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Healthy Buildings and Well-Being

Dr Aw headshot in a circle

Update from Dr. Aw

November 6, 2020

​​​​​​​Over the summer – I picked up a book called “The Healthy Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness” by Emily Anthes.  Anthes is a science writer who claimed that modern humans are an indoor species who (pre-COVID) spend 90% of our time shuffling between homes, offices, schools, stores, restaurants and gyms.  She looked at how indoor spaces affect our mental and physical well-being as well as our emotions, productivity and even relationships.  It was an interesting read considering our current pandemic times where most of us are working from home and avoiding crowds where there is prolonged indoor exposure. 

The new COVID normal has highlighted the importance of indoor air exchange and flow, disinfection protocols and health and safety protocols for buildings where we work and play.  Oxford Properties has been a leader in building design and real estate investment with projects around the world.  I decided to sit down with Dean Hopkins, Chief Operating Officer, Oxford Properties and Claire McIntyre, Head of Brand, Marketing and Communications, Oxford Properties to get their viewpoints on the Future of Healthy Buildings.

Before I get to Dean and Claire – let me share some of the insights that I picked up from Anthes’ book.

Anthes reviewed the research and future trends on “smart” buildings, adaptive and amphibious architecture, biophilic buildings and urban design for mentally healthy cities (links below).  She cited examples of established Green building certification programs (LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Living Building Challenge) and progressive environmentally friendly designs such as the Seattle Bullitt Center and the Powerhouse in Scandinavia.  Other healthy building certification programs include WELL and Fitwel.

Academic institutions such as the Mayo Clinic Well Living Lab and Harvard Healthy Building Program have innovation research labs that are focused on the future of wellness, indoor health and building design.  “Smart” buildings will be able to enhance real time monitoring of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), CO2 (carbon dioxide) ventilation rates, particulates and a host of other environmental conditions in the office.  Organizations such as the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health in London, Happy City in Vancouver, First Place Autism in Arizona and Tiger Place for the Elderly in Missouri are examples of research focused on the design of cities that address mental health.

Nature is also important in future wellness designs.  Biophilic design is built around the concept that humans have an understandable affinity with the natural world.  A Finnish company called Naava has designed “living” green walls with plants for clean air and the California Earth Institute promotes the use of earth and sandbags to create eco-friendly Super Adobe Dome living and working structures.  New York-based COOKFOX Architects have a mission of designing buildings that foster the well-being of people and a healthy urban landscape. Oxford is working with COOKFOX to create St. John’s Terminal, an adaptive reuse project on the west side of Manhattan that has been fully pre-leased to Google. Amphibious architecture are flexible structures that are built around water.   

The London School of Economics published a paper on the use of a checklist to measure the impact of built environments on well-being.   The SALIENT checklist stands for Sound, Air, Light, Image, Ergonomics, Nature and Tint.  The aim was to link behavioural science to how built environments affect what we do and how we feel. 

What is the Future of the Indoors and Wellness during and post COVID?

Dean Hopkins:

​​​“Several nascent trends were accelerated by the pandemic, including the focus on customer health and the opportunities unlocked by the convergence of data, smart buildings and new technologies. Over the last six months we’ve collaborated with progressive thinkers and businesses to fast-track the commercialization of promising products and platforms. With our long-term focus, Oxford is well positioned to create a real point of difference by investing in creating healthier places.”

Dean feels that healthy buildings will become a competitive advantage for tenants. Best buildings will provide healthy experiences for users.  Everything from touch free experience to real time data sharing of environmental conditions powered by technology.  Sensors will automate cleaning protocols, indoor air quality and lighting (smart windows) while optimizing the use of natural sunlight.  Common office spaces will need to be redesigned to maximize creativity and social connection while staying safe.  Buildings of the future will be designed to enhance the emotional wellbeing of occupants.  People need to feel psychologically safe and inspired in their indoor spaces.  He hopes to create a Living Lab at Oxford to pilot innovative designs.

Claire McIntyre:

​​​​​​​“The most enlightened building owners put customers at the heart of every business decision, and that commitment is critical to advancing the health of customers and communities. The owners that prioritize collaboration, testing and transparent measurement will be the ones who make the biggest impact on people and the ones who win the greatest share of business.”

Claire feels that there will be a focus on understanding and measuring the health impact of various interventions that physical space can deliver and quantifying what customers truly value.  Behavioural data science will help inform building design and investment decisions and pair with smart technology to create adaptable buildings for different communities and populations. The future of the workplace will also be influenced by the type of work and links to productivity.  Office spaces that foster collaboration, problem solving, and professional growth will increasingly be the focal point for the best companies, especially in a hybrid world where some employees work partly from home. Buildings will evolve from a customer service focus to an experience mindset.  Claire also feels that there will be a trend of increasing transparency (data scorecards, rankings) between building owners and customers.  The leading companies will figure out how to incorporate a holistic approach to wellness in their buildings.

There are many exciting innovations to create healthy buildings of the future. The pandemic has accelerated the pace of change and adoption of these concepts that focus on the human experience.  We all look forward to enjoying a healthier indoors!


  1. International Living Future Institute

  2. Seattle Bullitt Center

  3. Powerhouse in Scandinavia

  4. Well

  5. Fitwel

  6. Mayo Clinic Well Living Lab

  7. Harvard Healthy Building Program

  8. Urban Design and Mental Health

  9. Happy City

  10. First Place Autism

  11. Tiger Place for the Elderly

  12. Naava

  13. California Earth Institute

  14. SALIENT checklist

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