In Part Two we’ll explore specific ways that smart buildings can improve work environments using the five key parameters identified by the NABERS Indoor Environment guide [i]:
“Searching for thermal pleasure may not make the priority list for employers or staff, but an optional thermal temperature in an office has transformative potential in terms of wellbeing and productivity.”
Professor Richard de Dear, Director of Sydney University’s Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Lab.
With Australia’s temperatures on the increase, regulating thermal comfort in the workplace to suit all occupants is presenting quite a challenge. To assist with design, the NABERS Indoor Environment (IE) tool sets out the different types of ventilation systems that can be used to regulate thermal comfort within office buildings: mechanical (e.g. air conditioning, fans), natural ventilation (e.g. open windows, vents/louvres) and mixed mode (a combination of mechanical and natural).
While natural ventilation generally has benefits over mechanical in terms of air quality and energy usage, it’s not as simple as opening the window. It requires skill to design ventilation that takes account of environmental noise, external pollution, extreme weather, existing structural limitations or site constraints.
Machine learning means products such as the Aurai platform can now monitor how occupants respond to environmental changes externally and internally and make changes to heating and cooling accordingly. Smart tech can also monitor ‘airtightness’ – the control of airflow within a building, retaining warm air and keeping cold air outside. It’s about knowing what the occupants want.
A US study from 2001[iii] estimated that we spend 90% of our lives inside buildings. Although the study is eighteen years’ old, given our current work practices the percentage is likely the same for the westernised world, if not worse. And while we’re spending all that time sitting indoors, the quality of air we breathe has a significant impact on our health.
The NABERS IE identifies the following four substances as chief air pollutants:
Particulates (e.g. dust, mould, smoke, pollen)
Formaldehyde (e.g. some wood products, concrete, plasters)
Carbon monoxide (incomplete combustion of fuels e.g. petrol, wood, coal, natural gas)
Unlike 2001, the tech market now offers a range of sophisticated sensors for indoor/outdoor air quality monitoring. arcHUBs, installed in Docklands by the City of Melbourne council, are an example of low-cost, self-powered sensors that capture data on air quality, as well as temperature, light levels, water levels, and movement.
Though useful, monitoring devices can only go so far. A digital platform that captures the data, then predicts trends or reacts to problems, has a far greater application within the workplace. An example is the DARWIN Home Wellness Intelligence platform by Delos that ‘uses advanced algorithms and machine learning methods to passively test air quality in real-time and automatically turns on the heating and cooling system’.
Our reactions to noise are always subjective, whether we’re a property owner, facility manager, tenant or wellness analyst. For example, Millennials and younger generations are often comfortable working with music thumping through their earbuds, while Generation X tends to prefer a music-free environment.
In general, there are three types of noise sources heard within buildings:
Airborne noise, such as voices, music and transport.
Contact-induced noise such as footsteps, keyboard tapping and banging doors.
Equipment noise such as from air conditioners, ringing phones and coffee machines.
In response, there are three methods of achieving effective acoustic comfort:
Most of the technology that addresses environmental noise comes in the form of acoustic monitoring and cannot react to absorb or block noise. Covering sound is a more viable option, especially in relation to sound masking. Companies such as soft DB have created sensor-fitted speakers that make real-time adjustments based on surrounding sound levels. The speakers emit a soft, inconspicuous background sound to cover the disturbance by creating a uniform sound level, calibrated to the specific conditions of the room.
Lighting has gone through a smart technology revolution over the last decade. Innovative, sensor-installed bulbs continue to grow in popularity, though the focus is on energy efficiency and cost saving rather than supporting a productive environment.
Appropriate lighting is vital in working environments for more than just seeing what’s in front of us. The right effect and ambience can increase productivity, lift moods and improve occupational safety.
A new area of smart lighting that isn’t so well known is the concept of circadian lighting. Our body’s internal clock, also known as our circadian rhythm, regulates how alert or sleepy we feel. In simple terms, our eyes react to light or dark by sending signals to the hypothalamus (an area deep within our brain). The hypothalamus responds by increasing or reducing the flow of melatonin, the sleep hormone. The more melatonin in our systems, the sleepier we feel.
In the same way science has proven too much exposure to types of blue light can inhibit melatonin production, circadian lighting uses light wavelengths to boost or regulate our natural circadian rhythms. Though circadian lighting is only just emerging, the most commonly used concept is intensity tuning. This cost-effective method fixes the colour temperature (CCT) but dims or brightens the intensity of the wavelengths depending on the time of day. High intensity is set for lunch time and low intensity for early morning/evening.
An additional two solutions exist: colour tuning and stimulus tuning. Colour tuning mimics day/night by varying the colour temperature (CCT), whilst stimulus tuning simulates daylight and can be used to regulate blue light wavelength exposure. Both stimulus and colour tuning can be combined with intensity tuning.
Smart office layout involves design that supports the four parameters discussed above. One of the main problems is that building requirements will always be subjectively assessed, usually by a consultant who isn’t an occupant. At least AI and machine learning apps and solutions can now be applied during the design phase and are particularly valuable if they incorporate data relating to thermal comfort, air quality, natural light options and external noise.
Though the science of using technology to improve office wellness has taken great leaps forward in recent years, the tech industry has a long way to go to create technology that serves the research findings. Similarly, the corporate world needs to step up in implementing the advice on offer.
In the meantime, it’s good to know that smart buildings can play a part in improving workplace health.