BIOPHILIA BRINGING NATURE INTO THE CORPORATE ENVIRONMENT

Plantronics office, Hoofddorp. Photo: Mats van Soolingen

We spend a lot of our lives indoors. It’s a situation serious enough to warrant new design trends, when you consider that research shows inviting a more natural setting into our working spaces boosts productivity by 8% and wellbeing by 13%. Now advances in technology are playing a big role in bringing the outside in.

We spend a lot of our lives indoors. In fact, according to the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, we spend 90 percent of our day inside.  And for most of us, a lot of that time is spent at work, often in buildings that were not designed to facilitate well-being or any kind of natural elements. Yet we are a species that likes to be around nature – fresh air, greenery and natural elements make us feel relaxed and stress-free. Technology is starting to play a big role in rectifying this.  It’s a situation serious enough to warrant new design trends. The idea is to make workers feel comfortable, alert and focused. It’s about mental health as much as physical conditions.

One component of this move to a more relaxed workplace is known as biophilic design. This is where nature in actuality or digital form is brought into the environment to ease stress and improve individuals’ health and wellbeing. Where it’s not practical to bring nature indoors, digital simulations can be substituted. Digital displays in a ceiling can show a canopy of trees and the sky, even in an inner-city office.

This biophilic technology is the wave of the future, and technology is playing a big role in its development. One American company began incorporating biophilic elements into its workplace in order to solve a noise problem and created a new system in the process. This system revolutionized their workplace and may be a common workplace feature in the future.

Necessity: the mother of invention

Plantronics was founded in 1961 in Santa Cruz, California. It developed the first light-weight headset for pilots in the aviation industry, and Plantronics headsets were used by astronauts on the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions.

A few years ago, the Plantronics head office transitioned to an open plan model. But staff were soon complaining about noise levels, and particularly how difficult it was to work with people having conversations and taking phone calls around them. Looking for a way to reduce this kind of distraction, management eventually developed the system now known as Habitat Soundscaping.

Marcus Rose, Habitat Soundscaping Country Manager ANZ, takes up the story.

“Habitat Soundscaping was developed in-house to fix noise and distraction issues at our head office in Santa Cruz. The place was bright and beautiful, but within a couple of months, we were getting a lot of complaints about the main open-plan collaboration area. There was a lack of privacy and people weren’t comfortable taking phone calls there. They were getting distracted and the noise was a big complaint.”

Plantronics initially investigated using traditional sound masking systems, which involved injecting white noise into the environment through hidden speakers.

White noise is a steady static-like hiss that was once thought to be a good solution for masking unwanted sounds in the environment.

“Traditional sound masking broadcasts sound from speakers, introducing more sound into an area, which reduces the intelligibility of speech,” Rose says. “This makes it harder to overhear other people’s conversations, which in theory is less distracting.”

However, a lot of staff found the noise annoying, and some began complaining about fatigue. Rose says subsequent research by the company revealed that white noise can cause fatigue and even headaches – definitely not the way of the future.

Beyond white noise: Turning to nature

When Plantronics looked at other ways to solve the problem, they came across research that suggested natural sounds were as good as white noise at masking sound, but didn’t have the negative side effects.  There was also suggestion that using the sound of nature had a calming effect and could actually improve health, wellbeing and productivity of individuals within earshot.

How Habitat Soundscaping works

Today, many open plan workspaces accommodate numerous type of working zones on each floor whether that be busy collaboration areas or quiet focus zones.  Therefore, Plantronics realised they needed a system that was able to detect this activity and associated noise levels and adapt the system accordingly.  So Habitat Soundscaping monitors noise levels and specifically identifies distracting noise such as speech through distraction sensors in the ceiling as it plays the sound of water. Then it adapts the sound level in real time depending on how quiet or loud different spaces are.

“For example, if two people were having a conversation in an open plan office, the system detects this and gradually increases the sound around them in order to protect the adjacent individuals.  This dramatically reduces the intelligibility of their speech which is the main culprit for distractions in the workplace.” Rose explains.

