Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Are the buildings you live and work in making you feel stressed?

Researchers point the way to buildings that aim to improve human well-being.

Americans spend 87% of their time inside. | Stocksy/Kkgas

Americans spend 87% of their time inside. | Stocksy/Kkgas

The way offices are built really matters.

Design impacts individuals, organizations and even society as a whole. So Sarah Billington, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, and James Landay, a professor of computer science at Stanford, together with their colleagues are designing a series of studies to measure the effect of various building features on the well-being of their occupants. Billington spoke about the research at Stanford’s recent Reunion Homecoming Weekend festivities.

According to Billington, there are many ways the digital and physical features of buildings could be designed to enhance well-being by reducing stress and increasing sense of belonging, physical activity and creativity. To better understand what’s possible, their team has embarked on a multi-stage project to gather data on building design and well-being. Preliminary online studies with roughly 300 participants indicated one’s sense of belonging and environmental efficacy would increase when working in an office space with natural materials, natural light and representations of diversity in the workplace.

Currently larger, controlled lab studies are underway and field studies are being designed in which the researchers systematically vary building features such as views of nature, airflow and type of lighting. Data is then gathered via a variety of sensors and features in smart buildings. For example, stress can be measured by speech patterns on mobile phones and by how laptop trackpads and mice are used. Building occupancy sensors can measure how many people are interacting socially, and together with self-reporting, the sensed data can be used to identify which features cause which well-being outcomes, says Billington.

Billington’s team includes participants from all seven of Stanford’s schools. “We all share a very strong passion for creating a building environment that not only protects the natural environment but helps humans to flourish.”

The research project is funded by the Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions, an initiative launched in 2016 to inspire campus-wide collaborations to tackle some of the world’s most urgent challenges.


Mark Horowitz: The first talk will be by Sarah Billington. And she is leading a program that’s looking at the spaces that we occupy a large portion of our lives, which are the buildings in which we work, and how we might be able to think about those buildings differently and be able to change them to improve not only the environmental sustainability, but our own well-being. And without further ado, let me introduce Sarah.

Sarah Billington: I am presenting on behalf of, or in place also of my co-PI James Landay from computer science, who was not able to be here today. The motivation for our project is that many Americans are: overstressed, overweight, wasteful, unhappy, and feeling isolated, either at work or at school. And as Americans we spend much of our time with these inflictions inside our built environment. 87% of our time actually, according to the EPA, is spent in homes and offices.

Imagine the worst room you’ve ever spent time in. How did it make you feel?

So, you’re imagining the worst room you’ve ever been in, how it made you feel. Okay, so for me, it was a couple of years ago and I spent time in the faculty club here on campus. It’s since been renovated. It was miserable, it was cinder block walls, no windows, sort of a lot of gray and beige, very dingy. It was really oppressive. And in fact, it inspired me to change research directions. It was that bad.

But maybe you haven’t had that experience, so let’s imagine Kate in her office here. It’s noisy, there’s a lot of artificial light, artificial materials, not a lot of access to nature. It’s hard to get work done here and feel good. And what Kate is feeling, what these building features are causing, is it causes her to feel some stress, anxiety, and distraction. And this impacts her performance, and also her ability to collaborate with others. In turn, this is gonna affect the organization, in terms of its finances, how people are wasting resources, and also it can affect the cultural norms of that organization. And then it doesn’t stop there. It can go on, when organizations are affected this way, it really affects our society, our economy, our environment, and our health and well-being. And it may be hard to imagine that just building features can have this big of an effect, so let me just give you one concrete example.

Take absenteeism, it’s a big problem in the US. It costs US companies about $226 billion a year. Most of this is, granted, likely due to low pay, lousy boss, long hours, those kinds of things, but one study showed that a lack of nature, like in Kate’s office, actually contributed to about 10% of the absenteeism in that company. So if this were true in general, that would be $26 billion, or $23 billion, in the US economy. And even if it were a couple percent, it would still be several billion dollars.

The motivation for our project has been, and the framework for our project has been, that these building features matter, and they impact not only individuals, but organizations and society as a whole.

So what can we do? Well, we really like this quote from Winston Churchill. And in particular, the emphasis that buildings shape us. And so our idea is, what if we could make our buildings shape us in a positive way and keep improving over time? So, as you know, we have awesome undergraduates here at Stanford, and graduate students, but we had some undergrads a couple years ago working with us and they helped create this brief video, sort of imagining the future of buildings, and I want to show that right now.

Video text introduction: Our minds and bodies are constantly changing. But our buildings are relatively static.

We spend 87% of our time in buildings. But they barely adapt to our changing needs.

We imagine a world where they do.

2030: Workplace.

So, imagine a workplace in the future where they can have large, ambient displays that inspire workers to get more exercise, for example, by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and thereby saving some on building energy.

Or imagine personalized temperature control, where some people don’t have to always feel too cold and others, not too hot.

