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Productivity and Satisfaction of Building Occupants

Buildings enable their occupants to work, play, meet, shop, sleep, eat, socialize, educate, learn and a host of other activities. One performance criteria of a building should be how well it succeeds in enabling its occupants. This involves the comfort of the occupants, both physically and psychologically. The physical part is straightforward, involving thermal comfort, appropriate lighting and air distribution, workspace layouts and the technology systems to to make the occupants' tasks easier. These technology systems might include systems for digital signage, Wi-Fi, in-building cell phone coverage, asset location systems, audio video systems, and so forth. The physiological effect may relate to the building's image, appearance, and aesthetics.

Another measure of building performance is the productivity of building occupants. The largest effect on productivity over the last several decades has been the penetration of IT technology and the Internet which reduces the time to access information, perform tasks and communicate. The workspace itself also plays a very important role. In a workplace survey conducted by a major architectural company, they found that effective workplace design directly correlated to improved business performance. The architect created a Workplace Performance Index that accounted for the criticality of the work mode, the time spent on the work and the effectiveness of the space for the particular work mode (work modes are activities such as collaboration, focus and concentration, learning and socializing). This study accounted for the physical attributes of the space: layout, lighting, air, storage, furniture and access/privacy. What they found was that top-performing companies had workplaces with higher performance indices. They also found employees in workplaces with higher performance indices had greater job satisfaction, organizational commitment and were more engaged with their employer, all very positive for the businesses and organizations. The metrics and methodology of evaluating the satisfaction and productivity of building occupants have been developed and at the core it is a survey of people that use the building. The feedback from those people, whether they are office workers, shoppers or teachers is valuable input to enhance building operations or improve the design of the next building.

Lighting in workplaces can affect our disposition, satisfaction and wellbeing and is important to occupants comfort and productivity. Natural light is the best light for work but many commercial offices don't have enough daylight. Lighting systems are used to complement or supplement daylighting. The quality and quantity of such artificial lighting is key to comfort and productivity. Occupants also want control of the lighting in their workspace or desk, enough lighting to carry out their tasks, and the light to provide a pleasing ambience.

Many times new commercial buildings install generic lighting in tenant space prior to knowing who the tenant may be and the eventual tenant is left with general lighting rather than lighting specific to their needs. Issues such as lighting control, quality of the light, lighting too high or lighting at the wrong locations occur. Also, over time building space may change or be renovated and it's at that point that lighting needs to be reconsidered.

In the past, offices in a commercial office building had four walls and a door. Over time many offices became desks in open plan spaces with the system furniture, where desks and cubicles were interlocked. The intent was primarily to facilitate employee interaction and collaboration. In some cases the objective was to reduce the space needed as well as cost. Many current office environments may have a few private offices and use flexible assignment of desks or offices via hoteling or hot-desking. Large open plan spaces can create acoustic issues; loss of privacy , and high noise levels, all of which cause distractions and decreased productivity. Studies show office workers biggest complaint is privacy, specifically overheard conversations.

To address acoustic issues in office spaces owners or tenants have implemented several initiatives. One strategy is simply to separate incompatible office uses. That is, rooms meant for interaction, collaboration and a level of privacy, such as conference rooms, huddle rooms, focus rooms, etc. would be located separate from open office space. The same would be true of support rooms, such as coffee bars or copier rooms.

If partitions are used in open office spaces, they should have a low noise reduction coefficient so the partition does not reflect speech when an occupant is seated at their desk. Another option is the use of sound absorbing ceilings and walls. Sound rated walls should be used for training rooms, conference rooms, and executive offices.

Another option to address acoustic issues in office space is the use of sound masking systems. These systems matured in the 1970s with the use of pick noise which could match the frequencies of human speech and improved audibility. A sound masking system uses a series of loudspeakers installed in a predetermined grid pattern in the ceiling. There are methods to control and configure grid zones and output to optimize different spaces. The system basically distributes an engineered background sound throughout a work space. Independent studies have indicated that sound masking systems improve worker productivity, reduce stress, and increase job satisfaction

One of the most important factors affecting occupancy satisfaction is thermal comfort. If you were to ask a facility engineer what the most common service call is from a building occupant he would tell you it's "hot and cold calls”. These calls are driven not only by the air temperature but also air velocity, relative humidity, and the temperature of the occupant's immediate surroundings. There are a number of other factors that can affect an occupant's thermal comfort: their clothing, physical activity level, overall wellbeing, and food and drink.

While we focus on thermal comfort and health, thermal aspects of the building must also prevent mold and mildew as well as damage to the building's materials. Thermal comfort in a commercial building must adhere to ASHRAE Standard 55 Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy. This essentially defines thermal comfort in commercial buildings. This standard provides methods to determine thermal environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, air speed, radiant effects) for buildings in which a significant proportion of the occupants (80%) will find acceptable comfort at a certain metabolic rate and clothing level.

Short of a quantitative whole building performance methodology, building owners will need to use comparable data, interviews, observations, surveys, tests, and demographic and financial data to evaluate other building performance factors. Note that there may be other measures to consider in a given building's performance than the ones covered here and other methodologies to develop those performance metrics. One option of measuring performance is the use of Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE). These evaluations are primarily geared towards the occupants, but also include building staff, visitors, and others regarding how the building meets user's needs and suggestions for improving building performance. A POE usually involves both quantitative and qualitative aspects. The evaluation can be done as a focus group, via an interview or a questionnaire. Other information, such as energy consumption or lighting levels, air quality, or the number and responses to work orders can be taken into account. While POE obviously involves post occupancy, it can be used prior to the project to identify project success or set a baseline.

It is difficult, if not next to impossible, to quantify all the different aspects of a building environment on occupant productivity and satisfaction. However, a number of studies on a conducive building environment indicate modest, measurable improvements in productivity which certainly result in significant financial gains.

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