What is comfort?

In the world of green building and design, it’s more than an existential question. For years, architects, interior designers, builders, engineers and contractors have wrestled with the question, often relying on one-size-fits-all prescriptive measures to achieve occupant comfort and satisfaction.

Is this really the best way to deliver a great workspace? In a word, no.

Researchers from the University of Oregon’s High Performance Environments Lab (HiPE) working in partnership with building scientists from Saint-Gobain, one of the world’s largest building materials companies and manufacturer of innovative material solutions, now report that a systems-based design approach may be the best way to amplify occupant comfort, satisfaction, well-being and productivity.

This is the conclusion of Saint-Gobain’s longitudinal North American Headquarters Occupant Comfort Study. This first-of-its-kind study was put in motion when the company decided to relocate from its former Valley Forge, Pa., location to its current 277,000-square-foot Malvern, Pa., headquarters in October 2015. Eight hundred of its employees were involved in the move. The relocation presented Saint-Gobain with an opportunity to measure the responses of a single large group of people performing identical functions in two very different workspaces.

The new structure, certified LEED® Platinum for core and shell, incorporates more than 60 Saint-Gobain sustainable building materials to improve thermal, visual and acoustical comfort as well as indoor air quality.

So what effect has the new location had on staff at a personal and professional level? What secrets has this renovated “living laboratory” revealed?

1. The System Is the Solution. According to Ihab Elzeyadi, professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and the director of HiPE, this study truly demonstrates the positive ecosystem building materials can create when working together in a system. Among the findings:

  • Visual Comfort: 56.4 percent of employees reported overall improvement
  • Indoor Air Quality: 91.6 percent reported feeling healthier
  • Acoustical Comfort: 42.2 percent reported improvement
  • Thermal Comfort: 4.8 percent reported improvement

2. A Portfolio of Options Works Great. The Malvern headquarters is actually two 1970s-era buildings rehabbed and linked by a new 40,000-square-foot addition. Designers of the LEED® Platinum facility utilized more than 60 sustainable building materials from the Saint-Gobain family of brands, which are working together in a system to achieve optimal results.

3. Focus On Employee Well-Being. Tom Kinisky, president and CEO of Saint-Gobain Corporation, says it wasn’t enough to just build a highly sustainable building. “Sustainability and energy efficiency are important. However, we wanted to explore how a building could impact people’s lives and overall comfort. This building was renovated to the senses—see, hear, feel, smell and touch. It’s fascinating to learn the outcomes a comfortable environment delivers for our people, from an increase in productivity to noticeable health improvements.”

4. The 85-15 Rule. Think long-term when designing for occupant comfort, says Lucas Hamilton, Saint-Gobain building science applications manager. “Fifteen percent of a company’s cost is building overhead. Eighty-five percent are the soft costs, the employees. If you can lift personal performance even 5 percent through a Multi-Comfort approach, company productivity skyrockets,” Hamilton says.

5. Comfort Commands. Kinisky and his team see the power comfort commands in the more than 25,000 visitors who have made the AIA- and GBCI-accredited tour since its 2015 opening. “People are interested in comfort. What does it mean when 92 percent of your staff have access to outdoor views? When an asthma sufferer pockets their respirator? When a normal speaking voice works in a large meeting room? It means a lot,” Kinisky says.

Study findings present a vivid before-and-after portrait of a living laboratory in action. To review the findings and study methodology, please visit LivingLaboratory.com to download the executive summary or schedule an on-site tour.