Using AV technologies to promote wellness in the workplace
Traditional and non-traditional AV technologies can make buildings healthier places to work. Tim Kridel investigates how—and why - wellness sometimes is at odds with sustainability.
Brits typically spend about 90% of their day indoors. So do most other Europeans, a habit that’s remained consistent for at least the past 15 years, according to the European Commission.
That means offices, schools, hospitals and other buildings have an enormous effect on people’s health. For employers, there’s a solid business case for investing in building technologies that minimise sick days and maximise productivity.
Many of those technologies fall within pro AV’s traditional wheelhouse, such as sound masking and automated shades. Others are emerging markets, such as building management systems for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), and smart lighting based on the Internet of Things (IoT).
When AV firms expand into those non-traditional applications, it’s usually to help clients meet energy-efficiency goals. But many of those non-traditional technologies also can help clients ensure that their buildings are healthy places to live, work and play.
For example, research by the Healthy Buildings Team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that “workers in green-certified buildings scored 26.4% higher on cognitive function tests, . . . and had 30% fewer sick building symptoms than those in non-certified buildings.”
Mould, dust and CO2 are among the culprits leading to sick building syndrome. An AV firm that’s branched into building management technology could offer solutions such as Siemens’ Symaro line of environmental sensors. Those feed data to Siemens’ Navigator platform, which manages a building’s energy consumption, environmental conditions and HVAC performance.
Which light is right?
One key difference between sustainability and wellness is that clients already recognise the benefits of energy-efficient technologies, whereas the concept of a healthy building is nebulous. So even when clients want to provide employees and patrons with healthy buildings, AV firms still must do a lot of educating about how technology achieves that goal.
“A lot of times, people want to do this sort of thing, but they don’t understand all of the facets that contribute to it, particularly the things that aren’t as readily visible,” says Nathan Stodola, chief engineer at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI).
Take the example of lighting, which can seem deceptively simple to clients: Just make sure employees, customers and other people can see what they’re doing and where they’re going, and provide it using energy-efficient light sources.
But the wellness aspects are far more nuanced. For example, a 24-7 call centre with overnight and rotating shifts has different lighting considerations than a 9-5 office, where sunlight can be leveraged throughout the workday both for wellness and energy efficiency.
“Short-wavelength (blue) and long-wavelength (red) light increases alertness and performance at night,” the Lighting Research Center (LRC) says. “[But] only blue light significantly suppresses melatonin, suggesting that melatonin suppression is not required to promote night-time alertness and improve performance.”
The LRC is using healthcare environments to study how red light could be used without disrupting the natural melatonin production of nurses, doctors and other staff.
“If shown to be effective in reducing errors and improving quality of life, this intervention will provide a non-pharmacological treatment to help healthcare workers cope with irregular night-time work schedules without disrupting their circadian rhythms,” the LRC says. “Circadian disruption and exposure to light at night . . . are involved in melatonin suppression and its associated cancer risks.”
In offices, lighting considerations often vary by season and compass direction. For example, in another LRC study, circadian stimulus (CS) levels on one floor changed significantly during the course of a year. In the summer, employees on the floor’s south side lowered their shades to avoid sunlight, reducing their CS below winter levels.
That highlights an opportunity to use automated shades to manage CS levels. “Shades would only be drawn at times when there is sunlight penetration and not at all times, as occurs in buildings where the occupants control the shades,” the study says.
A few generations ago, overhead lighting was a top focus because employees spent most of their day looking down at something, such as paperwork. Now they’re usually staring at a computer screen, which is a light source.
“Today, most of the work we do doesn’t need to be illuminated, says the IWBI’s Stodola. “It’s coming from luminous screens themselves. In many cases, the light that’s falling on the horizontal plane work surface is irrelevant as long as it meets some nominal minimal level.”
One challenge is that many clients are unaware of these nuances, so they don’t see the benefits of technologies that improve wellness.
“In my experience, businesses tend to have three levels on which they engage with lighting,” says Hallam Smith, Global Design Solutions product manager. “The first is only concerned with meeting standards such as lux levels, uniformity and unified glare rating. This applies to the majority of businesses. These light schemes enable employees to see what they are doing, but do not consider employee productivity and wellbeing beyond that.”
In the second level, clients focus on aesthetics, such using lighting to make a dramatic statement in a reception area. Only in the third level does employee wellbeing become a consideration.
“They tend to be keen to incorporate more comprehensive lighting control systems into installations and use tuneable white systems that enable the colour temperature to be changed,” Smith says. “The businesses that use these systems understand that light can have a powerful effect on the circadian rhythms of their employees, and that by making the light intensity and colour temperature adjustable, people working under those lights will feel more energised and more comfortable.”
