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Report: Healthy buildings, cities and you – How to design future living environments

Report: Healthy buildings, cities and you – How to design future living environments

The pandemic has greatly affected health in general, and the way we live, work and communicate. It has raised awareness of the importance of designing cities to promote the health and well-being of the people living in them. 90% of people’s time on average is spent indoors – by the time you are 80, you will have spent 72 years indoors. This report shows how attention to a healthier indoors, a more balanced natural outdoor urban environment and increased physical activity can result in a city that benefits both mental and physical health for its inhabitants.

In this report experts show that it is possible for cities and buildings to be transformed into systems that can benefit our health.

People living in cities are 20% more likely to suffer from depression and more than 1.6 million lives are lost each year in the EU alone due to noise pollution, the second biggest environmental health risk in Europe after air pollution. Certain key factors have a strong influence on our overall health in urban environments.

Experts in different disciplines come together in this report to investigate the specific importance of greenery (plants and biodiversity, both outdoors and indoors), air (quality), light (levels and pollution), noise (detrimental effect) and movement (related physical and mental benefits) in the design and planning of healthy buildings and urban environments.

GRØNTTORVET, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK. The green heart of the district, a park is created for the benefit of the residents. Location: Valby, Copenhagen, Denmark, Designer Buildings: Sweco Architects, Designer Landscape: WERK, Client: FB Gruppen A/S, Photo: Niels Nygaard

Greenery for well-being

In Europe, public space makes up between 2 and 15% of land in city centres. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum amount of 9 m2 of green open space per inhabitant. While there are contradictions in how a city may define green space, many cities struggle to reach the recommended targets.

As urban populations and urban population densities continue to rise, there is an even greater need for cities to become greener and to design future public green spaces with quality in mind, in a way that accommodates the inhabitants’ health and well-being.

PALAZZO VERDE (NIEUW ZUID), ANTWERP, BELGIUM. The plant-based shield of the Palazzo Verde in Antwerp aims to allow filtered sunlight to enter, “regulates” humidity, produces oxygen and absorbs CO2 and microparticles. Client: Triple Living, Designer: Stefano Boeri Architetti, Engineers: Swecio, Location: Antwerp, Belgium, Visualisation: Stefano Boeri Architetti

Nature as an integral part of our cities

Many studies have shown that there is a connection between a person’s proximity to nature and their mental health and well-being.

Not only do green areas positively impact on our mental health – they also encourage physical activity, social contact and create spaces for physical and mental restitution, all of which can help lower the chances of developing more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. These conditions represent large costs to society and threaten welfare due to the high cost of medical treatments. Designing more green areas thus brings a financial benefit.

KING BOUDUIN PARK, provides a large variety of species and diverse habitats with many options for natural play and encounters. Location: Jette, Brussels, Belgium, Client: BIM Brussels Institute for the Environment, Cooperation: BUUR – ARA, Project lead: BUUR, part of Sweco, Photographer: Stijn Bollaert

If you live closer than 50 metres to a green area, you will visit a green area between about 3–4 times a week, but if you live 1,000 metres from a green area you will only visit it approximately once a week. Studies also show that if you have a green area close to your home, you are more likely to visit other green areas.

Plant-based indoor living

Because we spend most of our time indoors, there are many benefits to having plants in an indoor environment. They increase the air quality, people’s concentration, overall well-being and job satisfaction. Furthermore, plants can reduce irritation and stress. Several experiments indicate that the presence of plants has a positive effect on concentration, productivity and creativity.

OLIVIA BUSINESS CENTRE, GDANSK, POLAND. Olivia Garden is a 8720 m³ green space in the middle of an office complex. Client: Olivia Business Centre, Designer: Konior & Partners Architects, BJK Architekci, Malinowski Design, WELL Health-Safety Rating, BREEAM certification: Sweco

A room with a view

It’s not just indoor plants that bring health benefits. The view, too, can play a vital role in daily well-being. All the above-mentioned benefits can also be gained from having a view of a pleasant green environment. When people in their offices or children in a school have a view of green spaces, they exhibit significantly better performance.

