Wrightstyle Limited is one of the UK’s most innovative steel glazing specialists, uniquely supplying both the glass and glazing systems. Tim Kempster, the company’s commercial manager, looks at a CBI report published this week (13th May) that lifts the lid on sickness absence, and offers some transparent medicine.
This month (May) saw the publication of a CBI report that says UK workers take an average of 6.7 days off sick every year, costing the British economy a whopping £13.2 billion every year. Put into perspective, that would pay for an additional 60,000 nurses.
Most striking is the disparity between the public and private sectors, the former taking an average of nine days off sick, compared to 5.8 for those working in private companies. The report suggests that, if the public sector could match sickness levels elsewhere, that alone would save the British taxpayer £1.4 billion.
Although the report makes clear that sickness absence is falling, it represents a problem of culture endemic through the workplace – from employees having had a few too many the night before, and not fancying mixing a hangover with work, to employees who have become seriously de-motivated from poor management and low morale. The culture of the ‘sickie’ is alive and well.
There is, however, a growing body of evidence that suggests we cannot separate our working lives from the working environment. We respond instinctively to our surroundings at a human level and if those surroundings fail to meet our basic needs, we can be made sick by them. It even has a name: sick building syndrome.
We have, of course, all heard of it, although we tend to think about sick buildings only in terms of bricks and mortar, believing that sick building syndrome affects only the fabric of the structure. We tend not to think of their human inhabitants and how the design of a building can adversely impact on productivity and health.
Sick buildings make us sick – and it’s official. Indeed, The World Health Organisation officially recognised sick building syndrome (SBS) as a health issue over two decades ago. The trouble, of course, is that it’s impossible to define as it stems from so many causes and leads to a whole variety of conditions.
SBS is responsible for a whole variety of illnesses and conditions from respiratory infection to fatigue. It causes illness, absenteeism, staff turnover and low morale. It’s a hidden epidemic that passes largely unnoticed. Few of us make the connection between poor working environment and illness.
However, so significant is the problem that it’s estimated that some 30% of all offices, hotels, institutions and industrial premises suffer from it. Currently, of all those people in the UK who will be off sick from work today, some 25-30% of those absences will be building-related.
Although the issue of bad buildings causing illness has always been with us, the problems were compounded in the 1950s and 1960s when large-scale office development took place – fuelled by property developers seeking short-term profit, and therefore putting quality second. The exterior glass may have been there but, with poorly-designed internal spaces, the glass often didn’t let in a great deal of light to where it was needed.
This period of rapid commercial growth overlapped into the age of the computer and, with it, a hugely-underestimated and poorly-understood design challenge. Suddenly, we no longer went to an office to move paper from one horizontal in-tray to another horizontal out-tray. The desk-top computer, with its horizontal keyboard and vertical screen, saw to that. In seventies USA, the ratio of computers to corporate employees was roughly one to 30. It’s now about one to one, with the UK having caught up fast.
Building design has certainly evolved to take the computer into consideration with, for example, raised floors and large open-plan spaces. However, what is still not fully recognised is that the lighting requirements of the computer operator have also fundamentally changed. A computer terminal, apart from being vertical, is glossy and luminous.
A recent US study found that 47% of workers said that eyestrain was the most serious health hazard in the office. Simply, poor lighting coming mainly from overhead sources, are reflected off computer screens and into the operator’s eyes. At the very least, not good for productivity.
That crucial – and often overlooked - change from working with horizontal paper to vertical computer screen has been an important contributor to SBS. Although a building can become sick from a variety of nuisances - from bad ventilation, poor temperature and humidity control to inadequate cleaning – it is often made worse by poor lighting.
Sick buildings do make lots of people sick – QED. Although there are many and varied causes, and therefore remedial solutions, lighting is often the Cinderella issue causing or exacerbating the problem.
Nowadays, of course, designers better understand the importance of light and how structural glazing can form a bridge between a building’s interior and the space beyond. Ocean Terminal, Scotland’s third largest shopping centre that opened some four years ago, is a good example.
Designed for both visitors and those who work there, Ocean Terminal employs light as a building medium in its own right - with part of the complex’s frontage consisting of what is believed to be one of the UK’s largest free-span curtain walling systems.
The 440,000 square foot building on the seafront at Leith, Edinburgh’s port, is also host to the Royal Yacht Britannia and the famous ship’s visitor centre, making the £120 million building an international and iconic attraction, and the centrepiece of what is Europe’s largest waterfront regeneration project.
The overall glazed span at Ocean Terminal is over 16 metres in height, with the largest individual free span over ten metres with grid centres of four metres. Each piece of glass accommodated within the system weighs a massive 450 kg. In total, the Wrightstyle steel glazing system covers 1130 square metres of façade.
Ocean Terminal was designed around the needs of people, and specifically our instinctive need to live and work in places that have good natural light. At the very least, using natural light provides for aesthetically-pleasing interiors; at best, as at Ocean Terminal, they provide interior spaces that are a pleasure to be in.
Further south, we recently installed one of our advanced systems into a Grade II Listed building in Whitehall Place, London – a 1950s building which occupies the former site of Scotland Yard, the original headquarters of the Metropolitan Police.
The current building, which was built in pre-computer days, has been completely refurbished to provide 135,000 sq ft of government offices in an area adjacent to Westminster and several other government departments - utilising the latest in steel glazing technology to maximise natural daylight and meet modern security requirements.
Within the ten-storey building – only the façade has been retained - Wrightstyle provided 700 sq metres of our advanced T-Series curtain walling, to form a secure four-sided internal atrium and light-well – a focal architectural feature within the main entrance to the building.
Most importantly, the atrium allowed designers to combine ambient light with natural light, and so overcome the design limitations imposed by an older building style. Inside Whitehall Place, modern lighting systems project diffused light downwards while the central light-well allows ambient and natural daylight to circulate through the building.
As with Ocean Terminal and Whitehall Place, the design of offices and major retail sites has significantly changed over the years as modern building materials and methods have advanced. Until recently, however, and driven by understandable financial imperatives, the occupants of those buildings often took second place to the aesthetics of the building’s exterior.
Now, with the significance of natural and ambient light better understood and, in extreme cases, how a badly-lit building can make people ill, designers have rethought that interface between the outside and the inside and, while every new or refurbished building offers different challenges, modern steel glazing systems offer one solution.
Using the tensile strength of steel to deliver extremely large aesthetically stunning glass frontages, a steel system can provide the triple combination of size, aesthetics and fire or blast security – and can, of course, be coupled with solar control or thermally insulated glass for total flexibility and comfort, summer or winter.
Interestingly, the incidence of sickness at work is falling. It now stands at its lowest for fifteen years. That could be explained by a number of factors: better medical care and better housing being just two. At work, better and more professional management practices will also have helped coupled to a less laissez faire attitude to sickness.
On top of that, Health and Safety regulations now cover lighting, modern flat-screen computers have made a positive impact on glare, and our cityscapes have been transformed by the removal of the worst of the bad and ugly commercial developments. But many are still there, in a street near you, de-motivating and infuriating their inhabitants in equal measure.
Today, a lot of people will be off work in the UK because of sick building syndrome and one of the main culprits is poor internal design. By contrast, in well-designed buildings with modern glass and glazing systems, the workforce may still hate their boss, but at least they’ll be at work!