Occupant centred outcomes: the future of design

Ted Szuman, Head of Innovation at AkzoNobel UK, discusses the hot topic of future-proofing design that caters to its occupants.



n a world undergoing major transformation, from new technology to shifts in global opinion, the role of design in cultivating change is much discussed. Dulux Trade recently assembled a panel of leading industry professionals at the Royal Institute of British Architects to explore the future of design with occupant centred outcomes at the heart.

The debate focused specifically on the recent spotlight on designing for wellbeing and was chaired by Marianne Shillingford, Creative Director at Dulux. The panel comprised leading experts, including Rosemary Jenssen from Jenssen Architecture representing the ProCure 22 Framework; Louise Tod, Independent Colourist and Creative Director; Jim Ashley-Down, Managing Director at Waldmann Lighting and Flavie Lowres, Associate Director at BRE.

Prompted by the chair and with reference to case studies, the experts agreed that there is a clear need to understand how particular elements of the built environment impact upon the wellbeing of the users and the importance of incorporating this into the design at the outset of a project. In short, wellbeing is becoming to design and architecture what sustainability was 25 years ago.

To this end, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) is now looking at collecting data on how indoor environments impact on the health and wellbeing of occupants, whilst Dulux Trade, as an industry leader is exploring new scientific formulations also designed to collect data about how spaces are used. The collation of this data, if interpreted in the right way, could have a huge impact on the way buildings are designed across a range of sectors. From education and the workplace to healthcare spaces, this new insight can help to develop spaces that are predisposed to benefit the intended occupant.

An example of wellbeing at the heart of the design process is Chris and Sally’s House – a project led by BRE, in partnership with Liverpool John Moores University, Loughborough University and Dulux Trade, to assess how to design for dementia. More than 46 million people live with dementia worldwide and one person develops dementia every three minutes in the UK. Despite being highlighted as a challenge of our generation, treatment and housing for those living with dementia is impacting heavily on social care costs, at an average of £12,584 per person per year.

This growing global health trend requires a radical change in thinking, demanding collaboration and innovation from within and outside the healthcare community to help neutralise the burden on care services. The home showcases ideas that have been developed based on research, stimulating dialogue about how to futureproof the nation’s buildings, allowing occupants to live well for longer within their own homes.

The Dementia House project aims to understand the optimal domestic environment for dementia care in the home and will see evidence-based design applied throughout the test home, allowing for new insight on how varying levels of interventions and specifically colour, can enhance occupant health and wellbeing outcomes.

Research shows that colour and design can have a huge impact on the wellbeing of occupants and the panel discussed how this knowledge should be applied not just in the healthcare sector for patients, but also for staff and users of any space – regardless of sector. Considering the purpose of any room for all occupants, as well as the impact of its design on enabling people to use the space as intended is key in any sector. These principles are also key to helping to narrow the disconnect between massive city populations and nature – drawing, as discussed by the panel – on biophilic elements.

Stress-related illness will be the biggest reason for absence by 2020, with 15.4 million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18. Employee wellbeing, and the subject of mindfulness is growing in appreciation and adoption amongst employers – therefore building owners and facilities managers are looking for guidance to help them to develop solutions that can be incorporated into the design brief.

Biophilic design acknowledges that we are genetically connected to nature as we still have survival urges that link back to our evolutionary past and that a human-centred approach can improve many of the spaces in which we live and work, with numerous benefits to our health, wellbeing and productivity.

Flavie Lowres said at the event that “task led design is crucial, as the specific tasks occupants undertake in each space is a very important factor for specifiers and architects when considering the design of workplace environments”.

To understand this in more detail, BRE is undertaking a first-of-its-kind study which will see an entire floor of a working office building at BRE – and the 40 people occupying that space – undergo wide-ranging testing and monitoring to understand the impact of a biophilic refurbishment.

The research project involves pre- and post-occupancy research on BRE staff over a 12-month period, incorporating physiological testing as well as monthly occupant surveys to discover how varying levels of design interventions, and specifically colour, can enhance occupant health, wellbeing and productivity outcomes.

Colour is an intrinsic part of any design project, with a powerful impact on how individuals use and feel within a space. The panelists agreed that it’s important to have access to colour palettes which bring together colour research with industry knowledge, so that specifiers have forward looking and eminently usable colour palettes when approaching a new project.

The AkzoNobel Global Aesthetic Center has over 25 years of experience in colour research, bringing together independent designers, architects and creatives from around the world with their own in-house colour experts. They have developed the Dulux Trade ColourFutures 2019 palettes, Think, Act, Dream and Love, which all draw on knowledge and research to allow specifiers and architects to create schemes that promote enhanced occupant outcomes in a range of sectors.

The focus on occupant centred design, is underpinned by a drive for sustainability, which still remains a key reason for change in the industry, both in terms of the building impact and the specific products used on a project. Industry standards, such as BREEAM and LEED, are disrupting the market by driving considerations for a more sustainable approach to the construction, use and refurbishment of buildings. The WELL Building Standard brings a particular focus to the considerations of the health and wellbeing of building occupants.

In the future, the panel unanimously agreed that the industry is set to see elements of these standards become more prominent as wellbeing continues to dominate the building design agenda. Jim Ashley-Down of Waldmann Lighting explained that as the conversation around wellbeing continues, design principles will become more accessible. He commented: “Occupants will predominantly see positive effects of standards like WELL coming into play as design begins to consider occupant outcomes from the outset.”

The consensus from the experts was that although there was evidence of a considerable appetite for change, a lot more needs to be done to facilitate mainstream adoption, as despite such innovative projects and a gradual move towards design that optimises the occupant experience, the UK currently has no statutory standards for wellbeing in design. To really maximise the impact of recent research, the design industry as a whole needs to review the data produced from such studies, agreeing on a set of mandatory – and affordable – design solutions that can be implemented in all buildings, in order to truly ‘futureproof design’.

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