Design Valuing Human Capital

Because Green and healthy buildings can work and do good for people, profit and planet.

Design valuing human capital is taking centre stage in sustainable buildings as it has a strong value proposition that goes far beyond corporate sustainability responsibility.

Staff are the most valuable resource in most organisations, typically accounting for 90 per cent of business operating costs. Evidence shows that sustainable buildings valuing innovations, health and well-being of occupants are associated with productivity boost and reduced absenteeism, which in turn impact the bottom line and competitiveness of a business.

In 2014, the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) published a report on ‘Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building’. The report set out initial research, evidence and case studies for sustainable design of workplaces.

The updated report ‘Building the Business Case: Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Green Offices’ in 2016 further demonstrated, by best practice examples, that offices having low concentrations of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants, coupled with high ventilation rates, double cognitive scores for workers.

Generous access to daylight and self-controlled electrical lighting for workers near windows contribute to better sleep. A wide variety of plant species inside and outside improves employees’ processing time by 7 to 12 per cent. There is an increasing body of evidence that shows that Green and healthy buildings can work and do good for people, profit and planet. 

Sustainable building design can make a positive impact on culture and values, leadership development, physical and mental health, as well as well-being of occupants.

The smart, Green and healthy building model (on the next page) is conceived by addressing five different user-centric aspects of human capital—contentment, happiness, inspiration, productivity and sustainable neighbourhoods (CHIPS).

Designing for contentment aims to create a mental or physiological state of satisfaction for one’s body and mind, while designing for happiness refers to fostering a state of well-being with positive or pleasant emotions. Designing for inspiration is to provide a conducive environment for users to inspire others and be inspired themselves, and designing for productivity aims for a healthy and active living environment. Lastly, designing for sustainable neighbourhoods is to proactively connect with the wider community at large to meet the local environmental, social and economic priorities.

Suffice to say, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in creating smart, Green and healthy buildings. Emerging perspectives and innovative ideas that are being explored by our practice are shared here not as all-embracing solutions, but as an initiative for further refinement and collaboration with users and Green building industry partners. The afore-mentioned CHIPS model will be used as a framework.

Designing for Contentment
To create a mental or physiological state of satisfaction for one’s body and mind, the functional and physiological needs of a space should meet the dynamic demands of users over time. A space should not only be fit for purpose, restricted to a definitive functional requirement, but should also be adaptable for other possible uses.

In the Construction Industry Council Zero Carbon Building, the challenge was to design a showcase for 21st-century working and living patterns. Dynamic spatial planning, supported by wireless connectivity, was adopted to create a variety of office landscapes, enabling users to mingle and work anywhere in the premises.

Similar spatial planning concepts are being explored in some of our other projects where adaptable shared spaces cater for dynamic functional needs through smart scheduling. This is only possible when the adaptability goes beyond spatial to structural, building services and furnishing systems in an integrated and smart manner to cater for changing work modes, occupancy patterns and various environmental conditions.

Designing for Happiness
Liveable, equitable and delightful places are the keys to foster a state of well-being with positive or pleasant perceptions. Tempering the microclimate of an urban living space should be explored at the site planning stage to optimise the outdoor environmental qualities.

We conducted a research for the Buildings Department on building design that support sustainable urban living spaces in Hong Kong. The study concluded that building permeability, green coverage and building setbacks from narrow streets are three effective strategies.
The resulting sustainable building design guidelines for urban living spaces have been practised in our projects. In the Siu Sai Wan Complex, for example, its vertical street is a core design feature integrating these strategies. Apart from being a popular space where people can gather and mingle, this vertical street has been carefully positioned and designed at the conceptual design stage so that the existing school behind the complex could still enjoy a good breeze. This serves as a vivid translation of social equity, where human capital is addressed and enhanced not only for a few at the expense of the others but for all involved.

Designing for Inspiration
The aim is to create spaces that can activate and foster interaction and collaboration. Integrated design for mixed uses, visibility, transparency and connectivity is vital. Mixed uses put people of diverse and complementary purposes together as potential stimuli to one another. Visibility gives users proper hierarchies and appropriate presence of different elements. Transparency dissolves the boundaries and activates interfaces between various key user groups. Connectivity links people and fosters interactions.

