The Role Of Wood In Healthy Buildings

Health and wellbeing is an umbrella term that refers to the – at times – indistinct categories of physical, mental and social health.  Timber can potentially improve all three, TRADA's Rupert Scott explains more…

The impact our buildings have on how we work, heal, learn and rest is highly significant, whether it is productivity in offices, patient recovery, student performance, or our own comfort at home. We are all influenced by the indoor environment and the design, products and systems used to create and furnish our buildings.

In 1995, Hal Levin defined a healthy building as: 'one that adversely affects neither the health of its occupants nor the larger environment.' While there is still much to learn in the field of healthy building science, it is commonly understood that buildings should go beyond eliminating negative impacts on our health. We should recognise the influence of buildings on our health and wellbeing by their design, build and operation. Among other aspects, this requires consideration of air and water quality, acoustics and materials.

A cookie cutter approach to healthy buildings would be both inefficient and inadequate, but functional outcomes should be dictated by building typology. Empirical studies assert that both active and passive experiences of nature may be beneficial for human health and wellbeing – suggesting that the use of natural materials, such as wood, improves the occupant experience. 

Biophilic design, which refers to the inspiration and improvements that nature can provide for the spaces where we live and work, should therefore take centre stage in the movement for healthy buildings. For example, the Dyson Centre for Neonatal Care was one of the first modern timber buildings in the UK with exposed internal timber surfaces for clinical healthcare. Post occupancy evaluation showed that babies slept 20% longer, which is critical for a premature baby's survival. Mothers' anxiety scores dropped, visitors stayed longer and physical contact with the babies increased.

Of all materials, timber and timber products are best placed to maximise healthy building outcomes. It is a uniquely versatile material with many exclusive qualities and can feature in the main structural components of a building, the insulation, the linings, floor cassettes, floor finishes, furniture, cladding and fit-out. Wood is associated with warmth – it is a natural insulator, as well as having warm colour tones, while also possessing inherent acoustic and thermal qualities. Wood is both naturally hypoallergenic and sound-dampening and its odour is typically considered appealing. Buildings which use wood therefore have the potential to yield high levels of thermal comfort, mitigate sound and have improved air quality through humidity moderation.  

Most importantly, timber products can often be left exposed internally, maximising the biophilic impact of natural materials on occupant health and wellbeing. It has been reported that this exposure, in unison with other biophilic factors such as views of nature and indoor planting, supports faster recovery times in healthcare settings, reduced absenteeism in schools and offices, and better productivity. An Australian study found that employees take less leave and report higher levels of wellbeing, concentration and personal productivity, in buildings that have more visible wood in the working environment. Mitie's 'Living Lab' experiment in The Shard also found that employees exposed to timber finishes were significantly more relaxed, happier and more productive. Additional research suggests that the visual presence of wood indoors can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels, improve attention and focus, improve emotional wellbeing and level of self-expression, enhance creativity, improve recovery and reduce pain perception. 

At the same time, indoor air quality is a key area of concern as buildings are increasingly built to be airtight and energy efficient. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) refer to the 900–1000 human-made or naturally occurring chemicals which can evaporate and enter our air. Indoor air can contain 5–10 times, occasionally up to 100 times, the amount of VOCs as air outside, which has implications 

for respiratory health. A report from the World Green Building Council suggested that better indoor air quality (low concentrations of CO2 and pollutants, and high ventilation rates) can lead to productivity improvements of 8–11%.

VOCs naturally occur in wood and wood products, but many are in fact beneficial to health and wellbeing: the emission of terpenes from certain softwood species may confer health benefits, e.g. alphapinene, d-limonene and monoterpenes result in physiological relaxation and have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antipruritic, analgesic and stressreducing properties.

Many wood adhesives contain formaldehyde, which is naturally occurring but associated with health risks. These adhesives are regulated through European standards, which set out permitted limits for the release of formaldehyde from a product. Timber also has other natural advantages in the area of indoor air quality. As a material, it has good hygroscopic properties and its ability to absorb moisture from, or release it back into the air, gives it the unique ability to regulate relative humidity within a building and keep it within a comfortable range. In addition, it is also vapour-permeable, which helps to maintain the indoor air quality. 

In conclusion, these qualities combine to contribute to an improved sense of health and wellbeing, with the many physical, mental and social benefits yet these characteristics remain underutilised. What's more, these characteristics remain underutilised amid a wealth of research suggesting biophilic design could help ease the burden on the NHS and our education system. Can you envision a world where the buildings we live, work, rest and learn in have a positive impact on our health?

Timber Talks Conference – 06 Nov  - Building Centre London

Want to hear more about how to deliver an award winning structural timber project ? 

Then why not attend Timber Talks and hear from Structural Timber Award finalists including:

•         Keynote Address Julia Barfield - Founding Director, Marks Barfield Architects A Case Study on the 2020 Structural Timber Awards 'Winner of Winners' – Cambridge Mosque

•         Frank Werling - Head of Technical Engineering and Design, Metsa Wood A Case Study on Centre Parcs Elveden Forest

•         Gareth Mason - Sales Manager Western Europe – Building Solutions, Stora Enso The Future of Mass Timber Construction – award winning case studies

•         Toby Ronalds - Director, Eckersley O' Callaghan A Case Study on the Swimming Pool and Teaching Area at Freeman's School

•         Kelly Harrison - Associate, Heyne Tillett Steel & Tom Foster - Design Director, Studio RHE A Case Study on The Import Building

•         John Spittle - UK Representative, Wiehag A Case Study on The Macallan Distillery

•         Simon Horn - Technical Manager, England & Wales, Stewart Milne Timber Systems A Case Study on Barratt's St Wilfrids Walk Development

•         Patrick Usborne - Director, Perpendicular Architecture More than just timber; Health & Wellbeing

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