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Spaces that heal

Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Pics courtesy: Dextrus

Green, sustainable, well-designed workplaces are vital for employees' health, architects tell Ronita Torcato

“If more companies opted for sustainable materials in furniture, flooring and paints that are less-polluting, fewer employees would be absent, and take sick leave using company healthcare benefits.  A quick fix? The answer is breath-takingly simple: Plants.”

Ever heard of the sick building syndrome? It's a medical condition that affects office workers, who experience headaches and breathing problems, for no reason at all except that it seems to be connected to working in poorly lit, badly ventilated spaces.

"It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver." Thus spake Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of peace and honorary member of the nation's oldest mercantile association: the Indian Merchants Chamber. Wise is the employer and staffer who knows that good health is The Principal Capital Asset. Wiser still are employers who improve the workplace to make a significant impact on the health of their employees. For, buildings get sick just as people do, from air pollutants and the rumble of heavy duty construction works while over-crowded and noisy offices contribute to stress.

Plainly, eco-friendly workspaces reduce headaches, colds and flu, tiredness and concentration difficulty; boost productivity and happiness and ultimately contribute to sustainable development, the blueprint for the UN's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Good health is goal number 3. Clean energy is goal 7, decent work and economic growth is goal number 8, industry/ innovation/ infrastructure is goal 9, sustainable cities is goal 11, responsible production and consumption goal 12.  Workplace health risks are higher in the informal sector but if more companies opted for sustainable materials in furniture, flooring and paints that are less-polluting, fewer employees would be absent, and take sick leave using company healthcare benefits.  A quick fix? The answer is breathtakingly simple: Plants.

"I think that I shall never see a building lovely as a tree." It is entirely possible Godrej, that blue chip corporate veined with poets, educators, and ecologists, was inspired by Joyce Kilmer to name their new dream project The Trees. Hopefully, the new construction will be as splendid as Godrej One, their green, beautifully-designed headquarters at Vikhroli which combines gorgeous design aesthetics with sustainability. The full height atrium has a clear glazing wall, the first of its kind in India, allowing ample light to stream in. And everywhere on every floor, there are terrace gardens, bringing nature inside! Godrej One is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certified, globally recognised as the highest rating of sustainable design.

The Dodge Data and Analytics’ ‘World Green Building Trends report 2016  listed around 650 green building projects in India, placing it third in its global listing for the Top Ten Countries for LEED. The report said that stricter environmental regulations, client demand and enhanced public awareness were the main factors for growth in the construction of sustainable buildings. Other cities in India also figure in the list of leading green and sustainable buildings—Kolkata’s Infinity Benchmark, Gurugram’s ITC Green Center, Hyderabad’s Infosys and Godrej and Bangalore’s (CISCO and Cisco, and Noida’s Patni. One earnestly hopes they are as beautiful as Godrej One whose enlightened management has put into practice the knowledge that sustainable workplaces improve employee health and well-being.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) prime mover in the development of LEED, has noted a dramatic rise in the practice of sustainable development in India. A USGBC survey also found that 87 percent of Indian green building professionals anticipate the use of LEED in India increasing overall. But India is the seventh largest energy consumer in the world and USGBC has found that buildings alone consist of around 41% of the global energy use. Significantly, Germany’s port town of Hamburg restricts construction of buildings to four or five storeys and even boasts the world’s first algae-powered building. The algae controls the light and provides shade; it is also harvested and used as a renewable energy source for the building. Clearly, the Hamburg mantra is reduce, reuse, recycle. 

Architect Robin Chhabra, CEO and Founder of Dextrus, a premium co-working space at Bandra Kurla Complex Mumbai, observes that the green certifications that are given out are a step in the right direction but are used more by developers for marketing rather than by architects as a way to think about design. "More architects need to use landscape as a way to help them control water runoff, store water, clean it and help us reuse it. Thinking about the impact of a building on the city/town/ village from water run off to electricity to waste generation needs to somehow be brought in both through policy and education. "

The late architect Charles Correa was arguably the first to design a building (Kanchenjunga at Peddar Road) with external views and cross-ventilation in every room. Except perhaps for Godrej, very few builders followed his lead.  (His wonderful project to accommodate hawkers on pedestrian-friendly footpaths was also buried by the BMC but that’s another story.)

Chhabra notes that companies and their staff work in different ways and this is primarily decided by company cultures. “There are many companies that have gone for the open plan in their new offices and then realised that people are not getting work done because they did not think about creating enough spaces for privacy or that the current culture does not really work with the office space. There is research done to prove that the wrong kind of space can lead to psychological stress in employees which eventually can lead to higher attrition rates. Our first goal was to give a lot of natural sunlight and a connection to the outside wherever you are sitting in the space. Giving different areas that a client can use as they please helps give autonomy back to the employee and that sense of choice goes a long way and in fact makes them a more effective worker.”

When people visit or work in inspirational spaces, they are encouraged to stay on and work more efficiently. It could be a warm and friendly office reception filled with plants and paintings or a cosy café and /or  a grand piano in a hotel lobby (the Palladium in the erstwhile Mill heartland should place it in the centre of its lobby instead of the side.)  In downtown Mumbai on the third floor of an old British-era building, is a great looking co-working space called The Ministry of New.

Research indicates that offices with good quality indoor environments and workstations with natural light boost productivity significantly and workspaces like Ministry of New and Dextrus balance utility and style, offering acoustic excellence and tech infrastructure, packaged in a stylish architectural design. Dextrus has 24X7 private offices, open workstations, a library, phone booths, lounges, a cafeteria, an events space, meeting rooms and a brainstorming room. Chhabra has worked on projects as diverse as theatre set design and heritage hotels and says his aim is to delight from a visual standpoint. Flexibility is also key. “Different clients have different requirements and Dextrus is designed to adapt to their needs,” says Chhabra “Permutations and combinations can always be worked out.”

Elaborating on the importance of design in sustainable workplaces, Chhabra says, “Design has immense potential to not only make a change but also to inspire. We wanted to design a space that was flush with natural light, had pastel colours that could help cheer people up and also have lots of plants. Dextrus has plants everywhere as they also help with people's psychology. Bringing some of the outside in is important as it softens the hard edges of architecture and makes people feel at home.”

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