Architectural Theory, Building Design, Building Safety, Design Guide

Architecture and Productivity – Sick Building Syndrome

Have prolonged periods of staying inside a building made you feel uncomfortable or sick? Or have you noticed a major decrease in productivity? Well, then you might have had a case of Sick Building Syndrome.

What Exactly is Sick Building Syndrome(SBS)?

Sick Building Syndrome is a condition in which building occupants feel discomfort or health issues. Although no specific cause can be identified, these issues are known to be linked to the spatial organization, design, and time period spent within the space. 

Symptoms that can tell you have the Sick Building Syndrome:

Sick Building Syndrome can lead to minor health disturbances such as throat pain or fever or sometimes even major health complications such as miscarriages or cancer. 

Some of the commonly recurring symptoms due to the Sick Building Syndrome are:

  • Legionnaire’s Disease
  • Humidifier Fever
  • Mental or Physical Fatigue
  • Irritation in the eyes, nose, or throat

Key Factors that Hinder the Productivity of Users

  1. Inadequate Ventilation
  2. Contaminants
  3. Inappropriate Lighting
  4. Bad Acoustics
  5. Psychological Stress and Irritability

1. Inadequate Ventilation

If the fenestration isn’t designed to complement the prevailing wind direction and climate of the space, there will be a feeling of claustrophobia and suffocation.

Malfunctioning HVAC systems or increased building airtightness can be a cause of poor ventilation. 

Ways to Improve Building Ventilation:

  • Maintain a minimum outdoor airflow rate of 15 cfm/person and a minimum indoor airflow rate of 20-40 cfm/person as the standard ventilation need.
  • Simple and effective methods such as cross-ventilation and stack ventilation can help in reducing airtightness inside the building and facilitate air circulation. 
  • Assessing the psychrometric chart and understanding the comfort levels can help design for the ideal the HVAC needs for that site.

2. Contaminants

From sources both indoor and outdoor, if not cleaned can lead to illnesses.

Indoor contaminants are primarily due to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) inside the building due to the upholstery, carpets, adhesives, and so on. Outdoor contaminants are primarily due to vehicular exhaust, building exhausts, and so on. 

Ways to Reduce Contaminants inside the Building:

  • Effective building insulation from all the dust from the outdoor.
  • The conscious choice of low VOC and non-toxic materials for building indoors. 

3. Inappropriate Lighting and Lack of Natural Light

Poor lighting, especially in digital working environments automatically increases strain on the eyes. 

The lack of natural light inside the building may either create an extremely synthetic or overly lit environment or lack of lighting. Natural light is known to increase productivity and optimism and a lack of it can be problematic. And the positive effects of natural lighting cannot be replaced by artificial lighting. 

Ways to Improve Lighting:

  • Improve the placement of furniture inside the rooms to let in more natural light in the productive spaces.
  • Choose appropriate luminaires depending on their use in each space. 
  • Reduce direct glare on screens from windows as that would result in strain on the eyes.

4. Bad Acoustics 

Poor acoustics has the ability to trigger Sick Building Syndrome. If reverberation, sound quality, and loudness are not ideal, it can result in discomfort to the users. 

The furniture, wall, and ceiling finishes need to be given priority while considering the acoustics of a space. 

Ways to Better Building Acoustics:

  • Acoustic paneling and insulation reflect or absorb the sound based on the needs of the space.
  • Reduce noise from HVAC systems with the use of acoustic boards. 
  • Optimize noise control from one space to another or between the exterior and interior spaces. 
  • Reading the NRC, STC and IIC ratings of materials and fitting the right acoustic requirements of the space is a good method to improve building acoustics.

5. Psychological Stress and Irritability

All the little physical discomforts that aren’t apparent sometimes add up to result in Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI).

MPI is the occurrence of a set of physical illnesses in two or more people without any identifiable pathogen that links to the disease. This often results in stress, claustrophobia, anxiety, and other mental health issues. 

Ways to Reduce Stress

  • Creating open and socially interactive spaces helps reduce the stress that results from being indoors for prolonged periods of time.
  • Exposure to ample natural lighting and ventilation makes space less claustrophobic and more enjoyable. 
  • The addition of vegetation, both indoor and outdoor help create a peaceful and relaxing living environment. 

Although the symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome often coincide with other issues in our day-to-day lives, it creates the possibility of lack of productivity in the space. 

With simple design alternatives and careful spatial organization, we can create spaces that truly positively impact our lives.

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