Green Buildings Are Healthy Buildings - Let's Prove the Case

Sick leave costs the economy a staggering $576 billion a year -- and that's just in the U.S. Wider mental health problems also come at a significant cost through lost productivity, benefit payments and health care -- around £70bn in the U.K. alone.

Meanwhile, with the global economy showing signs of growth, recruiting top staff is again a critical issue. The cost of replacing staff has also been estimated to be as high as twice the cost of the outgoing employee's salary in terms of lost engagement, lost productivity, advertising and recruiting costs and new training.

In fact, 85 percent of a typical company's costs go on salaries and benefits. In short, for many businesses, its people are its biggest asset.

It's hardly a surprise that in this context, there has been a recent explosion of interest in the impact of the office environment on staff health, productivity and overall wellbeing and happiness. The global real estate sector is now taking this issue really seriously. What's perhaps more surprising is that it is often the sustainability team within real estate services companies and developers who are leading this agenda as opposed to HR departments.

Claudia Hamm of global real estate firm, Jones Lang LaSalle, has said,

Our recent experience has confirmed that when making strategic location decisions, corporate clients are shifting their focus away from space efficiencies and are asking questions about the environmental credentials of the space and how it will support the productivity of their staff.

But it is the links between the environmental credentials and staff productivity that is generating most interest. There is a strong sense -- backed up by academic research -- that, "green" office features, such as better ventilation, low toxicity materials and better daylighting are also good for the office worker's health, wellbeing and resulting productivity. Studies have linked improved ventilation and daylighting with up to 11 percent and 23 percent gains in productivity respectively.

To a certain extent this stands to reason, but the problem up to now has been measuring this. Because when you really drill down into it, how can you tell that (for example) a firm of lawyers are performing better after moving to a new, greener office? What if it's really just a renewed sense of optimism amongst staff during an economic upturn, as opposed to the impact of the office move itself? Even if staff are convinced the office is a key factor, how do you isolate the impact of it being green, compared to the new coffee machine, or the funky new meeting space?

Fortunately, the World Green Building Council is looking to answer these questions. Its new project aims to set out a proposed common way of capturing these benefits for the global real estate market, and provide guidance for architects and clients on the type of design features that enhance them, while at the same time minimising the building's environmental impact. And backing from major firms, Jones Lang LaSalle, Lend Lease and Skanska shows that this is hardly a niche eco-fanatic interest.

We have to be able to turn what is currently a "gut feeling" into financial metrics that can impact investment decisions. And that would provide a hugely compelling business case for green buildings. Greening an office building may be the right thing to do, but if "saving the planet" doesn't provide the necessary business driver, we need to change the debate. Health and productivity could hold the key.