MALVERN, PA—Building products company Saint-Gobain has found, in a groundbreaking study with the University of Oregon, that the selection of building materials, systems, and environmental factors have a significant effect on building occupant comfort.
The study, conducted over 36 months since the firm relocated from its former Valley Forge location to its current headquarters in Malvern, PA, used the headquarters as a “living laboratory” to evaluate employee productivity, satisfaction and well-being.
Watch a video news report about the Saint-Gobain office comfort study in the player below.
Among the key study findings, Saint-Gobain reported that 40% of employees reported feeling more productive, 53% said their perception of their health and well-being improved; complaints about “Sick Building Syndrome” symptoms, such as dry eyes, difficulty, concentrating and back pain, decreased by 28.6%; and a 140% increase in productivity was recorded in the company’s call center.
“What we found is that when you improve the comfort and well-being of the people in a building by designing a more dynamic building, they start to behave differently,” says Carmen Ferrigno, vice president of communications with Saint-Gobain. “We’ve watched them for the last 2-1/2 years and seen how they’ve evolved from where they used to work—a place that was built in the 1970s—to this new, dynamic building, where we’re managing the acoustics, the thermal comfort, the air quality, the exposure to daylight. We’re seeing people form teams faster, we’re seeing them solve problems better, and we’re seeing them really enjoy the experience of coming to work in a way that they probably haven’t before in their careers.”
Saint-Gobain learned lessons about organizing the headquarters even as people were moving into the facility, which had previously been used by an insurance company.
“The features would be built or based around the ideas of having proper sound, air quality, light quality, and then human comfort, the things that affect your comfort as you occupy a space,” says Lucas Hamilton, manager of building science applications for CertainTeed, the Saint-Gobain division that fitted out the building’s environmental features. “In the end, all these wind up influencing your behavior, your productivity, your happiness, your outlook, and these, of course are the focus of the corporation.”
“We realized that people form groups faster, so we opened up more meeting rooms,” says Ferrigno. “We learned that some of the casual areas that we had originally thought people would use, they weren’t using. We learned that the cafeteria was really, really important. People wanted to come together in bigger groups more often. And then, we started to realize that outside people wanted to be here, too. So, we weren’t prepared for having 17-18,000 people come to visit us in a given year. That threw us. You have to make many additional accommodations for that.”
As previously reported by State Broadcast News, when Saint-Gobain acquired the site, at 20 Moores Road, it had to completely redesign the building, whose exterior had been severely damaged by the use of CorTen structural steel intended to form a patina of rust that ended up scoring the windows and making the building unpleasant to occupy.
It’s critical for companies to discuss the layout of new office space with employees, says Ferrigno.
“Start with how you want people to feel,” he says. “Think about how you want them to work together and move. And then look for the best technologies to address the issues that are going to happen when the people move in. It may look great, and that’s wonderful but it’s got to perform well too.”
For Ferrigno, the acoustics of an office property is probably the most important—and least considered—element of the design.
“There are beautiful spaces. They just look wonderful and on paper, they look great. In modeling, they look great,” he says. “But when you bring people in, people tend to behave differently. Focus on how to model the acoustics when 20 people, 60 people, 120 people get into a space.”
Daylight also plays a critical role, he says.
“The biggest impact we’ve had for people, on a day to day basis, is that they can see the outside,” he says. “And when they see the outside, their circadian rhythms stay intact, and they feel like they have more energy. They feel more connected to their environment.”
To facilitate flexible, collaborative work, the company also had to augment its original wireless Internet connectivity to eliminate dead spots and enable people to move around the building while remaining connected to necessary files and applications, Ferrigno says.