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September 2018
Design Considerations for a Healthy Workplace, PUBLISHED Article by Partner, Brian Mann

Check out a copy of the article by partner Brian Mann, partner of the OMNIA Group Architects, published in Health Communication, Strategies and Skills for a New Era, by Claudia F. Parvanta and Sara Bauerle Bass

Brian E. Mann, Founding Partner, The OMNIA Group, Inc., Architects, wrote this for a “fitness in the workplace” colleague.  He was contacted by the publisher to include the article in their newly issued undergraduate text book.

Design Considerations for a Healthy Workplace, By Brian E. Mann, partner, The OMNIA Group, Inc. Architects

It might seem fundamental to think that a healthy, comfortable worker would be a productive worker and it follows that health and comfort would be dependent on the design of the workplace. Despite this logic, the healthy workplace is a complex concept that is difficult to quantify and involves seemingly conflicting ideals – the profit motive of management versus the cost of providing worker comforts. Nonetheless, owners and managers at many levels in businesses small to large are increasingly aware of the benefits to the bottom line that accrue from thoughtfully designed workplaces that are sensitive to workers’ physical and emotional wellbeing.

A network of disciplines and professionals is growing around the healthy workplace movement including executives, management, shareholders, human resources professionals, healthcare providers, regulators (both in government and in the quasi-governmental code agencies), lawyers (of course), interior designers and architects. These stakeholders have varied interests, constituencies and perspectives and as noted above, sometimes conflicting ideals. As we are focused here on the design of workplaces, we will focus on the role of the Architect who is chiefly responsible for the look and feel of spaces, albeit in collaboration with and subject to the needs and wants of the other stakeholders; primarily the owner/client and regulators.

It is helpful to have an understanding of the set of tools architects use in their work as they pertain to places where people work. This partial list (in no particular order) captures some of the basic building blocks of the physical environment which have real influence on the health and well being of workers:

  • Size of space from small to large
  • Scale of space as it relates to the average human form
  • Proportion of space narrow to wide, tall or squat
  • Light – natural and artificial
  • Ventilation – natural and artificial
  • Temperature – warm or cold
  • Color
  • Texture
  • Noise
  • Ergonomics

Architects mix these blocks into lobbies and offices and hallways and cafeterias; factory floors and loading docks and warehouses; waiting rooms and exam rooms and surgical suites; classrooms and auditoriums and teachers’ lounges; and much more – the combinations and cross-disciplinary permutations are seemingly endless. But these physical elements have, we now know, vast psychological manifestations both on their own and in combination with one another and finally relative to the unique and changing psychological perspective of each individual worker. Architects work to a set of parameters called the program which collectively establishes the needs of the client, the physical attributes of the land or building space, the regulatory limitations of the particular project and more. The architectural process is then a sort of puzzle solving effort organizing the building blocks in the service of the program to yield a good solution amongst the limitless number of possibilities. The process involves prioritizing and weighing the many factors into formulations that might value workers’ health anywhere along a spectrum from “don’t care” to “absolutely critical.”

In America’s early 20th century Progressive Era, worker safety and to a smaller extent health became important components of reform. As the economy transformed from agricultural to industrial, factory floors and offices emerged as the primary locus of production where, in general, workers were valued no more than raw material. Cultural and economic factors devalued individuals such that the notion that worker health and well being were not at odds with productivity seemed antithetical to capitalist dogma. Nineteenth and early 20th century workplaces were brutal places and often deadly. Galvanized by the horrific tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, reformers began a long march towards improving conditions in workers’ built environments. These improvements to life safety, working conditions and to a smaller extent worker wellbeing formed the basis for the modern building codes. These sets of guidelines regulate everything from building size and combustibility to egress patterns to number of plumbing fixtures to the amount of natural light and fresh air to handicapped accessibility and much more and they form a framework for Architects insuring, at a minimum, a level of safety and accommodation for building occupants including both workers and the public at large. These codes regulate across every conceivable use from industrial to office to medical to retail to places of assembly like theaters and malls and also to residential uses including homes, apartment buildings and hotels. These guidelines are revisited on an ongoing basis as the nature of work and workers have changed. Architects have often been at the forefront of these changes. In his revolutionary 1904 Larkin Company office building in Buffalo,New York (demolished in 1950), Frank Lloyd Wright made worker comfort a priority. His design emphasized natural light, employed air conditioning and featured worker amenities like a communal cafeteria; elements that are at the core of workplace design today.

