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Occupant Comfort and the Circular Economy

As Scotland is in lockdown and people are now adapting to home working, Clive Bowman, Project Manager – Circular Economy Construction at Zero Waste Scotland shares some thoughts on Occupant Comfort and the Circular Economy.

As I write this blog we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and I am working from home, as many other people are just now around the UK and the world. We are effectively trapped inside our houses and flats, restricted from venturing outside more than once a day. I am working in a room that has not been designed for office work, at a table that was designed for eating not laptop use, and with the distracting noises of family next door. A discussion on internal occupant comfort has never been more pertinent.

The Cambridge online dictionary defines comfort as ‘a pleasant feeling of being relaxed and free from pain’.  I think you would agree that there is much more to occupant comfort than this. It is a balance of many complex thoughts, feelings and senses. Each person will have their own perfect balance, and that balance will change to suit activities and moods. However, generally, we are all looking for a safe, dry, warm space that has clean air to breathe, a place for us to carry out our activities productively and ultimately a space that is visually inspiring and restful. These requirements can be summarised as providing us with all the ingredients for WELLBEING. Wellbeing is a ‘quantified state of wellness and happiness … that captures the needs of the physical body, the mind and the emotions of occupants in any given space’ (Grigoriou, 2019). Wellbeing is, therefore, a personal experience, but can it be supported through design?

Wellbeing:

If wellbeing is not experienced in our indoor workspaces, learning spaces, healing spaces then it can have significant effects on our performance. Ultimately it may affect activity outcomes, which can sometimes be life-changing e.g. academic qualifications, illness recovery, financial decisions, or relationship mediations. The design decisions made on a spatial scale, arrangement, choice of materials, textures and colours will all have a significant impact on wellbeing. It is clear then that the design of the interior spaces is very important.

Interior Spaces:

Most interior spaces are used by more than one person and in the case of commercial and public spaces by thousands of people throughout the year, so the challenge with these spaces is to deliver personal levels of wellbeing at scale, as a well as delivering function. First impressions provide us with visual clues allowing us to make instant decisions on whether we are going to experience comfort inside a building. Will it be crowded? Will I have personal space? Will I feel safe? The visual signals provided by the design of a building’s or a room’s entrance is important.

Comfort:

As well as visual clues we use touch, smell, hearing and taste to inform our comfort decision making. These non-visual attributes can affect our comfort rating as much, if not more than, the physical ones. Air quality, temperature and humidity are highly dependent on the physical design of a space, its heating system, the ventilation of the spaces and also the choice of materials. Increased levels of CO2 in a classroom has been linked to increased student absences. Overheating through excessive solar gain can lead to poor concentration and dehydration. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the air emitted from materials such as paints, vinyl floorings and furnishings can have an impact on health, concentration and wellbeing. Poor ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens can lead to mould growth which has been linked to breathing disorders.

Once a design has been implemented it is also important to know that occupant comfort has been achieved. It should be maintained throughout the day, throughout seasons and over prolonged use. It is not a one-off consideration. Rooms get redecorated on a regular basis, different materials will be used that affect comfort and air quality, cleaning products are used, technology and machines are added that can affect the noise, humidity or thermal levels. Post-Occupation Evaluation is essential to ensure that initially the design got it right, but we also need to recheck regularly as things change or as discomforts become apparent from long term use. We need to think with a whole life occupancy comfort mindset when designing and maintaining our buildings.

Whole Life Cycle:

The concept of thinking whole life is one of the key principles of a circular economy. As you would expect, a circular economy approach includes being resource-efficient, retaining the value of all the materials and products we build with and reducing the amount of waste we generate. But it is a much bigger concept than that. It is about recognising the whole life value of all the resources and assets (in the widest sense) available in society. As well as physical materials, these resources are our people, our skills, our productivity and our health. We need to think outside our silos and understand the long term implications of the current short term (linear) decisions we make that impact negatively on people, as well as the environment and our economy. Considering whole life occupant comfort and wellbeing through design is an excellent way to think more holistically and thus more circular.

Of course, it is not just whole life value principles that link wellbeing with the circular economy. The use of natural materials, from a local renewable source, that contain no toxins, make them easier to reuse or recycle as well as providing better air quality. A timber structure such as Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) not only provides carbon sequestration but also a visually and thermally comfortable space. A well-designed space which has good thermal insulation, controlled ventilation and correct solar gain is not only using less energy to heat but is consistently thermally more comfortable. A building that has been designed to be adaptable and flexible can meet future needs, whether that may be a growing family needing space solutions, an office whose staff now work at home, or in response to climate changes. Digital technologies can help us get better occupant comfort right first time, thus reducing waste. Digital twins can measure thermal comfort or air quality. Smart sensors can measure post-occupancy performance such as CO2 or humidity levels.

Principles:

Zero Waste Scotland believe that circular economy principles can be applied to all aspects of building design and placemaking activities to deliver a wide range of benefits. We strongly recommend that the following 10 circular economy principles are embedded into all building design decision making:

  1. A collaborative approach
  2. A Whole life cost/value approach
  3. Design for health and wellbeing
  4. Design for deconstructability for 100% material recoverability
  5. Design for Long Life / Loose Fit (quality and adaptability)
  6. Design out waste – Lean/resource efficiency
  7. Design for both low embodied carbon and energy efficiency, using natural, healthy materials that sequestration Carbon
  8. Utilisation of assets, use of renewable, recycled, pre-used or surplus built assets, products or materials
  9. Apply SMART construction – using digital technology, BIM, modularisation and modern methods of construction
  10. Best practice construction site material management and planning

Zero Waste Scotland offers advice and support to all businesses operating in the construction sector to help embed these circular economy principles into projects. Please get in touch to find out more.

So as I sit at the table in my house, warmed by the afternoon sun coming through my window, in a room decorated to my tastes, surrounded by personal objects, a ready supply of tea and biscuits and wearing ‘casual’ clothing –  because I can –  there’s a lot to be said for achieving occupant comfort when working from home.

Clive Bowman, Circular Economy Construction Project Manager, Zero Waste Scotland

clive.bowman@zerowastescotland.org.uk

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