To plan for a healthy amount of urban greenery, the 3-30-300 rule was raised as a suggestion by Cecil Van Konijnendijk, professor in Urban Forestry at UBC:

Everybody should be able to see 3 trees from their home, live in a neighbourhood with at least 30% tree canopy (or vegetation) cover, and be no more than 300 metres from the nearest green space that allows for multiple recreational activities.

Green quality – not just quantity

When developing green spaces, it’s not enough to plant trees or other green structures and elements. The quality of the space is important, too, as well as how it’s perceived and experienced by the user. It’s important to use local, native species and consult with biologists to find the specific species with the best potential for the area.

VÆKST, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK, The new school is being developed with innovative learning spaces and growth gardens. Location: Copenhagen SV, Designer: TRUST, Team: TRUST partnership: Enemærke & Petersen, Sweco Architects, Nøhr & Sigsgaard, Norconsult, DOMINIA, Lytt Architecture, Kragh & Berglund, Client: Københavns Kommune, ByK Vizualisation: TRUST

The need for green areas during the global pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the significance of green urban spaces to human health. The pandemic has seen an increase in people’s use of green areas, such as local parks, public beaches, marinas and national parks.

These areas provide important health benefits that can mitigate some of the stress associated with the pandemic. They can also provide a feeling of social cohesion as people continue to practice social distancing.

Download full report for more on this area

The air we breathe

Although the air quality in Europe has been getting better in the past few decades, air pollution is still the major cause of premature death on the continent.

Air pollution is the single biggest environmental health risk in Europe.

Three basic strategies help to improve indoor air quality:

  • Source control
  • Improved ventilation
  • Air treatment

To fully understand these strategies, we must consider ‘low-pollution sites’, indoor sources of pollutants, smarter ventilation, air purification and humidity levels.

5 PANCRAS SQUARE, LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM. A interesting solution is a so-called displacement ventilation. Thanks to this method, the air is always fresh at the level of the occupant’s head. Such a system was implemented in the award-winning 5 Pancras Square building system. Client: Camden Borough, Designer: Bennetts Associates, Building Services, BREEAM, Certification: Sweco, Photographer: Hufton+Crow

Source control

Outdoor urban areas that use more pedestrian zones during specific times or on weekends can help to reduce noise and air pollution. Many European cities are transforming their streets into pedestrian-only zones and massively expanding cycle routes.

It’s not just the outdoor air that affects our health. The air inside buildings can be equally harmful. Pollutants from indoor sources are usually highly specific to the building and building processes, so careful consideration must be taken during the design phase as well as the operations and maintenance stages.

Improved ventilation

The issue we most commonly face in buildings is a high CO2 concentration caused by poor ventilation. Adequate ventilation is one of the key ways of reducing exposure to viruses indoors.

The primary source of CO2 in buildings is human respiration.

Regulations across Europe set advisory levels for the minimum required fresh air flow in buildings. These advisory levels are also incorporated in certification methods such as WELL, BREEAM, DGNB and LEED.

Air treatment

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the importance of a building’s air supply and purification systems. Various strategies are used to mitigate the risk of infection inside buildings. The easiest strategy is to supply as much fresh air as possible to dilute or flush out any pathogens in the indoor air. Modern air handling units avoid the recirculation of used air back into the building, so infection from incoming viruses from outside is highly unlikely.

THE WARSAW HUB, POLAND. The building utilises multiple technical solutions to provide clean and safe indoor air. This is particularly important in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. The first hotels in Europe to receive WELL Health-Safety Rating. Location: Warsaw, Poland, Client: Ghelamco, Designer: AMC-Andrzej M. Choldzynski, Massive Design, WELL Health-Safety Rating, BREEAM Certification: Sweco

In situations where outdoor air is polluted or indoor activity causes pollution, air quality should be monitored in real time and action taken to reduce pollutant levels.

