MANHATTAN — While the trend of healthy homes — where non-toxic paint and cleaners are used, for instance — has been growing, focus has only recently shifted to our workplaces, even though many of us spend more of our waking hours at the office then at our homes.
A host of new initiatives rate buildings or offices in New York and across the country based on potential health risks like exposure to indoor pollutants, access to healthy food or promoting physical activity during work hours.
Under the Fitwel certification system, which is expected to launch nationwide early next year, the New York-based nonprofit Center for Active Design will issue a scorecard to a building based on more than 60 benchmark criteria developed by the Centers for Disease Control, like proximity to public transit and stairwell design.
The Well Building Standard — a pricier credential to obtain — is run by New York-based Delos and looks at seven factors: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.
“There is a quantifiable return on investment in building a super energy-efficient space. But the health of the people in the space is equally important,” said Dana Schneider, who leads energy and sustainability services at JLL, the global commercial real estate services firm, and has put her industry know-how to the test at JLL's new office at 28 Liberty St. in Lower Manhattan.
It is on track to be the first Well Building-certified space in the city.
“We spend 90 percent of our time indoors,” she said. “People are conscious of the negative impact it has on our bodies.”
Here are some things that experts pay attention to when it comes to healthy workspaces:
1. Access to stairs
Walking up stairs is one of the simplest ways to improve fitness, said Joanna Frank, executive director of the Center for Active Design.
“Six flights a day is enough to offset the annual average weight gain of an American,” she said.
The lobbies of many new office buildings now put stairs front-and-center to encourage workers to walk up rather than opt for the elevator, Frank noted, but even in older buildings, there are simple retrofits, like adding reflective strips to decrease trip hazards, putting in artwork to make stairwells cheerier and installing glass doors.
Her group advocates office buildings unlock their stairs, disputing concerns about safety.
2. Standing desks
The new JLL space is filled with desks that let the user transition from sitting to standing, Schneider said.
“People love them. They are much more mobile,” she said, noting that as stand-up desks have become more popular there are many low-cost options now on the market to transform traditional sit-down desks.
3. Natural lighting
For an office that wants to be seen as promoting health, having natural light is one of the most important factors.
Much of the evidence-based research that Fitwel uses points to the benefits of natural lighting, Frank said, noting that with artificial light, “the ability to impact the quality by changing from one bulb to another” still has limited impact.
At the new JLL space, everyone has an “incredible view,” including of the Statue of Liberty and the New York Harbor, Schneider said.
“To see outside, to have that biophilia, so you can see living things, makes people feel healthier and more productive,” she said. “And when we have artificial light, it needs to feel as natural as possible.”
Work spaces also have task lighting and glare controls, and the office’s lighting design aims to minimize disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm.
4. Plants and art
Lisa Skye Hain, co-founder of Primary, a wellness-focused co-working space at 26 Broadway in the Financial District, remembers when she worked in the mortgage industry in an office space with an “old school aesthetic of dropped ceilings, fluorescent lights and carpet.”
She’s taken an alternative path with her new space, which has a plethora of plants and 16 large-scale prints of landscapes.
“They say if you look at nature for four minutes per day, it lowers your blood pressure,” Skye Hain said.
5. Yoga, meditation or other mindful practices
Besides space for co-working desks and private offices, there’s also a 600-square-foot studio at Primary which hosts five to eight classes a day, like yoga and meditation, Skye Hain said.
“Ultimately, I think it’s about the energy you create in a space, and that can stem from the people and the physical energy: a warm community of people and a warm space,” she said. “We’re not promoting working more hours and hustling more, but the idea that you can be inspired in a space allows you to be more calm and productive.”
She also suggested aromatic oils to help focus, especially the combination of orange and peppermint.
6. Lactation room
On the Fitwel scorecard, one feature that adds a lot of points to an office’s score is having a dedicated lactation room for new moms to pump in, Frank said.
“It’s easily accomplished if you have the room” she said, noting that creating such a room or a “quiet” room might take a simple reallocation of space resources. “There are multiple impacts on health: mental health impacts, children health impacts, community health impacts.”
7. Healthy food access
Incentivizing healthy food is another move that might be an easy lift, whether it's changing a vending machine’s offerings or having a pricing scheme that favors healthier foods in a cafeteria, Frank said.
8. Improving air quality
The materials in an office space have an impact on health, said Schneider, which is why the new JLL spaces uses low- to no-VOC materials, to cut down on organic volatile compounds emitted from things like paint, cleaning products or furniture and can have a range of effects from nose irritation and perhaps even cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
On top of that, JLL’s space is reducing allergens by using vacuums with HEPA filters and testing for air quality.
“Make conscious decisions about the materials you use,” she advised.
9. How you commute to work
Offices that are close to public transit and support biking tend to get higher marks under the new programs.
At JLL, for instance, employees were given Citi Bike memberships, Schneider noted, adding that “it alleviates congestion in the city."
10. Hand-washing signs
Washing your hands is one of the best ways to cut down on spreading illness, so under Fitwel’s scorecard, having hand-washing signs reminding employees about the practice scores points.
“You’d be surprised,” Frank said, at how many workers forget to wash hands.