Does your office make you sick?

Jonathan Glancey prescribes fresh air, open spaces and light for the suffering staff in unhealthy workplaces
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) was acknowledged as a recognisable disease by the World Health Organisation in 1986. Up to 30 per cent of offices built or refurbished over the past 15 years in Britain may cause or aggravate the condition. SBS means absenteeism, low productivity, a generally unhappy white-collar workforce.

Remarkably, then, Jack Rostron, senior lecturer and research fellow in Construction at Liverpool John Moores University and sometime adviser to the WHO, still comes up against company doctors who dismiss SBS as a fantasy of neurotics and layabouts. Rostron's Sick Building Syndrome (E & F N Spon) is a compilation of the latest research into the subject and makes compelling reading for those who commission, design, build, manage and work in modern offices.

"Sick Building Syndrome has yet to be taken seriously by the machismo element of British management," says Rostron. "I'm not surprised by this; it's taken long enough for people to understand the link between sunbeds and skin cancer, the debilitating and even fatal effects of passive smoking, and the reality, as opposed to the myth, of ME. Effectively, it takes between 20 and 30 years for a disease of this sort to be recognised, largely because there are vested interests keen to prove they are fictions.

"SBS is an elusive phenomenon, vulnerable to being dismissed by the ignorant; yet for the thousands of office staff who put up with its effects on a daily basis - headaches, fatigue, impaired memory, visual disturbance, dizziness, respiratory problems, catarrhal deafness, tinnitus, skin conditions, among others - it can transform the humdrum business of going to work into something approaching torture.

"Employers are going to have to wake up to SBS, and pretty quickly, as significant sums have already been paid in litigation in the United States to SBS sufferers; we tend to ape the Americans in such matters, so British employers should expect court actions in the near future."

Who will be making claims? Those unlucky enough to work in the sort of offices in which they have little or no control over their surroundings. The classic "sick" building is an Eighties or Nineties developer's block, air-conditioned, "energy-efficient" (ie, sealed windows), with centrally controlled cooling, heating and ventilation systems. Matters are made worse in open-plan offices in which photocopiers and printers are not placed in a separate, thoroughly ventilated room (they give off toxic gases and particles); in which workers cannot control heating, lighting and airflow; in which they are highly supervised (both by management and by a variety of "security" devices); and in which soft furnishings (fitted carpets, chairs with fabric cushions and backrests) are the norm.

"It is symptomatic," says Rostron, "of the current hierarchical approach to control over working conditions that attempts by office workers to adjust or improve working conditions are described in management literature as 'tampering', as if by trying to humanise unnatural environments people were behaving deviously or even committing some sort of crime."

A prime suspect appears to be ineptly regulated and often dirty air-conditioning systems. They must be cleaned thoroughly and frequently to ensure safety. Even then, a centrally-controlled air-conditioning system is unable to cope with the different sensitivities of individuals. Rostron's research shows that the ambient temperature with which office workers feel most comfortable ranges from 64.4F to 78.8F.

"Traditionally," says Rostron, "when people felt too hot they opened a window, and when they felt cold they closed it. Work performance improves when small groups of people share small offices with windows that open. I don't want to sound Prince Charles-y with you, but traditional architecture is SBS-free."

This is a little unfair, he admits. It is not modern architecture as such that is a problem, but specific types of modern building. In much of Scandinavia and the Netherlands, employees are involved in the design of their offices from an early stage. First and foremost, they ask for windows that open, and personal control over heating, lighting and ventilation. This is possible because most office buildings in Scandinavia and the Netherlands are purpose-built for specific companies or government departments.

In Britain, most offices are built speculatively, then sold or leased to the end-user. This means the management, much less the unfortunates plonked down in front of computers in breathless open-plan offices, has little say in the design of the workplace. Rostron's book sums up: "The chances of the best architectural practice being combined with the most effective work organisational practices may require a more structured social and legal framework than that provided by the market alone."

Since the "oil crisis" of the early Seventies more and more office buildings have been designed to use as little energy as possible, and are thus often airtight. "Airtight" buildings clearly make the majority of those working inside them unhappy. But where macho management prevails, workers may feel it unwise to complain: fresh air is for wimps. The new breed of breathless modern building coincided with the reduction in employee power during the Eighties. Offices were symbols of corporate power.

If the modern office is increasingly at war with the human pysche and human well-being, what is to be done? The answer is either for us to work in old-fashioned buildings (lucky the ruddy-faced lawyers in their Georgian inns-of-courts, happy the typist rattling out documents in the shade of a courtyard in Havana, Cape Town or Seville), or to design buildings that offer those who work in them direct, individual control over heating, lighting and ventilation.

Most of us can remember days at school when we were allowed to work outside on hot, summer days: modern technology should make it easy for us to be able to work in courtyards, verandahs or balconies. If buildings were designed around courtyard gardens, we could then work in small offices, but meet together in the courtyard. A mix of open and glazed courtyards would address the question of Britain's climate: we would meet under glass in winter, under the sky in summer. There is no reason, other than its deeply conservative nature, to prevent the property market from building and letting such offices successfully. Office culture has littered our towns and cities with ugly buildings in the guise of vast and airless filing cabinets, and made us feel unwell into the bargainn