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Dr Kelly Watson explains how a new method of measuring and quantifying a building’s effect on its occupants’ wellbeing will help to promote people-friendly design

In the commercial property sector, wellbeing is set to become increasingly important as organisations and end users alike demand people-friendly spaces that help them to feel good and operate at their best.

Until now one of the challenges has been to provide a business case for wellbeing, because its intangible nature means it is difficult to measure and quantify the presence of satisfaction, happiness and positive functioning.

At this year’s CIBSE Technical Symposium, I proposed an innovative approach to putting a value on wellbeing. The technique involves measuring and quantifying the wellbeing outcomes experienced by building users and using these measurements to produce transferable monetised evaluation metrics using social return on investment techniques. This is the first step in the development of a toolkit to make the financial case for people-centred design.

First, it’s important to define what is meant by wellbeing in the built environment. Typically, wellbeing is considered synonymous with mental health and, in some circumstances, physical health. It is also used in relation to the indoor environment, but here it tends to denote a lack of problems caused by indoor conditions rather than promoting an improved state of comfort.

Some studies have defined wellbeing as being a combination of health, comfort and happiness. The inclusion of happiness suggests that wellbeing refers to something broader than merely fulfilling a combination of health-related and pragmatic needs.

Much academic work in the social sciences seeks to define wellbeing from a broader perspective. Two key definitions can be identified: hedonic wellbeing and eudaimonic wellbeing. Hedonic wellbeing relates to happiness and perceived quality of life. Eudaimonic wellbeing relates to a fuller psychological concept of purpose and how far an individual has the capability to work towards this purpose.

Eudaimonic wellbeing is also known as self-determination, or flourishing, and can be defined as cognitive satisfaction (through goal accomplishment) and the presence of positive affect (and lack of negative feelings), combined with a sense of competence (personal ability), relatedness (social ties) and autonomy (personal control).

Health and comfort are excluded from this conceptualisation of wellbeing in the built environment as they are separate concepts.

In order to measure the definition of wellbeing outlined above, two existing academically developed and validated multi-item scales were combined: the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) and the Questionnaire for Eudaimonic Wellbeing (QEWB). These scales measure the wellbeing of groups of individuals but are not specifically related to the built environment. Both are made up of a series of items, or statements, inviting respondents to rate the extent to which they agree (known as a Likert scale).

The items of the WEMWBS and QEWB scales were analysed according to the five components of wellbeing: satisfaction, affect, competence, relatedness and autonomy. A new multi-item scale was produced using a combination of these items, with the wording modified to apply to the built environment and building users. The statements are scored on a five-point Likert scale: strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree.

The Building Wellbeing Scale is a simple and cost-effective method to quantify the wellbeing outcomes produced by a building for its users. It can be distributed as part of a post-occupancy survey, which could include questions to collect basic demographic information, like age, gender, the average time spent in the building, location in the building and so on.

The scale has been piloted in various building types including commercial offices, non-clinical healthcare centres and university buildings, and validated using well-established mathematical models (Rasch analysis). It produces a global level wellbeing score for each building, as well as more detailed data about each component of wellbeing.

The second aspect of the wellbeing validation approach is to assign monetary values to the scores produced by the Building Wellbeing Scale. To do this, social return on investment (SROI) techniques are used.

SROI is a methodology designed for the not-for-profit sector to measure and account for a wider concept of value (financial, social and environmental). It is based on traditional cost-benefit analysis and assigns a monetary value to social returns using financial proxies, which are compared against the level of investment to produce an SROI ratio of costs to social outcomes.

The use of monetary values makes it easier to compare benefits across different activities. The results are disseminated using return on investment language familiar to investors.

The SROI methodology is outlined in the SROI Network’s guide and has six stages: establishing scope and identifying stakeholders; mapping outcomes; evidencing outcomes and giving them a value; establishing impact; calculating the SROI; and reporting, using and embedding.

The third stage – evidencing outcomes and giving them a value – is applied to the data collected using the Building Wellbeing Scale in order to place a value on the quantitative wellbeing scores. A suitable financial proxy has been identified in the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (HACT) ‘Guide to using the wellbeing valuation approach’, which values wellbeing at £36,776 per individual per year. This figure is adjusted so that it relates to actual time spent in the building; for example, a daily or weekly value would be more appropriate to employees in an office, while an hourly value would be better suited to visitors to a healthcare centre.

The adjusted value is multiplied by the average time spent in the building per end user per year, and by the total number of end users, to produce the total value generated by the building in wellbeing outcomes over a one-year period. It’s important that the valuation process is fully transparent, a core principle of the SROI methodology.

The total value is then multiplied by the quantitative wellbeing score gathered during the survey, which is input as a percentage to remove deadweight from the total. It is also possible to consider the proportion of wellbeing that can be attributed to the building as opposed to other factors, such as organisational culture, or human factors. This information can be gathered during the wellbeing survey by asking building users how much of their wellbeing they think is due to the building design. An average is calculated and removed from the total, producing a final impact-adjusted valuation for wellbeing.

An SROI ratio can be calculated by dividing the wellbeing figure by the building costs, including professional fees, contract sum and furniture, fittings and equipment cost. The SROI ratio represents the return generated by the building for the building users in a year for every £1 spent.

Further ratios can be projected to help make maintenance and refit decisions. Discounting, while not allowed for in SROI methodology, is appropriate in the design and construction industry, and HM Treasury Green Book discounting rates can be applied to the valuations to convert costs to ‘present values’. The resulting ratios represent the return generated by the building for the building users over a specified period, per £1 spent.

This wellbeing valuation approach can be carried out by design professionals, developers, clients and occupying organisations alike because it does not require technical knowledge about building performance. The results will be useful to any interested party concerned about the impact of a building, or its different spaces, on end users’ wellbeing.

The method also has potential, as part of a wider evaluation programme, to help gain an understanding of which aspects of buildings are most influential when it comes to the wellbeing experienced by occupants, including physical design, environmental conditions, organisational culture, social norms and individual practices. It’s a promising first step towards building a new knowledge base about delivering and operating environments that put people first.

Dr Kelly Watson of the Manchester Urban Institute at the University of Manchester developed this method of measuring and quantifying wellbeing outcomes in collaboration with Arup. This article is a summary of the paper she presented at this year’s CIBSE ASHRAE Technical Symposium.

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