Balancing light with sound
Big windows and skylights help reduce electricity consumption, so they’re ideal for achieving sustainability goals such as LEED certification. And while this “daylighting” design strategy can help clients achieve their wellness goals, too, it also can undermine them.
“Increasing a building’s natural light coverage means more glass, both in terms of external windows and interior partitions,” says Nathan Van Ness, Biamp Systems product marketing manager. “Glass performs poorly as a noise blocker, thus contributing to an increase in overall office noise.”
Other trends are raising the noise floor, such as open floor plans. Another is transforming former factories and warehouses into loft-style offices. The architectural features that make them attractive—such as high ceilings, exposed brick walls and bare concrete floors—propagate and amplify sound in ways that undermine concentration. These also can create security and privacy problems, such as when confidential customer information is accidentally overhead by someone else nearby.
“One of today’s popular workstyles is ‘benching,’ which places office staff side-by-side, often on two or more sides of a table, with minimal separation between sides—often just a short dividing wall down the length of the table that provides no noise mitigation,” Van Ness says. “The resulting increase in worker density presents an obvious challenge regarding office noise distractions.”
The trends of flexible schedules and hot desking create big variations in occupancy levels and thus noise levels.
“Such trends present additional noise-mitigation challenges because of the unpredictability and inconsistency of in-office staff locations,” Van Ness says.
These challenges highlight why AV firms need to be involved early on in a project, alongside the architect and general contractor—instead of after designs are locked down and budgets mostly spent.
“It is very important for AV integrators and/or acoustic consultants to be involved during a building’s initial planning stages,” Van Ness says. “In almost all cases, planning acoustical treatments prior to construction yields a more cost-effective and better-performing solution than when considered post-construction.”
Some AV firms have expanded into furniture, which is another tool for achieving sound-related wellness goals. For example, part of the IWBI’s WELL standard focuses on how sound propagates around a space.
“In that case, intervention includes furniture, surface finish treatments and how you lay out a workspace,” says the IWBI’s acoustics expert Ethan Bourdeau, who’s also part of the ISO 22955 working group developing standards for acoustics in open offices.
Standards guide the way
When it comes to sustainability, standards such as LEED give AV firms a helpful framework for showing clients why and where to invest in energy-efficient technologies. The Fitwel and WELL standards do the same for wellness technologies.
“Both WELL and Fitwel can be helpful to AV integrators and/or consultants when framing discussions with end users regarding the many benefits of noise-mitigation solutions,” Van Ness says.
Launched in 2017, Fitwel covers a wide variety of technologies, such as automated shades, environmental sensors and even digital signage.
“Technology can also be used in innovative ways to increase the connection between a workplace and its surrounding environment,” says Reena Agarwal, COO at the Center for Active Design, which oversees Fitwel. “Permanent digital displays in lobbies or common areas can highlight local resources, support occupant wayfinding and contribute to increased physical activity, neighbourhood accessibility and sense of community. One example of how a building owner has applied this strategy can be seen in RO Real Estate’s One Dorset Street, a 1 Star Fitwel-certified workplace project in Southampton, UK, which features an interactive digital console at the front desk.”
The IWBI’s WELL standard, meanwhile, covers applications such as sound masking and automated shading and dimming. It also encourages clients to consider treat these and other AV applications as day-one considerations rather than afterthoughts.
“Integrated design has been part of the LEED rating system and is a precondition to the WELL building standard, which says you need to identify the stakeholders and get them involved as early as possible,” says the IWBI’s Stodola.
Some client-side stakeholders vary by business type. For example, the head of human resources is a key stakeholder across all business types because they’re experts in aspects such as employee sick days. But at others, the chief security officer or chief information officer could be stakeholders that the AV firm needs to work with from day one.
“Beyond standards compliance, integrators/consultants need to understand that when discussing the benefits of noise mitigation solutions, certain outcomes may resonate more strongly than others depending on a specific location’s purpose and day-to-day activities,” Van Ness says. “For example, if a new medical clinic is being built, the company’s risk manager will likely be most concerned with speech privacy and patient comfort, given their direct associations with HIPAA compliance and HCAHPS scores, respectively. Speech privacy is also critical for call centres, financial institutions, law offices and more.”
Ultimately Fitwel and WELL are among a growing number of standards that help clients understand and appreciate how building management systems—including those where pro AV has a role—enable healthy buildings.
“This can be tested by applying the concepts of the European Directive BS-EN15232,” says Steven Loughney, head of the building products portfolio for Siemens UK. “That allows you to assess a building to be able to confirm whether a building is being ‘driven’ in an energy efficient [way] and therefore in a way that will also ensure the wellbeing of the occupants.”
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