The challenge for today’s Architects, working in an increasingly complex world that is both more enlightened and more sensitive, is to find “one size fits most solutions” by identifying and managing risks in the interest of protecting and promoting worker health and well being. But this has to happen with the understanding that the benefits accrue both to the worker and the business. Establishing a correlation between worker health and productivity is today relatively simple. However, determining how improvements in workplace design will foster improvements in worker health is more complex. What are the fundamental components of worker health in the work setting and how do these change as the settings change? While managing physical risks is relatively straightforward (keeps hands away from blades), it is more difficult yet no less important to manage emotional risks. The management of emotional well-being remains the place where more tension arises between management and workers. For the Architect, designing for physical well being reflects modern medical opinion and now includes in addition to minimizing risks for bodily harm, managing stress and promoting physical fitness.

Health in the workplace can be divided into two main spheres, the physical and the emotional. Within these spheres are Work Spectrums along which different attributes of the work environment and work activities vary. Analyzing the project program within this framework gives a picture of the specific environment and the behaviors within it. Among the Work Spectrums are:

Work Type:     Industrial, Medical, Office, etc.

Atmosphere:    Frenzied to Calm; Quiet to Loud

Culture:           Casual to Formal

Energy:           Dynamic to Sedentary

Demographic:  Young to Old

Bodily Risk:     Dangerous to Safe

Targeting some ideal standard within the Work Spectrums allows the Architect to both design basically healthy spaces and provide compensations for deviations. For example, while a noisy factory floor is unavoidably stressful, locating the employee lounge far from noise can ameliorate the stress. Returning to the building blocks, here are some of the ideals that contribute to healthy workspaces:

Room to Work -Size, Scale and Proportion

Allocate sufficient space per employee to safely and comfortably perform their work. In many settings this is a minimum of 15 square feet per person. Psychologists know that congested spaces trigger a stress response. Compressed spaces, either narrow or low can also have negative effects while higher ceilings tend to receive stress. There are architectural theories which posit ideal proportions of space as a function of the human body (see LeCorbusier’s Module) or some naturally occurring mathematical arrangement (see the Golden Ratio or Fibonacci.)

Room size is interdependent with light, color ventilation and noise as each of these variables can be positively or negatively amplified in small spaces.

Businesses must of course trade off space per employee with cost per unit of space (rent, maintenance and conditioning) so a blanche must be struck. Good, efficient space planning can provide for adequate employee space while tightening in other low impact areas. New work/life balance spaces are adding common amenity spaces, promoting exercise at work and arranging flexible work areas which may provide smaller individual units of workspace but compensate with areas of relief.


Different tasks demand different amounts of light and there is a wide variation of personal comfort with respect to amount and quality of light at work. Nevertheless, light matters a lot and there is now a great deal of evidence that poor quality light is a primary cause of stress and illness in the workplace. Studies show that the fluorescent lighting which prevailed in workplaces for decades operated at a frequency low enough to be perceived audibly as a buzz and visually as an on/off strobe effect. This caused countless headaches and lead to fatigue and stress. Newer generation high frequency fluorescent and now LED based light generation have largely solved this problem. However, issues of light color (and resulting contrast), brightness and glare continue to effect the workplace. Well designed lighting is flexible and should include individually controlled task lighting as well as intelligent control that adjusts for changes in natural lighting in the space. The light should be naturally warm and minimize shadows and glare particularly on computer monitors.

Light is a dominant factor in workspaces and influences all the other major categories of design.

Owners are often unaware of the importance of good lighting and there is a small premium to pay for the design of and the number and type of fixtures necessary to produce it. Nowhere in the design process is the argument for initial investment with long term payoff more critical.


Fresh air, either natural or introduced into the mechanical system is critical to minimizing illness. Code mandates the introduction of fresh air into the make up of the air distributed into a building. Opening windows is no longer an alternative in many places either because there aren’t windows or because opening them short circuits the heating/cooling system. Mechanically provided ventilation can be noisy, poorly balanced or drafty. In larger or older buildings, the mechanical system is a complex system of airflow that must be well designed and should include levels of localized control. Designers are now returning to an old technology, ceiling fans, to provide a softer, more natural airflow in spaces.

