The Importance of Air & Light in the Workplace

The 7th floor at Geekdom, Downtown San Antonio

I discovered something during the last year. Human beings need plenty of fresh, clean, & comfortable air and lots of sunlight to thrive. Turns out, we’re not that different from the plants scattered around my office that reach and yearn for the light filtering through the windows.

When a co-worker whose office was right next to mine for the last 18 months left my company a few months ago, I mourned the loss of my friend and colleague for a brief moment… then I carried my laptop into her old office and laid claim to that space as my new territory. I had to swap her desk chair with mine, of course. My chair had well-worn butt grooves that molded perfectly to me… I also had to bring my mouse pad. A mouse pad seems like something a little too personal to share, kinda like underwear. Just not something you do. I cleaned everything and packed up my entire office, moving everything, including my elaborate three-monitor mount, into the new office. It was a couple hours worth of work. Why would I do that much work to move just one office over? After all, I hate moving. Two reasons: air and light.

The dimensions of her office were exactly the same as mine, and an exact mirror of my setup. But she had two things I did not:

  1. Her air vent was tied into a different thermostat zone.
  2. A 60X36 north facing window.

FIRST LET’S TALK ABOUT THE HVAC

I live and work in San Antonio, Texas. This means that during the summer it can get dangerously, oppressively hot. Sitting in my old office, I quickly learned the perils of combining hot exterior temperatures with a closed, non-circulating environment.

It took more than a year to discover that part of the reason for the poor ventilation was that the thermostat controlling my office’s HVAC was on the other side of the building, far away, down a narrow winding hallway. I have no idea why my office’s vent got tied into that zone, but it did, and I had no power to correct it.

The second thing affecting the poor ventilation was the distance from the actual cooling unit combined with a ridiculously small hose-duct. It was over 150 feet. I can only assume that the 4" hose was an effort to increase the air velocity over the long distance… but it just served to choke the flow off completely.

This all combined for the overall effect of working in a claustrophobic, overheating, stale, pit. If you’ve ever pulled the blanket over your head and tried to breathe for anything more than 5 minutes, you’ve got a good idea what it felt like in my old office.

The new office was only about 15 feet from its roof top unit and received more than its fair share of its output. Making things more exciting: the thermostat for the new office’s zone was directly below both a return vent, AND a bank of halogen spotlights. This made for a delightfully chilly situation where the AC kicked on every ten minutes or so because the halogens are heating the space near the thermostat 10–20 degrees warmer than the rest of the office.

Note: I did not design the environmentals for this office, and I am not a mechanical engineer or HVAC guy.

Sitting in the new office, there was so much velocity of fresh air and so much coolness, that it felt like walking into a refrigerator. I always seem to be running a little hot, so this was perfect for me.


THE WINDOW — A SOURCE OF LIFE

A north facing window can be one of a building’s greatest resources! It provides bright indirect daylight all hours of the day without the threat of glare or overheating that you get from windows that face south, east or west. The window in my new office was wide, bright and faced directly north.

(Not my office) This amount of window is admittedly distracting, but just LOOK at it!

The difference this window made in lighting was significant. On sunny days I wouldn’t even need to turn on the lights in the room if I didn’t want to. The daylight provided by my window was enough to light the entire space and was more than sufficient to read and work by.

Just outside my new window grew what we in Texas call a ‘heritage oak’, a live oak that was tall, and old and beautiful. It attracted squirrels and birds and could be a source of endless beauty.

In contrast, my old office was an interior space. It had a window… into the hallway. It was a dark box or shadows. I can hardly describe the difference I felt even just a few minutes after sitting down in my new office. It’s hard to describe the benefit of natural sunlight. But it is distinct.


WORKPLACE DESIGN FOR WELL-BEING & PROFITABILITY

The comfort and well-being of people in the workplace has become a priority in the last decade. Designers, building programmers and furniture companies have turned their focus to creating bright, open and productive spaces. From open-office layouts, to natural lighting and green-walls, the entire industry is making strides to ensure that people are healthy and happy in the places they work.

Long gone are the sprawling dark and utilitarian cubical farms of the 80’s & 90’s. Just looking at this picture sucks the life out of me. Can you fathom spending 2,080 hours a year holed up in this place?! The classic movie Office Space was a brilliant lampooning of this environment.

The movement for human health and well-being has gained so much traction that organizations like the US Green Building Council and International WELL Building Institute have created programs enforcing this culture like its WELL Building Standard®. The WELL Building Standard® is an evidence-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the performance of building features that impact health and well-being.

A green wall at the Google headquarters

The business basis for wellness-based work place design and planning should be obvious. Healthy employees come to work. Sick employees literally cost their companies money. Equally as important, happy employees are productive employees. A little sunlight, beauty and comfort go a real long way toward making employees happy and keeping them healthy.

If you need a little example of the difference good planning and design can make, you need look no further than the classic office-place battle over heating/AC. Think back to a time you and a co-worker disagreed about the thermostat setting. I can tell you about hours lost to admins in the bull-pen setting up space heaters, pulling on sweaters, and wrapping blankets around their legs, not to mention the bickering about turning up the heat, or turning down the cold… all this while I was trapped in my airless, windowless hot-box honestly sweltering. I did feel a little bit bad though. Have you ever seen an admin try to type with cold-numbed fingers?!

If you can remove the element of disparity in environmental comfort from the workplace, then employees can apply all the time and energy expended fighting about and working to alleviate their discomfort on actual work.

A workplace trends report from Sodexo in 2014 said we spend 54% of our waking hours at work. If we’re spending the majority of our lives in these places, shouldn’t we make our comfort and well-being a priority?


WHAT’S IN IT FOR THE EMPLOYER?

The benefits of making our workplaces human-centric go directly to the bottom line of the employer. Wellness based design helps organizations:

  • Attract and retain talent
  • Lower stress
  • Reduce sick-leave
  • Lower health costs
  • Improve creativity
  • Activate employee engagement
  • Expand morale

MAKING THE BEST OF WHAT YOU’VE GOT

Despite its best efforts, the USGBC cannot just magically transform every workplace into a naturally lit, green-walled, open-plan nirvana. These kinds of changes in design culture take time to trickle down to the majority of workplaces. For now, the best practices of wellness based design seem to be reserved for class-A office fit-outs and well-funded start-ups. But that doesn’t mean you have to live without the benefits of thinking wellness in your own workplace.

Not my Program Director, but the Hawaiian shirt and cigar are spot-on

My old Program Director, a favorite mentor of mine would, every day, rain or shine, come back from lunch and take his laptop to the patio out behind the office to a small folding table and cheap folding chair. There he’d light up a cigar and spend his afternoons reviewing reports and constructing elaborate spreadsheets.

It was work… but then again, it wasn’t. Out there, he often seemed so relaxed, he might as well have been sitting pool-side. Again, we’re in south Texas in San Antonio, so we have the benefit of an extremely agreeable climate to being outdoors. In the midst of his daily grind, he had found a way to capture his sanity. He thrived in the fresh-air (cigar not withstanding) and sunlight.

The point is, we can do a lot to improve our wellness in the workplace without spending millions on a complete remodel. Get up, go for a walk. Take your work outside. Lose the cubicles, go open-plan. Buy a plant and put it on your desk. Even the smallest changes in our environment can make big changes in our wellness.

But if you do have millions for a complete redo of you office space, think about employee well-being first and please, please make sure they all at least get air and light!

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