Corridor in the Harris Academy, South Norwood, London.

+ We have a fundamental responsibility to ensure people’s wellbeing as we create places for them to live, work and play.

To what extent do we, as architects and engineers, have a duty to ensure the inhabitants of our buildings are healthy and happy?

I believe we have a fundamental responsibility to ensure people’s wellbeing as we create places for them to live, work and play. But how far do we typically go to seek sufficient human perspective for our future buildings? And is it far enough? How much of our training as architects and engineers prepares us for this important role?

As part of an Arup group involved in a year-long research programme with the Royal Institute of British Architects and The Royal Academy of Engineering, we’ve been exploring a fundamental question: Can design, architecture and engineering influence behavioural outcomes?

Three workshops with organisations including The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC), Public Health England and Philips Design for Healthcare revealed gaps in knowledge. These included how to define the experiences that support wellbeing, the role of art and other sensory experiences that affect wellbeing, and the extent to which workplaces can support the way people actually work more productively.

These gaps will be presented to the Department of Communities and Local Governments to help establish funding for research. The findings highlight that often buildings do not put the needs of people first. Something as simple as improved lighting levels can shorten patients’ recovery times by improving cortisol and melatonin production.

Our fundamental role as professionals is to design for people and I think we need reminding of this. Today, we are inundated with statistics that show the significant cost to the UK economy of employee sick leave and long-term illness. Recent headlines estimated the bill at close to £14bn a year (CBI Fit for purpose, Absence & Workplace health survey 2013).  In addition, we see the personal cost of mental stress and illness constantly on the rise. Yet personal wellbeing is often not identified in briefs for future building design.

We have made progress in certain areas; smoking in buildings is a thing of the past, and we carefully review specifications for materials containing harmful chemical compounds. But we need to go much further. What else can we do? 

Workplace strategies are often driven more by trends and aesthetics than by users, empowerment and agreed company culture. We need to be thinking beyond soft furnishings and offers of activity-based working as the solution; it’s about the experience we set out in the spaces we design.

As a multidisciplinary design firm, we are uniquely placed to engender a new experience for users of our buildings – an experience that integrates work, education, health and wellbeing.

I would love to hear your feedback. What does wellbeing in the workplace feel like to you?