Heating and cooling are primary cost contributors and thus are primary business considerations. But owners need to think beyond efficiency to the effect of good air on employee well being and productivity.


Few conditions are more personal than temperature and providing for individual temperature comfort is one of the most challenging areas of design. Solutions range from managing sunlight to desk fans and while there are ideal ranges of temperature in a space providing individualized temperature control within those ranges is difficult.

Management is often primarily concerned with cost and it is easy to dismiss the concerns of the employee who is too hot or too cold but few factors affect performance more than this simple comfort.


Few factors are more psychologically complex than color but ever since color theorists began their study and painters began their active color experimenting in the 19th century, there has been at least a tacit understanding that color can evoke emotions and that there is a correlation between color and mood. This is not purely objective science, bears an individualized component and is broadly sensitive to many of the other core design factors. This is further complicated by the importance of color in branding and messaging as well as cultural implications. There is a strong argument for the use of muted earth tones suggesting nature. Further, good design deploys color to identify and differentiate spaces which also reduces monotony in the work environment. Workers frequently adorn their spaces with both personal items and artwork and these mechanisms are broadly calming and actively color based.

Color is light and thus artificial lighting is inextricably connected to workspace color selection. So too, color and texture are related.

Given its complexity, no factor is more routinely dismissed than color and all too often workspaces are monochromatic and neutral from walls to floor to furniture with a basic palette deployed through an entire space. It is important to think more critically about color and its effect on employees.


Like color, texture is a complex and interdependent feature of the visual and tactile environment. Materials like carpet and tile have broad ranges of textural feel the impact of which ranges from informing the feel of the space to the feel of the material on the chair. As with color, there are few objective standards to guide use of texture. Rather well designed workspaces weave a coherent picture from creative use of light, color and texture. The result of this coherence is a feeling of calm and cool which non-verbally speaks to the people in the space.


The impact of noise on well being cannot be overstated. Beyond the obvious discomforts of loud machinery, two noise issues have large negative effects on wellbeing. The subtle buzzing, beeping, whirring and clicking from the many machines that adorn the workspace from cellphone to copier aggregate to overwhelm the brain’s noise filtering mechanisms and can cause heightened sensitivity, distraction and stress. And in many modern workplaces, open communal work areas inevitably feature a cacophony of voices which also overwhelm and distract. These problems can be amplified by hard surfaces which reflect and propagate sound. Good design recognizes this potential and manages it by isolating the little noises and controlling the big ones through sound absorption, sound masking and by proving areas of quiet retreat.

Management was quick to adopt the concentrated open office model as a nod to efficiency and modernity without recognizing the direct impact of noise on the workers within. Designers too are often seduced by hard materials, open well lit spaces and are handcuffed by low ceilings such that they contribute to a problem not easily fixed after the fact. Noise but be considered at every level of design.


The body is a mechanical machine with levers and joints and lots of supporting cables. Given the amount of time spent at work, it is surprising how little thought has gone into idealizing the operation of this machine. Chronic ailments from back and wrist pain, eye strain and headaches plague workers, radically reduce productivity and burden the healthcare system. It is astonishing how many bad chairs there are – and it is incumbent on designers and management to select comfortable, adjustable chairs for their employees. New trends towards standing desks and treadmill desks are beginning to address the need for a new paradigm in workspace design. Macro factors like providing and incentivizing exercise ranging from active breaks to walkable areas to full on fitness are not yet sufficiently integrated into workspace culture. But too, each individual’s working space can be tailored to their needs without adding much if anything to cost. A template to analyze everything from neck angle to foot placement can be easily created and systematically deployed.

The nature of work and workplace will always be changing and designers must continue to analyze and adapt to maximize the balance between workers’ wellbeing and economic systems. While technology increases the pace of change, so too our understanding of the fundamentals of good design increases and we possess more and better tools to address and improve workplace wellbeing. Increased interdisciplinary cooperation among the many stakeholders from healthcare professionals to furniture designers is yielding a vast understanding of what is best for workers in general and therefore for the performance of their respective businesses. And business owners and managers have come a long way in 150 years and now recognize the value of their employees and the benefits that accrue to their business from keeping the employees as healthy as possible.

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