[Urban Chronicles #WellBeingAtWork] #06 - Building materials: a new source of well-being at work?

Published by Laetitia Morere

Today's building professionals are facing many new challenges: complying with new thermal regulations, being more environmentally friendly or lowering construction costs. As a result, building materials are constantly evolving, improving and innovating to meet new energy efficiency challenges. In addition, tertiary buildings must also adapt to the new ways of working and be a vector of well-being for users, which increasingly structures the construction and renovation of these buildings, including the materials used. How building materials become a constituent element of well-being at work?

Building materials regulations bring out innovations

Thermal and energy regulations, supplemented by the ELAN law and the carbon tax, contribute to shaping an increasingly restrictive regulatory context on the energy efficiency of new and existing commercial buildings. In a shared ambition to meet the Paris Climate Agreement, these new prerogatives have a direct impact on innovations in building materials.

First, thermal insulation is a key issue: 3/4 of the final energy consumption of buildings comes from heating and air conditioning. In this context, wood has regained its place in contemporary architectural projects. Made of organic materials, wood is an excellent thermal and hygrometric regulator. Indeed, for the same thickness, wood insulates thermally: 6 times more than brick, 12 times more than concrete, 450 times more than steel, and 1700 times more than aluminum. Wooden walls also breathe better and regulate ambient humidity.

Secondly, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is becoming a prerequisite for the construction of new commercial buildings. Indeed, the Energy-Carbon regulation will eventually replace the French RT 2009 currently in force, and will generalize the positive energy building instead of the low-energy building and will require an LCA tool. An "energy-carbon" label has been created to encourage the construction of positive energy buildings: the E+C- label. It is composed of both an energy level (evaluated by the "Bepos Balance Sheet" indicator) and a carbon level (evaluated by the "Carbon" indicator).

The calculation method used to define low-carbon buildings considers greenhouse gas emissions during the construction phase of the buildings in order to distribute the reduction effort. This approach then tends to valorize bio-sourced or recycled materials.

To go even further in this approach, the French BBCA (“Bâtiment Bas Carbone”) label incorporates the E+C- label as a prerequisite and promotes the low-carbon approaches of a building during all the construction, operation and end-of-life phases. The quantity of bio-sourced material and the intelligent mix of materials contained in the construction then becomes a structuring element in obtaining the label.

Case study: The largest solid wood campus in the world: the Arboretum of Nanterre

In an evolving regulatory context, pilot projects are emerging that demonstrate the growing integration of sustainable materials into the construction of large-scale buildings. Thus, the Arboretum, a "wooden office campus", will be developed in Nanterre by the companies Woodeum and BNP Paribas. 125,000 m2 of office space will be developed in the heart of a 9-hectare park set on a former industrial wasteland. The project focuses on the 5 senses to optimize the well-being of employees on a daily basis: optimized acoustic and visual comfort, a highly vegetalized environment, solid wood equipment and finishes and innovative materials... The architects have even provided for the diffusion of natural scents in a working environment with a view and direct access to nature. Arboretum has been designed to offer a multitude of possibilities for working: meeting rooms in the park, large bright lounges with 6 meters of ceiling height, terraces on each floor, cafés and bars on the banks of the Seine, unusual and modular spaces in former industrial buildings, outdoor workspaces, or a green amphitheater. Arboretum is thus a perfect example of the use of bio-sourced materials on large-scale projects that meets regulatory requirements but is also part of a well-being approach for future users.

Tomorrow’s materials: towards more well-being for the occupant?

With regard to certifications, HQE™ and BREEAM® grant several credits related to health and well-being, including visual, acoustic and olfactory comfort, indoor air quality and thermal comfort. Similarly, in the sixth part of its reference system, the WELL™ label gives priority to thermal and acoustic comfort. This approach to user well-being in the well-being certification WELL™ but also in environmental certifications anchors well-being in construction and renovation practices and creates a driving effect in the choice of materials that go beyond their simple function related to energy efficiency.

Indeed, beyond the technical aspects, the use of materials such as wood, metal and steel create an olfactory, sensory and visual environment specific to each individual. Thus, metal structures allow the development of large uninterrupted spaces that free up the field of vision. Similarly, brick and wood give warmth and authenticity to the working environment, bringing relief that fuels the character of the interior office spaces. Finally, the odors of stone and wood are also an element that has been studied as a factor of serenity in workspaces.

The only problem is the extraction of natural resources. During the 20th century, the extraction of fossil fuels increased by a factor of 12 worldwide, while that of mineral raw materials for construction increased by a factor of 34.

Thus, the use of only bio-sourced materials (wood, cork, straw, hemp, cellulose wadding, recycled textile, sheep's wool) seems to be a trend to follow to ensure the sustainability of tertiary buildings. In this dynamic, the Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry plans to build a 350-metre residential tower in the middle of Tokyo, 90% of which is made of wood, which is higher than the Eiffel Tower!


Finally, other materials beneficial to the environment and well-being are emerging: plant materials. For example, the Palm Leather Project uses betel nut palm leaves to create an alternative to leather, rubber or plastic. Very present in India, this resource is still undervalued today. Once made flexible, the sheets can then be worked on conventional materials to produce accessories and furniture, and represent a real potential for the wall covering and ready-to-install partitioning sector. Will the use of plants be the next value creation lever to meet the dual objectives of environmental performance and user well-being?

For more information on Green Soluce and our services, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Moderated by : Nadège Rigaudeau

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