Download the full report for the full chapter on this area.

Let there be natural light

Lighting, whether natural or artificial, plays a key role in overall human health and impacts us both mentally and physically. From an evolutionary perspective, we are biologically hardwired by the natural light cycle. As a result, our biological clock – our overall health – is compromised by artificial lighting that does not respect this complex combination of properties.

HEMPEL, LYNGBY, DENMARK. A roof window lets daylight into the atrium and illuminates the spiral staircase. Location: Kongens Lyngby, Denmark, Designer: Sweco Architects, Cooperation: Niras, Client: Hempel, Photo: Sweco Architects

Considering natural light in the interior design of homes, workplaces and health care facilities is crucial because of the advantages of natural light on human health.

Did you know? Research shows that exposure to sunlight can improve the quality of sleep – employees exposed to natural light sleep 46 minutes longer on average compared to their colleagues working under artificial lighting only.

HEDLUNDA PRESCHOOL, UMEÅ. The most northern location globally for an internationally certified passive house building (PHI) –extremely efficient building in a very demanding climate. Location: Umeå, Sweden, Client: Municipality of Umeå, Cooperation: Sweco Architects AB Jonas Kjellander, Thomas Greindl, Jens Hoff, Designer: Sweco Architects, Jonas Kjellander, Thomas Greindl, Jens Hoff.

The report details ways we can allow for more natural light and encourage a more harmonious light balance.

From urban noise to city sound

Sounds in the city are the result of human activity and are a part of urban culture – telling us that the city is alive and vibrant. But city sounds can turn into harmful noise and be perceived by residents as unnecessary and disturbing.

In Europe noise pollution is the second biggest environmental health risk.

113 million people suffer from harmful noise pollution levels, leading to 48,000 new heart disease cases and 12,000 premature deaths. Despite this, no substantial progress has been made in the last ten years, and noise levels are expected to increase.

BLOOMBERG LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM, The green ‘living wall’ brings the outside in and adds life to the pantry. Client: Bloomberg, Designer: Foster + Partners, Building Services, BREEAM certification: Sweco, Photographer: James Newton

Approximately 82 million citizens living in European urban areas are exposed to road traffic noise levels above Lden 55 dB, which is the threshold level for road traffic noise according to European Environment Agency (EEA) guidelines.

Traffic reduction alone is not sufficient to ensure compliance with prevailing noise guidelines and directives. Using noise screens along roads and noise insulation in future homes can lower noise levels. Planning and protecting green areas and providing urban calm spaces helps reduce the harmful effects of noise.

Also, good acoustic conditions a key enabler of high performance in concentration-intensive work, both at home and in offices and schools, as well as for students’ learning ability. This applies both to insulation from outside noise through the use of soundproof windows and to achieving a pleasant indoor acoustic climate that has a sufficiently low reverberation time (the time a sound persists after it is produced), which enables people to stay in a room longer without feeling tired.

KINDERGARDEN RYMARKSVEJ COPENHAGEN, DENMARK, Acoustic panels and ceiling are elements that help reduce the indoor noise and create a comfortable indoor acoustic environment. Location: Copenhagen, Denmark, Designer: Sweco Architects, Cooperation: Ason | Niras | Active City Transformation (ACT) | Thing & Brandt, Landskab, Client: Københavns Kommune, ByK, Photographer: Hampus Berndtson

High noise levels set requirements for indoor acoustic regulations, including a focus on sound-absorbing ceilings.

For full details on outdoor noise reduction, indoors noise reduction and the pandemic effect, see the full report.

Promoting movement

Over the past 30 years, the prevalence of physical leisure activity has increased, while occupational physical activity has declined. However, more than one-third of adults are insufficiently active. This physical inactivity causes around 10% of a total of roughly 23.1 million deaths and 8.3 million disability-adjusted life years lost each year in the European region.

Covid-19 has made this issue even more critical. According to research, a significant decline in physical activity and an increase in time spent in sedentary activities was observed during the Covid-19 outbreak, especially among young people.