The winning West Kowloon Cultural District Concept Plan, in collaboration with Foster and Partners, demonstrates how we conceived an inspiring district for the people. Another example is the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong’s (THEi) new campus at Chai Wan, where dialogues between the school and the community and different departments were fostered in the vertical campus planning. Planned deficiencies could be beneficial to create a certain degree of interdependency among users to activate exchange and spontaneous encounters.

Designing for Productivity
Biophilia is the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. Biophilic spaces are known to have positive effects on the cognitive and processing capacities of occupants. These biophilic connections could be visual, physical, smells and/or sounds. Biophilic experiences, such as green links integrated with pedestrian-oriented accessibility and inclusive design, have been repeatedly explored in our projects. Water features in communal spaces help create a sense of place through seeing, hearing or touching. Biomorphic forms and nature-like materials are also effective to enhance the human connections with nature in urban settings. Nature is a very effective element to liven up a space, especially when it is within reach of the occupants.

Designing for Sustainable Neighbourhoods
Local environmental, social and economic priorities should be addressed by proactive design that engages the wider community. Such neighbourhood integration should be founded on holistic analysis of the environmental, social and economic opportunities and constraints.

The transformation of the China Resource Building serves as a testimony of urban regeneration, in which the environmental, social and economic priorities have been well addressed. The environmental qualities of the pedestrian zone have been improved with increased building permeability, from 7 to 33 per cent, and added greenery coverage. New aluminium cladding and window units are designed to integrate with the existing building façades. Existing buildings and their tenants have been retained, making a sound business case for the renovation.

Coordinated disciplinary design process is often practised under the architect as the design lead, supported by other professional disciplines of relevant specialties. Such coordinated disciplinary mode is efficient to address design objectives and issues with primary foci.

However, as the complexity of projects grow and performance targets increase, transdisciplinary design processes that involve integrated cross-disciplinary input would effectively address objectives and issues with multiple foci. These include microclimate-responsive and passive design, passive and active design integration, adaptable space and building system integration, biophilic design, design for smart building, smart facility management and smart occupant engagement, among others.

Committed sustainability policies valuing human capital are prerequisites before any effective design strategies are conceived. Sustainability policies endorsed by top management of client bodies should give clear directives regarding corporate sustainability responsibilities, value propositions and brand building, on which the design shall be founded.

Performance dashboards with effective graphical user interfaces are increasingly adopted in smart, Green and healthy building designs to display actual data in real-time, as well as being used as a platform to promote positive user perceptions, encourage constructive competition among Improved pedestrian facilities at the Pak Tsz Lane Park users and reward positive behaviours. These enabling provisions integrated with sensing technologies, smart analytics and building management systems allow the buildings to learn from and better respond to their users.

Perception of users on the indoor environmental qualities from a qualitative perspective is a prime factor to determine their satisfaction levels. Users should be surveyed on a regular basis throughout the design process and the operation stage on different aspects, including overall rating, layout, noise, indoor air quality, amenities and location, daylighting and lighting and thermal comfort.

The CHIPS model discussed here is not intended as a design doctrine, but is merely an initial framework to empower and engage key partners in the user-centric design process. The design of smart, Green and healthy buildings valuing human capital should be driven by effective processes, founded on committed sustainability policies, provide enabling user interfaces to share actual performance data, and be prudently reviewed from user perception perspectives.

M. K. Leung is the laureate of the inaugural Singapore Institute of Architects – Uniseal G-Architect Award 2014 and is the Director of Sustainable Design at Ronald Lu & Partners (RLP). He graduated from the University of Hong Kong before receiving a Master of Philosophy from the University of Cambridge.

Overseeing sustainable design across RLP’s numerous projects, Leung has more than 25 years of professional experience in integrating the principles of sustainable design in master planning, new construction and urban regeneration, as well as in sustainable design research projects. He is also actively involved in government committees, academic and related professional bodies, and is a sought-after sustainable design conference speaker.

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