Apart from sound, it’s also helpful for people to connect what’s heard with a visual. Having a waterfall in the office as the ‘source’ of the sound helps people relax even more. While an actual water feature can be installed, there is an option to have a low maintenance, plug and play waterfall that is self-contained.

Alternatively, there are digital options, screens that can be installed in the ceiling or as a window, with different nature-inspired themes available through the user interface such as running streams, rain etc.

Subtlety the key to the future

Rose says that especially from a sound point of view, subtlety is key. “You want the sound to be subtle enough so that people don’t notice it, but it’s enough to dampen distracting sound.”

He gives the example of the famous Salesforce lobby waterfall in San Francisco with its huge digital waterfall along the lobby wall.

“It looks great, but to make the sound match the waterfall would be excessive. You have to have the sound at a reasonable level.”

Major US companies are already on board, including Coretrust. CEO Thomas S. Ricci says Habitat Soundscaping helps show tenants how to create a “comfortable, enticing, collaborative work environment that will engage today’s generation thus allowing us to significantly differentiate our real estate offerings to our customers.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft has installed the system at the US headquarters and are currently evaluating it.

“Because we’re spending so much of our time indoors now, anything we can do to help people feel better in the built environment is going to be a huge benefit,” says Rose.

“Biophilic technology reproduces the sights and sounds of nature in the indoor environment. It puts people at ease and makes them feel more comfortable in that space. It’s a growing trend.”

Leveraging tech in the future

Our love of nature, the way it puts us at our ease and relaxes us, opens up possibilities for increased technology in the corporate world that go beyond current trends for conference room screens and voice-enabled cognitive rooms. AV technology can now harnesses the power of nature itself to bring flowing water, rain and trees into the places where we work.

Systems like Habitat Soundscaping not only achieves this, but also addresses the number one complaint in open-plan workspaces – Noise and Distraction. By digitising natural sounds and images with today’s high-resolution 4K content and displays, a new era of workplace harmony is dawning.

Combustible Cladding Laws in Queensland Announced

If you don’t know whether the cladding on your building is combustible (or to use the less scary word – non-conforming), you are soon going to be forced to find out.

The issue over what cladding has been used on buildings crystallised after the Grenfell Tower fire in the UK in 2017. Australia’s equivalent (without the horrific loss of life in Grenfell) was the Lacrosse Tower fire in Melbourne in 2014. The ABC’s Four Corners covered the issue in this excellent episode.

Since then the wheels of respective state governments have turned very slowly. Victoria has their cladding task force and has now come up with a rectification solution that will allow lot owners in bodies corporate to pay back the cost of addressing the defective cladding through their rates.

Other states have equivalent bodies but no solutions yet.

The Queensland approach has been to create the Non-Conforming Building Products audit taskforce which led to the government addressing concerns with all of their own buildings.

Now it is the turn of the public at large.

It’s a seemingly innocuous title, but it has some real kick. The new regulation is:

Building and Other Legislation (Cladding) Amendment Regulation 2018

And what it means for bodies corporate when it commences on 1 October 2018 is this:

The compliance zone

If your building:

•is any of classes 2 to 9 (which covers basically everything residential and commercial other than houses); and

•had a building development approval issued after 1 January 1994 but before 1 October 2018 to build the building or alter the cladding; and

•is of Type A or Type B construction (essentially buildings of three storeys or higher)

then the building is caught by the new regulation.

Stage 1 Registration

If your building is one of those in the compliance zone you need to register and complete an online checklist via the QBCC that will run you through whether the building is likely to be one of those with non-conforming cladding. Every building will have until 29 March 2019 to complete this.

If you don’t complete it, there is a maximum fine of 20 penalty units ($2,611).

If there is no issue, then all is well and you just need to keep that certification. If not, you are onto stage two.

And no – we don’t know what the checklist will include yet or even a link to where you will be able to find it, but when we do we will let you know.

