A window being opened manually.

+ Giving people control over their building environment, through measures such as windows they can open, is proven to benefit their physical and psychological health.

We need to put people back at the centre of building design because our environments could make us feel better, both physiologically and psychologically.

Constantly controlled sealed boxes needn’t be our default design. I firmly believe that buildings that give users more control over their environment would produce many benefits, including making those users happier.

Modern building services technology allows us to achieve thermally static spaces – where the temperature is the same whatever the weather outside. For certain applications, such as laboratories, this is of paramount importance.

However, just because we can doesn’t mean that we always should! Thermal constancy uses a lot of energy and is a rather unnatural construct. A degree of environmental variability is pleasurable and natural, like a summer breeze. This is what Lisa Heschong called Thermal Delight. We should design more stimulating environments with greater opportunity for pleasure.

Indeed, a lack of control over our environment is a psychosocial hazard – in the workplace it is one of the major determinants of stress. Being unable to exercise control reduces job satisfaction, while perceived control is known to reduce stress and improve wellbeing and productivity. People with some control are then more forgiving of other malfunctions in their work environments, have fewer health symptoms, higher satisfaction and improved performance.

Giving back control can save energy too. For example, when given the choice, many users choose to work at an illuminance substantially below the standard installed levels, saving large amounts of energy.

So I propose we rethink building briefs to give more priority to opening windows, giving users control and temperature regimes that are more natural and less energy-intensive. Speculative offices ought to be designed with sufficient flexibility for a variety of tenant demands.

Today, you could characterise many building environments as subtle, automatic and constant; spaces created for people not to notice. I think the future should be about environments that are sensual and inspiring.

Some projects are already taking a more flexible approach. The White Collar Factory office building in London uses a traffic light system to guide people about when to open the windows for optimum comfort. Control of the perimeter mechanical ventilation is manual and is left in the hands of the floor manager.

The new Maltese Parliament building uses mixed-mode ventilation where users can choose between natural ventilation and air-conditioning. Sensors detect when nobody is around, and switch off the system.

These approaches won’t be suitable for every building. But I feel passionately that we should create environments that make us more resource-efficient, more productive, healthier and happier.