Do skyscrapers have a hidden toll on our health?

Nick Myall
22 Mar 2017

Tall buildings that shift and sway in response to external forces may be having a detrimental effect on the health of workers and those who live in them

Skyscrapers may trigger motion-sickness, sleepiness and depression amongst those who live and work in them. According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, they sway in strong winds and shift slightly in response to external forces, such as building work and trains passing nearby.

As a result a team of experts from the UK are launching a £7m study which should be of great interest to architects and engineers across the globe. It will gauge the impact of this movement and work out how to prevent any damaging effects on our health.

A team of engineers, medics, physiologists and psychologists from the Universities of Exeter and Bath will explore claims that people experience motion sickness, fatigue, depression, poor concentration and a lack of motivation if they live or work in a building that sways slightly. The phenomenon is sometimes dubbed ‘Sick Building Syndrome’, but until recently experts have struggled to find the origin of the problems.

Testing simulators will be built in Exeter and Bath to measure movement from very tall buildings, offices and flats. Football stadiums and rock concert venues will also be studied to see if there are any effects from teh. 

Alex Pavic, Professor of Vibration Engineering at the University of Exeter, who was an expert adviser on the ‘wobbly’ Millennium Bridge in London, said: “More and more people are living and working in high-rises and office blocks, but the true impact of vibrations on them is currently very poorly understood.

“It can differ depending on whether an environment is quiet or noisy, the time of the day and even whether people are moving, standing, running or walking.

“Humans spend 90 per cent of their lives in buildings which vibrate non-stop, but there is still very little reliable information about the effect of structural vibration.

“It will for the first time link structural motion, environmental conditions and human body motion, psychology and physiology in a fully controllable virtual environment.”

Commenting Dr Antony Darby, Head of Civil Engineering at the University of Bath, said: “Just like sea sickness, our propensity to motion-induced discomfort is situation and environment dependent.

“For example, people at a concert in a grandstand will accept a completely different level of vibration than those in a hospital operating theatre.

“We now have the ability to simulate not only the structural motion, but the surroundings, temperature, noise, air quality, even smell, all of which contribute to our experience of, and tolerance to, building motion.”

The Daily Telegraph article goes on to state that the facility has the backing of the building and design industry, which plans to use the findings to improve structural design.

Chris Pembridge, director of WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, said: “We believe that working with the research team will make a real difference to structural design where ground vibration and building movement are key challenges, such as sites adjacent to vibration-inducing infrastructure and in tall building design.”

Prof Kenny Kwok of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, said the new test site could help establish standards for the levels of building motion that are acceptable.

“Our recent field studies have shown that wind-induced building motion can cause sopite syndrome (a motion-related neurological disorder) or early onset motion sickness.

“This new facility will be utilised to advance our understanding of the prevalence of sopite syndrome and its adverse effects on building occupants, and guide the formulation of acceptability criteria for building motion to address its adverse effects on occupant wellbeing and work performance.”

The project is funded by Exeter and Bath universities and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The WAN Awards Tall Buildings category is now open until 30th June.

Click here for more details or email wanawards@haymarket.com


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