Stage 2Building industry professional

If your building is one that may have non-conforming cladding you have until 29 May 2019 to go back to the QBCC with a statement from a building industry professional about whether the cladding on your building is non-conforming.

If you know the cladding on your building is non-conforming you can skip the completion of the report, notify the QBCC you have non-conforming cladding and go to straight to stage three.

There is only two months between the last date to register and the date on which this first assessment is required. We suspect it will not pay to be tardy in getting started, as there are fines for missing the deadlines.

There maximum fine for missing this date is the same as that for missing stage one.

Stage 3Fire risk assessment

If you have non-conforming cladding then you must have a qualified fire engineer complete a fire risk assessment about the safety of the building. That assessment will determine whether the scheme as it is will essentially remain safe or whether rectification works are necessary.

Every building must give the name of their fire engineer to the QBCC by 27 August 2019 and have the final report to the QBCC by 3 May 2021. That is less than three years away.

If you have not nominated your fire engineer or completed the risk assessment by the required dates the fines gear up to a maximum of 50 and 165 penalty units respectively ($6,527.50 and $21,540.75).

After assessment

If the building has non-conforming cladding then:

•a notice to that effect must be displayed in a conspicuous part of the building for so long as the cladding remains in place; and

•every lot owner and tenant must be given a copy of the notice – including new tenants and new owners.

The crystal ball

This is where the fun begins. Not.

We see the following compliance headaches with all of this, but these are just the immediate issues.

Ignorance of the need to comply

Everyone will be out there trying to make bodies corporate aware of their obligations. But some will simply ignore them. Some strata managers may also simply ignore them. It is ultimately the role of the committee to get this done, but no doubt fingers will be pointed at strata managers if it isn’t.

Strata managers need to be vigilant to make sure they have covered their backsides by addressing this with every body corporate they manage. It may not be pretty when the government starts rounding up those buildings that have not participated in stage one by the required date.

It would also seem that there will need to be some form of evidence (termed ‘a proof of agency’) produced to the QBCC about the ability of anyone to complete the document on behalf of the body corporate. What that looks like is also yet to be determined.

Stage 2 timing

There are only two months from the last date for registration to the time to return the building industry professional report.

If bodies corporate leave it to the last minute we suspect there won’t be enough experts to go around. Get started and get started early, because when you allow for the Australian holiday season (Melbourne Cup Day through to Australia Day) there is also another three months that disappears very quickly during that registration period.

Fire risk assessment notifications

If a building has non-conforming cladding, notifying new owners is easy. They appear on the roll, and (hopefully) the strata manager’s software programs then deal with the notification.

Tenants will be a lot harder. For those with onsite management or professional property managers, it may be okay as they should have systems that will deal with it. Communicating what needs to be done with property managers will be important.

For people who self-manage or use a property manager who does not know what they are doing, the reality is tenants may not be told. Our immediate interpretation is that holiday / corporate tenants probably do not need to be told (as they might not be ‘leasehold interest holders’), but time will tell.

The bigger issues

The uncertainty.

These are all guesses, but try these as flow on effects:

•the fact that non-conforming cladding may be present is going to be a potential disincentive to prospective property buyers while it is not known, and a probable genuine turn off to them once it is certain.

•what will banks do with their lending policies for potentially affected, or known to be affected, buildings?

•strata insurers will now have to price the (soon to be) known risks for building insurance.

It wouldn’t surprise us if there was some change to the disclosure regime to specifically address this issue. After all, the statutory disclosure at the moment includes who the body corporate secretary is. Whether the building has non-conforming cladding is probably a tad more important.

Rectification costs

The Lacrosse Tower owners are still fighting about who wears what cost five years after their fire. The statutory position is that if rectification is required, then the body corporate must do it. It may well have a right to recover those costs from parties involved in the construction process, but that right is independent of the immediate obligation to sort the issue out. We will leave limitation periods aside for the moment too.

