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Wellbeing: Quality not quantity

As we continue our blog series on the intersections between reducing carbon emissions and improving health and wellbeing in buildings, we hear from Henry Pelly, Sustainability Consultant at Max Fordham in London, UK. Henry discusses how designers need to think about optimising intangible and qualitatively measured wellbeing objectives as well as physical, measurable and definable carbon reductions.

There is a school of thought that says it is not possible to reduce carbon emissions in commercial buildings and improve workplace wellbeing at the same time. I believe that it is, because delivering wellbeing is a completely different kind of challenge from delivering carbon reductions.

So how are the challenges different?

Carbon emissions are physical, measurable and definable. Anyone who has done an impact study of a building’s lifecycle carbon emissions knows it can be difficult to measure all of them, but emissions can ultimately be quantified. Most importantly, the carbon emissions of particular actions or features can be compared objectively so that the ‘best’ approach can be chosen.

Unlike carbon emissions, human wellbeing is not entirely tangible and cannot be directly observed or measured. To quantify wellbeing, we use proxies such as occupant satisfaction, comfort or perceived productivity. These aren’t true measures of wellbeing but useful perspectives that capture different aspects.  Each perspective measures and quantifies things differently, so ‘better’ wellbeing cannot be distilled into a single comparable unit. Design improvements in wellbeing, therefore, aren’t something that can be quantified or compared, like we can with design that reduces carbon emissions – there is no kg/CO2 equivalent for wellbeing and don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.

Current discussion about designing for wellbeing tends to ignore this fundamental difference and misguidedly applies the quantified target-setting we use for low-carbon design to designing for wellbeing. This approach involves setting specific, measurable targets for the physical elements we know are good for us, such as indoor air quality or daylight. These elements undeniably improve occupants’ comfort and they can be measured, explicitly targeted and monitored in design and in use. But, as we will see, their very explicit and physical nature means that they can only go so far to improve wellbeing. It is a game of diminishing returns.

How should designers consider wellbeing objectives?

We should not think of design for wellbeing in terms of physical improvements to a workspace, but about delivering a better quality of occupant experience. These sound similar but there is a key difference.  Quality of experience is unmeasurable, difficult to see, and focussed on balancing all our basic needs rather than maximising a few of our most pressing wants. Infuriatingly for engineers, who may want tangible design targets, this is a ‘know it when you see it’ phenomenon. Quality of experience design objectives in the workplace may include improving engagement with colleagues, fostering a sense of belonging and supporting employee task mastery. Setting intangible design goals focussed on occupant experience is more appropriate to the nature of wellbeing and the integrative nature of design.

An article by psychologists Adam Grant and Barry Swartz reinforces this point and shows that almost any measurable thing that is ‘good’ will become detrimental if we have too much of it. An obvious example of this is food: too little and we can’t survive; too much, too often and we are likely to suffer chronic health problems. In moderation, food is wonderful.

Grant and Swartz cite even more remarkable examples, which include the downside of empathy, an essential trait for all of us, especially those in caring professions, like nursing. Research shows that nurses with too much empathy become so focussed on the distress of their patients that they are less able to care effectively. Too much education also has its downsides: business teams that are more focussed on learning than achieving their main goals are even less effective than teams that are not interested in learning at all. Unsurprisingly, the best teams had strong learning orientation and the best nurses have plenty of empathy, but in both cases neither had these positive attributes in such abundance that it interfered with their primary objective.

It is always possible to have too much of a good thing. Both contemporary social science and ancient philosophy show that human wellbeing is about balancing virtues, not about maximising ‘good’ things. This principle can be applied to the design process by setting qualitative goals for wellbeing and quantitative goals for carbon emissions allowing both goals to be achieved in tandem and without conflict. This can be done by optimising the intangible wellbeing objectives around the physical carbon reductions.

So how do I apply the idea of moderation and balance to designing for wellbeing & reduced carbon emissions? 

Quantitative targets have their place: Where the objective is tangible and measurable, like carbon emissions, quantitative targets can be set, which can be refined as the project progresses. Targets for physical comfort can also help guide the design, but they won’t achieve a wellbeing goal in isolation. Certification can also help ensure that aspects of physical provision are delivered but it is essential for this to be guided by qualitative objectives. For example, by meeting certification requirements for indoor air quality around ventilation rates or carbon dioxide concentrations.

Precision is unhelpful when designing for complex outcomes: Set objectives early in the design process using a broad set of qualitative targets – these should address both physical (for example, office temperature) and psychological needs (for example, team interaction or views of nature). Closely defined targets are useful for monitoring design progress but broad, occupant-experience objectives are more likely to result in a better outcome.

Sometimes less is more: Remember that you can’t automatically create better occupant wellbeing by only maximising ‘good things’ like daylight, air quality, temperature control and opportunities for exercise. Undoubtedly, they matter, but there is more to better quality of experience than better physical conditions. Even engaging occupants on their quality of experience can create greater satisfaction.

Everything needs to be in balance: Designing for wellbeing is about getting a good balance, not just making some things perfect. Doing lots of elements of the design well, including the promotion of psychological wellbeing, will be better for occupants than executing the physical comfort perfectly, while neglecting the less tangible needs.

By following this approach – addressing wellbeing and carbon reductions in different ways – it is entirely possible to create green, low carbon buildings that are also good for their occupants’ health and wellbeing.

Join the discussion

We would love to hear your views on Henry Pelham’s ideas in this article. Do you have your own experiences of tensions between the two goals of reducing carbon emissions and improving health and wellbeing? How have you addressed them? Please send comments and case studies to Jonathan at

Read the firstsecondthird, fourth and fifth pieces in this blog series

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