Florence Nightingale advised hospitals to throw open their windows to make for a healthier environment.
It was good advice in the early struggle for better buildings but today the demands are even more challenging: buildings mustn't waste energy, suffocate their inhabitants nor dull them into a state of laziness.
It is a tall order but experts say big strides are being made, especially with the rise of global standards and initiatives that are leading to sweeping changes in buildings from New York to Beijing.
"In recent years, terms such as productivity and employee wellbeing have become more and more prominent during the briefing stage of a project," said Steve Henigan, regional leader, consulting, at HOK, a global architecture and engineering firm.
"And hence we are starting to see more buildings which are centered on how people use them."
People spend more than 90% of their time inside the artificial environments of buildings and they are starting to expect a lot more from their employers. A big office with the managers hogging all their corner offices is considered more than a little gauche today.
"The rapid introduction of mobile technology and the always switched on mentality which many of us now live by, means that those employees are making more demands of their employer…" said HOK's Henigan, who is based in London.
"Individuals expect their employers to have environmental and social policies with similar values to their own views and as the war for talent continues there is a significant competition to be recognized as an 'Employer of Choice.'"
Mahesh Ramanujam, chief operating officer of the US Green Building Council, the Washington, DC-based organization that promotes the LEED green building standard, maintains it's not actually "rocket science" to make better buildings. It just takes some hard work.
"There is no deep mystery about how to create healthier spaces," he told a recent green building conference in Beijing. "But it does require diligence and attention to detail: the key components of healthy space have everything to do with creating space not for itself, but for people."
The World Green Business Council has just announced a global project to "define the health and productivity benefits of green office buildings."
The organization says that studies show that improved ventilation will boost productivity of workers by 11% while better lighting will spark a whopping 23% jump in efficiencies.
The business council said it wants the study, by Green Building Councils globally and other groups, to give the employers the tools to capitalize on those enviable productivity gains.
"While there is a growing body of research that firmly supports the connections between sustainable buildings and improved health, productivity and learning outcomes of those who occupy them, this evidence is yet to inform investment decisions in the same way as traditional financial metrics," said Jane Henley, chief executive of the council.
Angela Loder, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver and a researcher in health, buildings and urban nature, believes research "has the potential to dramatically improve" buildings for people.
She said that today there are three major branches of research in the field of healthy buildings:
• Materials and ventilation: It is known that hazardous substances lead to a rise in asthma cases. But bad materials are also bad for everyone because it impairs "the ability to make complicated decisions, to focus, and to problem solve."
• Daylighting: Adding natural light into a building was once considered a "soft" benefit for employees but it is now seen to dramatically improve the wellbeing of a building's inhabitants. In schools, more robust natural light has shown to improve test scores and reduce absenteeism.
• Access to nature: Just gazing upon the great outdoors can also boost the morale of the troops. "Recent trends in green building and landscape architecture are incorporating nature into buildings, seen in green roofs, green walls, and prioritizing views of nature," she said. "For example, in my own research I found that viewing a green roof from the workplace led to 50% better concentration and feelings of calm wellbeing, better problem-solving, and a sense of hope."
Crucial to all the planning, the experts seem to agree, is that employees need to be at the center of the design of their workplace – right down to taste testing the tea and coffee offerings.
A company that ignores the needs of the workers, Loder says, could end up with a beautiful building but a miserable environment to work in.