Or where we could actively cancel noise, so that we could work in open office floor plans that wouldn’t be so distracting.

Or where the building might be able to infer the stress of a worker and adapt. For example, changing to allow for more natural scenery, perhaps lowering the lights, playing some nicer music in a non-creepy way ... And thereby helping reduce stress.

Or imagine we could build digital art into the windows to help people meet others in the company they haven’t met before.

Or even to guide them outside to take a break.

Video text: We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. Winston Churchill.

So, how would we get to this future? How would we have building that are like this?

Well, there are some studies and we do know some things. For example, that greenery, like living walls, can improve mood, lower blood pressure, and increase mental engagement. We also know that daylighting, or natural lighting, leads to better concentration and increased productivity. And there is also indication that social engagement can reduce stress, but there’s very little information on how a building might impact something like belonging or social engagement.

In fact, there’s very little information behind the sort of “well building” movement in general. Most of the studies are short-term, they’re small-scale, on limited populations, and they pretty heavily rely on surveys, like self report. And so, we really need to fill in the missing pieces of this puzzle and take a much more scientific approach, an integrated approach, to figuring out what building features are impacting our well-being. And that’s where our project is focused.

We’re taking these three keys steps to try to design buildings, or create buildings, that can support well-being. The first is establishing the science. We started with a very small online study where we had about 300 participants, half men and half women, and we asked them to imagine that they were working in a new environment and having a new job. And across the board, so in eight out of the nine things that we were looking at, there were statistically significant increases in their sense of belonging, their self-efficacy, and their environmental efficacy when they had believed they were going to be working in an environment that had natural materials, they saw these pictures, natural light, or diverse representations.

We’re taking these findings now, and what’s going on right now is, we’re figuring out how to do this in naturalistic settings over the longer term, because that’s what’s missing in the science now. And so, we’re doing lab studies, controlled lab studies right now, and designing our field studies where we’re systematically varying things like views to nature, diverse symbols, airflow and thermal variability, nature inside, access to nature and water features. And as we’re systematically varying those features, we are monitoring what we are referring to as well-being.

These are the well-being outcomes that we’re interested in, and they are stress, belonging, creativity, physical activity, and environmental behavior. And the way we’re doing this is a big research question.

First, we are moving beyond simple surveys and using self-report using a method called the Experience Sampling Method. And then we’re leveraging the building data that we get from all of the building sensors that are in all of our smart buildings, so that would be things like occupancy sensors, or energy data, energy use, or recycling. And then, much of our data is being leveraged from the personal devices that we all carry with us everywhere, so our watches, our laptops, and our phones. And together, with these three pieces of data, we can triangulate in on what, and make stronger conclusions about, which building features we’re varying are affecting which outcomes.

Let me give you just one quick example. This is Kate, she’s got a new office now. And we’re looking at her stress, if we’re interested in her stress, we could use the occupancy sensor to detect if there are other people nearby, how much interaction she’s having. We can detect from the mobile phone the affect of her speech, this would be non-conversation based, so privacy conserving.

Then, we’ve been doing studies with the laptop track pad and a mouse, so we can figure out people’s stress based on how they use those two things.

Finally, the third piece would be that Experience Sample Method, asking periodically how she’s doing. And so, we can triangulate in on the stress and infer her stress from these measurements.

There’s a lot of sensitive, private data here. We recognize, and so that’s actually, we’re taking non-technical and technical approaches to that. And not just saying we’re gonna keep things private and safe and secure, but rather, making it a research question. It’s part of our research agenda. So we are using mixed method assessment, so we’re asking what they’re comfortable with, finding out what they’re comfortable with, figuring out how they might want to communicate their privacy preferences to a building. All studies are opt-in. They can delete any data at any time, any day they want. And then, security, only those on the research team that need to see any data will see it. So we’re addressing those user acceptance constraints.

And, finally, when we understand what building features are impacting which outcomes, you know, in naturalistic settings and over longer periods of time, and in conjunction with the acceptance constraints, we can begin to design adaptations that can support that well-being and make it last over the long-term. And we’re looking at physical and digital adaptations here.

As an example of physical, we’re looking at modular walls, maybe modular green walls, that can be moved to different parts of the building and then engineering them in a way that they could help expand the range of temperatures in which we could use natural ventilation in buildings, because that’s pretty limited right now. And by using more natural ventilation, we get better indoor air quality generally, and also other well-being outcomes are improved. On the digital side, we’re looking at dynamic, ambient displays that might be large public art or on one’s digital devices, personal devices where imagine here, for example, the petals of the flowers might represent how much energy a working group is using to nudge that environmental behavior.

And so, this is a summary basically of our project, we can give you technical details at the poster session. And this is our team, we represent all seven schools at Stanford, which is exciting. We have expertise in buildings, computing, and people, it’s color coded there. We have some partners for our field studies. And we all share a very strong passion for creating a built environment that not only protects the natural environment, but helps humans to flourish.

Thank you.