Sustainable Offices 101

Photo: istockphoto/Auris
Where you work has more of an effect on the environment, and your health, than you might think.

Workplaces everywhere are adopting sustainability as an office necessity. Features like natural light exposure, routinely monitored air quality and an accessible workplace environment can make an office become a place where productivity thrives and employees are healthier. Sustainability in the workplace has evolved to refer to not only typical environmental habits (like shutting off your computer and regular recycling), but also to the type and health of the building you work in, something now shown to have a direct impact on worker health.

Sick Building Syndrome

Sadly, like humans, buildings can also become sick.

Sick buildings are “caused by inadequate ventilation, chemicals and biological contaminants like mould,” according to the real estate journal study. And while it’s surprising that these health issues still exist, they’re anything but a problem of the past.

Which is what University of British Columbia professor John Robinson is trying to overcome as he and a team of developers work to unveil North America’s most sustainable building. The project will set the building up as a lab and workplace that’s completely sustainable, and hopes to measure the happiness and health of those that work there.

“It’s not enough to just have a building be green,” says Robinson. “It needs to humane from a human’s point of view.” Recent research from Stanford University echoes that opinion. A new study from their business school has found that “…the concept of ‘sustainability’ must be expanded to include consideration of whether workplaces are good not only for the environment, but also for people.”

Money matters

Offices can also choose to buy furniture made of materials that are more natural and don’t require chemicals, “which can reduce the off-gassing and chemical exposures,” explains Daniel Rainham, a professor at Dalhousie University who focuses his research on sustainability and its effects on health. Robinson adds that critics identify the bottom line as one of the biggest obstacles to adopting sustainability– many sustainable options have a price premium. But the Journal of Sustainable Real Estate study found that “the cost to provide healthier environments is modest compared to the benefits.”

“If you can have a site that is environmentally benign and has natural light, solar technology – well, people like that stuff,” says Robinson. “But they don’t like to pay more.”

He says that he expects his project to prove that sustainable workplaces don’t have to cost more, as the lab will be no more expensive than any other workplace.

Return on Investment

In the end, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says that companies that don’t place value on sustainability in the workplace, both for the environment and employees, are losing money. In fact, the Journal of Sustainable Real Estate study released earlier this fall found that “healthier buildings reduce sick time and increase productivity, making it easier to recruit and retain employees.” And according to Pfeffer, we’re spending more on health care to treat sick employees than we could be if we adopt sustainable practices.

Even business suppliers are getting on board, with companies like international business design company Teknion offering products that have a smaller impact on the environment.