the joy of work.
There is no real equivalent word in English, of course, but its use taps into an assumption that when it comes to such complex ideas, we can learn a thing or two from our Scandinavian cousins. This also explained the surge of interest in hygge a few years ago. In either case, the use of the term by the then incoming BCO President was clearly intended to act as a marker.
Our fascination with this is anything but faddish. We have always loved Scandinavian design and its associations. When the Festival of Britain was staged in 1951 as a way of embracing Modernism and showcasing the best of British design and ingenuity, the Nordic influence was so profound that the famous architecture critic Jonathan Meades suggested in a BBC documentary that it should really have been named the Festival of Scandinavia.
This affinity with Scandinavia humanistic design principles endures. Traditionally this has manifested in the use of wood in combination with metal and plastics that exhibited unmistakable environmental credentials, including the use of cradle to cradle manufacturing techniques and supply chains.
Now, as we become increasingly aware of our impact on the world, such products and systems are being supplemented by new materials. These include many materials that we already understand as environmentally friendly, but which have found innovative new uses as we have learned more about how to work with them in new ways.
This level of innovation is having an effect beyond the confines of specific product applications. It has reinvigorated the debate about what we can refer to as truly sustainable. Environmental standards are essential for products, but when all suppliers meet them, they become a neutral factor in decision making.
So, we are seeing the emergence of a sophisticated approach to procurement that acknowledges the importance of standards …. then looks beyond them. Firms are looking for suppliers of sustainable products who must exhibit a progressive approach to the environment in every facet of their business. Not just aligned business interests, but shared values too.
They must also produce products that are beautiful as well as functional and environmentally friendly. These are the three pillars upon which the new approach to wellbeing will rest. We will do these things not just because the new generation of standards demand it, but because it’s the right thing to do and has the potential to change all of our lives for the better while protecting the environment.