By Pete Jefferson, PE, WELL AP, LEED AP, HBDP
Vice President

The role of health and wellness in the built environment is dominating discussions throughout the design and construction industry. At the same time, programs like the WELL Building Standard have experienced rapid growth and represent a powerful tool for certifying that a building has been designed with occupant health and productivity in mind.

However, within the day-to-day practice of design and operations, design professionals and operators often struggle to make the case for strategies that promote occupant health and wellness. There is an inexhaustible amount of research addressing these topics, but determining how to actually leverage this body of evidence to affect change is one of the more challenging aspects for those who set out to create healthy environments.

Fortunately, organizations like the Pittsburgh-based Green Building Alliance are trying to tackle these challenges head on and connect practitioners to industry experts. I recently attended their educational session, The Evolving Workplace: Designing and Operating Buildings for Health and Productivity. The event was a unique opportunity to learn from well-recognized industry experts Vivian Loftness (Carnegie Mellon University), Melissa Bilec (University of Pittsburgh) and my colleague Marcel Harmon (Forte Building Science, a division of M.E. GROUP).

Hosted in the 7,000 square foot Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace at Carnegie Mellon University, it was the ideal location for a gathering on these subjects. Constructed on top of Margaret Morrison Hall 17 years ago, the Intelligent Workplace continues to serve as a testing grounds for new and innovative technologies, as well as devices supporting the Internet of Things (IoT). Hosting this event in a “living laboratory” allowed attendees to actually experience the subject matter. As an attendee, at one point I felt the sun emerge from behind the clouds and hit the back of my neck. It was a perfect opportunity for the building lab to demonstrate the effectiveness of the motorized exterior solar shade. In a few seconds, the heat of the sunlight was relieved.

Vivian Loftness

Vivian Loftness on the importance of controls to occupant satisfaction: “We fundamentally believe that every person should be able to control their own lights, windows, and temperature.”

Vivian Loftness kicked off the panel of speakers. An internationally renowned researcher, author and educator, I have seen the number of citations of Vivian’s work reflect the growing trend towards designing for health and productivity. In fact, at last year’s Greenbuild, I felt like nearly every session I attended had at least one slide referencing “Loftness, et al.”

Through both her research and field work, Vivian set the stage with a history of the research into health and productivity. Using compelling research studies and statistics, Vivian summarized what she considered to be the most impactful features for occupant health and productivity. In her view, workplace design focused on the occupant should value these principles (not in order):

  1. Give back temperature control
  2. Provide working quiet
  3. Maximize views
  4. Make daylight dominant
  5. Separate ambient and task lights
  6. Celebrate sunshine
  7. Give people operable windows
  8. Ensure access to nature
  9. Design for Active and Fit
  10. Support community and collaboration

Having heard Vivian speak several times previously, she is very much an ardent supporter of natural and mixed-mode ventilation systems. The simple act of allowing an occupant to open a window is something she believes should be the norm, as opposed to the battle it often is now. Having been engaged in many spirited discussions myself with designers and operators over the years trying to accomplish the same thing, I’m glad to know that her research supports the efforts that we’re making on that front. She also supported the recent research that strongly indicates a need to increase ventilation rates beyond those currently embodied in codes and standards.

Marcel Harmon

Marcel Harmon also discussed the impact evolutionary theory has on human physiology. He points out that we still have strong connections to our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and today’s sedentary workplace is problematic to occupant health and comfort.

After laying out a solid foundation for the history and research that has founded these principles, Marcel Harmon was then charged with demonstrating how this is put into practice. Marcel discussed a research methodology called “ethnography” that he defines as, “the systematic analyses of human interaction in a defined space and time, with a focus on ritual.” In particular, his research looks at the physical and social/cultural aspects of the environment. This ethnographic approach is incorporated into both post-occupancy work, as well as “pre-occupancy” work. He shared case studies that show misalignment between the workplace environment and occupant satisfaction, which also had impacts on productivity.

Recapping several design case studies, Marcel demonstrated several customized tools he has created help quantify the value of some of the strategies Vivian had espoused. These tools provided quantifiable occupant performance and productivity gains. In one case study, he pointed out that advancements in LED technology has made it challenging to justify daylighting based on energy efficiency. So Marcel’s custom tools turned daylight strategies into metrics more occupant-focused, such as improved student test scores or productivity (based on salary).

Finally, Melissa Bilec revealed some of the work that she is doing with the Pittsburgh 2030 District to pilot a new Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) framework. It’s impressive to see Pittsburgh – home to the largest 2030 District in the country – continue to press forward on issues that matter to our environment and citizens.

As a proving ground for establishing this framework, Pittsburgh is the perfect place to start. During her discussion, Melissa stated, “We know that a lot of the air in Pittsburgh is compromised. It’s impacting our health and our children’s health. What’s interested to me is that if we make improvements to building energy, we should see improvements to outside air. Then, we should ultimately see improvements to the indoor air quality.”

Melissa Bilec

Melissa Bilec (center) believes that energy efficiency equals cleaner outdoor air, and that cleaner outdoor air creates cleaner indoor air. She and her team are measuring indoor air quality throughout the Pittsburgh 2030 District.

This approach connects energy efficiency strategies used at the building level to a reduction in what are typically dirty, fossil fuel-sourced power generation systems. While I believe that many people often struggle to connect the energy used at their building to global issues like climate change, Melissa is connecting it to the air that we breathe and keeping things at a local/regional level. That’s a powerful connection, and one that I believe may resonate more deeply with most people.

Reflecting on the event, I’m reminded that while my personal move to Pittsburgh came a bit over two years ago, I am frequently impressed at the amount of research and thought leadership being produced here. I also know that our building science team is excited to not only leverage the research being done here, but we are also discussing ways that our work can help provide feedback loops to researchers like Vivian and Melissa working in these areas.

Thanks again to Ben Hochstetler for sharing the photos, Leslie Montgomery with GBA for organizing the event, and for Carnegie Mellon University for hosting.


Pete JeffersonPete Jefferson is a principal and co-founder at Forte Building Science, a division of M.E. GROUP. As a 16+ year team member, Pete brings a whole-systems perspective and a deep knowledge of sustainable solutions to his project teams to achieve high-performance buildings. Pete uses his background in mechanical engineering to look at the building as an integrated system, where climate, architecture, and systems must work harmoniously to yield the best outcomes for his clients and for the people that occupy his buildings.

For more information about this topic and Forte Building Science, call Pete at 412.727.8388