09/04/2021 - 10:00

Shaping more sustainable spaces

09/04/2021 - 10:00

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Samantha Hall is challenging how the world approaches buildings, prioritising the human experience.

Shaping more sustainable spaces
Samantha Hall at the EZONE UWA student hub. Photos: David Henry

Samantha Hall is challenging how the world approaches buildings, prioritising the human experience.

When Samantha Hall came across a man wearing a hat at his desk indoors, she knew her research was on the right track.

In 2009, Dr Hall left her career in advertising to pursue environmental science, exploring building sustainability before digging deeper into how a space could affect a person’s experience and overall wellbeing.

As part of her PhD research, she would walk through buildings, observing elements such as natural light and ventilation, while talking to occupants.

“There was one moment that really struck me,” Dr Hall told Business News.

“I was in a relatively old building and walked into a room that had no windows and a guy was sitting there with a hat on.

“He said the fluoro lights overhead gave him a headache.

“I could pick six things in that room that were working against him, so that was an ‘aha’ moment for me … I started to bring the environmental and health factors together.”

Dr Hall’s research laid the foundations for Rate My Space, a tool that measures an occupant’s experience in buildings by assessing things such as thermal and acoustic factors.

Through Curtin University’s startup program, Dr Hall was able to build the software for Rate My Space, running a pilot trial on campus.

Rate My Space later evolved into an application as part of Dr Hall’s startup, Spaces Alive, which aims to bring sustainability, wellbeing and evidence-based design together to improve a building’s performance.

About 7,000 individuals provided feedback on their work or campus environment through Dr Hall’s online tools, with her work resulting in several awards, including being named a 2020 Business News 40under40 winner and a finalist for Western Australia’s Innovator of the Year.

“It’s user experience for buildings,” Dr Hall said.

“Unlike many products we buy, buildings aren’t designed with user feedback.

I’ve been working to create these feedback loops.”

Dr Hall said there had been a recent shift in awareness of how buildings affected occupants, driven partly by the wider adoption of certifications like Green Star: an independent verification of a building’s sustainability by the Green Building Council Australia.

However, having travelled around Australia promoting Rate My Space, she said it had still been challenging to gain traction, particularly for those with tight budgets.

“I hit a wall,” she said.

“I thought I had made a classic startup mistake, where it’s a problem that needs to be solved but not what the market wants.”

Dr Hall reached out to a few mentors and shifted her focus to the university space.

“I wanted to reconfigure how they [building owners] got this data earlier in the design process,” she said.

“I became interested in universities because they own and control all campus buildings, whereas a commercial building, you’ve got a sub tenant, an anchor tenant, a building manager … it can be harder to figure out who you target to get change happening.”

Dr Hall has since formed an international joint venture, Campus Intuition, which works with universities globally in their planning processes.

Students use the Campus Experience Index to rate and provide feedback on campus spaces, with clients including the University of Western Australia, University of Melbourne and Cranfield University in the UK.

“Often universities solve problems with new buildings … without understanding what’s going on in the existing campus,” Dr Hall said.

“New buildings have a huge environmental footprint; they’re responsible for 25 per cent of our emissions. If we can focus more on improving those existing assets you’ve got a double win of improving spaces but also reducing the environmental load.

“And it’s amazing how many new buildings get finished, then things aren’t quite right and have to get ripped out and done again.”

Findings from Dr Hall’s research often highlighted how a space could be tweaked, rather than bowled over, she said, to improve safety, productivity and social interaction.

Beyond a cost and environmental benefit, Dr Hall said buildings also assisted in attracting new and existing students to the campus.

Dr Hall’s Campus Whisperer whitepaper series outlines that, while satisfaction with teaching had increased in recent years, many students were less socially engaged.

Feelings of ‘community’ and ‘belonging’ were key factors in students’ motivation to attend the physical campus, but also in their choice of university.

Dr Hall said simple shifts such as changing room layouts from rows to groups was one of the easy-fix alternatives to investing money in new builds.

There had been many similarities between campuses and offices spaces, she said, especially the impact on culture and productivity.

“No-one really goes back to evaluate whether a building has achieved what it’s gone out to achieve, which is pretty funny when you’re spending $150 million,” Dr Hall said.

She said COVID-19 had helped accelerate acceptance of the relationship between buildings and health, with advice to avoid poorly ventilated spaces.

“Poor ventilation can result in bad concentration,” Dr Hall said.

“So, when you’re feeling drowsy it’s not necessarily that you need a coffee or a chocolate bar, you might just need some fresh air.”

In the future, Dr Hall hopes to expand the campus prototype to sectors including medical, aged care, and social housing.

“We’ve lost a lot of old-school design mentality in the way a building is designed and positioned, to avoid urban heat islands and [support] natural ventilation,” she said.

“The industry can be driven by aesthetics … but beautiful buildings don’t often necessarily but beautiful buildings don’t often necessarily work well for the people.”

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