Furthermore, urban planners and designers should take into account European cities’ different transportation modes to promote more physically active behaviours. For instance, in 25 European cities, especially in Southern Europe, walking accounts for more than 40% of the total modal split.

Active architecture

Since we spend roughly 90% percent of our time indoors, the way we design our buildings is critical to promoting healthy movement. Buildings that include spaces for play or sport, or that are well connected to outdoor spaces, are also more likely to promote healthy living.

THE LINDBJERG SCHOOL, DENMARK, is a place where play, learning and movement are in focus. Award: The school building of the year in DK 2020. Location: Herning, Denmark, Designer: Sweco Architects, Cooperation: KPC, Client: Herning Kommune Denmark, Photo: Sweco Architects

For details on how we can design better journey’s, truly consider the city as a playground and why we must design more active architecture, visit the full report.

Conclusions and recommendations

A city and its buildings can truly be energising and indeed positive in stimulating health. We need not simply accept poor air quality, noise, and an uncomfortable and polluted environment indoors or outdoors.

Below are 3 key findings from this report for designing buildings and cities to promote healthier urban living.

1. Mind the link between indoor and outdoor environments

As outdoor and indoor environments are closely connected, urban planners need to think holistically about the built environment. In most cases, the need for a highly sophisticated and expensive air treatment system only exists because of the polluted outdoor air.

Before starting to design artificial lighting systems, make the best use of natural light. Natural light is free and human bodies like it – smart façade design and architectural solutions can provide natural light in the indoor environment.

2. Greenery as thoughtful design

Our future cities should be built using more green areas per inhabitant and higher-quality green areas. Nature should be considered when designing urban areas, streets and buildings.

Nature not only benefits our mental and physical health but contributes to better air quality, lower noise pollution, more absorbed CO2 emissions and, if planned well with a variety of species, richer biodiversity.

3. Promote movement

Our future cities and buildings should inspire people to make the healthiest choices when they move around. To accomplish this, engineers and architects have got to focus on designing buildings, stairs, corridors, urban spaces and infrastructure in a much more inviting and innovative way.

For more details on conclusions and recommendations, download the full report.

Healthy buildings, cities and you – How to design future living environments

About the authors

Daniel Hojniak is a Senior Sustainability and Well-Being consultant. He is passionate about engineering solutions that make buildings better places to live and work. Daniel was involved in a wide range of international projects including high-end office, retail, residential and industrial developments. He is a WELL, LEED and BREEAM Accredited Professional as well as 2021 and 2019 IWBI Leadership award recipient.

Camilla Julie Hvid is a engineer and landscape architect working in Copenhagen in the climate adaptation department at Sweco Denmark. Her focus is sustainability and designing solutions that benefit both people and biodiversity. Camilla believes that interdisciplinarity and nature are the keys to
designing great sustainable solutions for our cities and buildings for a better and healthier future.

Expert Contributors

Bas Horsting, architect, urbanist, expert healthy living environments, Sweco NL

Cor Kleinveld, expert energy management, Sweco NL

Remco Kemperman, expert installations HVAC, Sweco NL

Sammy Rogmans, architect, manager sustainability, innovation in architecture, Sweco BE

Christian Forester, expert sustainable materials, Sweco NO

Morten Hell, Head of Department Acoustica & Lighting Design, Sweco DK

Pernille Vad Nørmark, Landscape Architect, Sweco DK

Isabelle Putseys, Urban design expert in health and climate in blue-green networks, Sweco BE

Special Thanks To

Deborah Lombardi, Postdoctoral Researcher in Environmental Psychology at University of Gothenburg

Jill Bederoff and Per Olof Lindsten, Journalists.

Alex Drysdale, Operations Director, Sweco UK

Geoffrey Palmer, Director Building Services and Energy at Sweco UK

Asma Sofla, researcher, trainee at Urban Insight.

Emma Sterner Oderstedt, Project Manager at Group Communication.