This means owners are going to have to pay special levies, or bodies corporate borrow money, to bring their building back to having conforming cladding. Bodies corporate will not be allowed to delay that while they try to recover the costs from a third party.

The statutory obligation to disclose defects

And for you faithful readers who have come this far, this is the biggest issue we see for property sellers.

Just because cladding is non-conforming might not mean it needs to be removed. The other fire safety mechanisms may cover any risk appropriately. Having said that, the non-conforming cladding could still very well be considered a defect in common property (although we are still debating that internally). There are arguments for and against this, but if it is not a defect, why is there the need for the conspicuous sign in the building about it?

Section 223 of the Body Corporate and Community Management Act 1997 imposes an obligation on sellers to disclose to buyers latent or patent defects in common property that the seller is aware of or ‘ought’ to be aware of.

Sellers ‘ought’ to be aware of issues identified in the body corporate minutes. Committee members who are actively involved in the decision-making process around this have nowhere to hide under any definition.

If buildings have non-conforming cladding, which is not disclosed in the sale contract by a seller, and there are subsequent rectification works required along with the special levies or borrowings, we can see a raft of litigation about the lack of that disclosure against sellers, sales agents and those who prepared contracts for sale (such as lawyers).

We like providing solutions, but with this one there is a long way to go before the air clears. We will keep you updated as this one evolves.

This article was contributed by Frank Higginson, Partner – Hynes Legal.

Registration of cooling towers essential to prevent Legionnaires’ disease

Because of the potentially fatal consequences of Legionnaires’ disease, the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008requires that all land owners register any cooling tower located on their land with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. The registration of all cooling towers on any land is mandatory and is the obligation of the land owner. This process is essential to prevent people from becoming ill with Legionnaires’ disease and to control an outbreak of the disease should it occur. 

Following media interest in a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Frankston area, the Department was contacted by an anonymous caller who reported an unregistered cooling tower at the Frankston Arts Centre. Authorised officers from the Department entered the site and confirmed that a cooling tower not registered with the Department was in operation, and that Frankston City Council was the owner of the land. Testing of that cooling tower by the Department’s authorised officers did not identify any Legionella bacteria.

Despite there being no Legionella bacteria identified at the unregistered cooling tower, in July 2018 Frankston City Council pleaded guilty to breaches of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 by failing to comply with the requirement to register a cooling tower and failing to audit the cooling tower risk management plan.

Frankston City Council was fined $30,000 and was ordered to pay the Department’s legal costs of $5,000. Notably, the Magistrate accepted concessions made by Frankston City Council that this type of offending is ‘absolute liability’ – meaning that, the Department does not need to make out any intention of wrongdoing and only needs to make out that a cooling tower was not registered, was in operation and was otherwise located on land owned by a landowner.

Stuart Adcock from the Legionella Team said, “It is important that all cooling towers are registered with the Department. We also need current contact details so we can contact the right person if a cooling tower needs to be disinfected.” He added, “Facility managers change, and if our records are not up to date, this may delay important steps being taken to protect public health.”

In 2018 to date, the Department has been notified of 65 people who have been diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. In 2017, the Department was notified of 100 cases.

For registration or technical information, contact the Department’s Legionella Team at legionella@dhhs.vic.gov.au or on 1300 769 469.

About Legionnaires’ disease

Legionnaires’ disease is a rare form of pneumonia which can be fatal. It is caused by Legionella bacteria. 

Legionella bacteria can be found in natural water bodies such as rivers, lakes, creeks and hot springs. The bacteria are also found in spas, potting mix, warm water systems and artificial systems that use water for cooling, heating or industrial processes, such as cooling towers.

Legionnaires’ disease causes flu-like symptoms such as headache, fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, followed by respiratory problems and pneumonia developing over three or four days. The onset can be up to 10 days after the initial contact with the bacteria. High-risk groups in the community are people aged over 50, heavy smokers, heavy drinkers, people with diabetes or chronic lung disease and those with lowered immunity.