The construction industry is focusing more of its resources on how buildings affect the health and well-being of their occupants. The rise of sustainability has played an important role in this trend.

New research by McGraw Hill Construction (MHC) reveals an industry-wide commitment to improve the "healthy impacts" of buildings and a few significant disconnects between owners and contractors about those impacts. The research includes opinions from owners, contractors, architects, human-resource professionals, medical professionals, homeowners and homebuilders. It was published in a new MHC SmartMarket Report, "The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings." MHC partnered with the American Institute of Architects, United Technologies Inc. and a dozen other associations and firms on the report.

Building-health factors have been proven to affect occupant well-being, including medical conditions, absenteeism, productivity, and employee satisfaction and engagement. While the full study covers a wide range of players across the non-residential and residential sectors, it also reveals how contractor decisions align with the priorities of building owners.

Benefits of Healthier Buildings

More owners recognize that their buildings can have a positive impact on occupants and financial benefits other than lower operating costs. For today's offices, there is a 10-to-one differential in the amount spent on occupants of buildings than on energy and operations. That means even an incremental change in employee productivity or health is exponentially higher than a similar savings from reduced operating costs.

Of the owners surveyed, 75% measure the impact of construction decisions on occupant health. They report:

• 47% reduction in health-care costs

• 21% improvement in occupant productivity

• 66% higher employee satisfaction and engagement

• 56% less absenteeism.

However, many owners don't know how their investments affect health outcomes, which may present an opportunity for contractors. Contractors can help owners understand how building attributes perform and how best to measure them. Ongoing performance tracking is critical in building a case for further investments. Not only does this trend benefit contractors in overall client relations, their added expertise also helps differentiate them in the marketplace.

How Construction Affects Health

Currently, 41% of contractors report that the health effects of buildings have a high impact on their construction decisions. That is much lower than the impact of energy savings (68%), improved productivity (57%) and aesthetics (54%)—three factors with a higher influence on more than half the contractors surveyed.

That 41% of contractors is also much lower than the percentage of owners (59%) who report a similar influence on their construction decisions. However, as with contractors, more owners are influenced by energy savings (79%) and aesthetics (65%), although, for them, health impacts are more important than higher productivity (56%). That trend possibly results from the boost that improved building occupant health and well-being gives productivity; other benefits include employee satisfaction and lower health-care costs, which owners also consider important.

However, contractors recognize the growing importance of health in building construction. Fifty-six percent expect building-health impacts to be highly influential on their decisions by 2016, the steepest growth of any individual factor, even above aesthetics (54%). Owners agree about the increasing influence of occupant health in their decisions, although that increase (8 percentage points, from 59% currently to 67% by 2016) is more tempered than that of contractors'.