Delivering health & wellbeing benefits with Active Design

Health, Wellbeing and Active Design

The condition of the built environment can have a huge impact on society and public services; BRE’s research on the cost of poor-quality homes indicating a staggering £1.4bn per year to the NHS and £18.6 billion to wider society, so anything we can do to improve health and wellbeing  is a high priority. While good indoor air quality, temperatures, energy efficiency and other building level design features are very important, the design of the wider community and outdoor space also plays a huge role.

Sport and physical activity can change lives and create healthy communities by improving health, social and economic outcomes. There is strong evidence that being physically active can help support people to lead healthier lives. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of many chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, mental health problems and musculoskeletal conditions. However, too few of us are taking part in regular physical activity to stay healthy, and inactivity is ultimately responsible for 1 in 6 deaths in the UK[1][2].

To help tackle this challenge, design decisions can have a huge influence on people’s activity. For example, locating facilities close to each other, providing and joining up clear networks for active travel (cycling, walking) and access to green space for exercise and recreation can all support this. These types of solutions can promote fewer car journeys, more active travel and better-connected communities. All of which increase activity and can result in significant benefits to health and wellbeing. This in turn make places more enjoyable to live and work in, while confronting key challenges to local communities and on a national scale.

While the biggest opportunities come from large projects that can bring all these components together, smaller projects can also contribute to the broader networks that support activity and health and wellbeing. The first step to doing this is to consult with communities to understand what is important to them and which solutions will have the biggest impact. The second step is to design features in buildings and throughout the public realm that promote activity; active travel, exercise and recreation in safe, attractive and vibrant spaces.

The concept of Active Design brings these solutions and principles together into one place. And certification standards such as BREEAM provide a way of realising these benefits in practice.

The Principles of Active Design

Active design, created by Sport England in partnership with Public Health England, is a guidance document developed to encourage and promote sport and physical activity through the design and layout of the built environment. Using a combination of 10 principles that support activity and health (see below), the guidance demonstrates how to create healthier, stronger communities through the design of everyday environments. These principles are:

  1. Activity for all
  2. Walkable communities
  3. Connected walking & cycling routes
  4. Co-location of community facilities
  5. Network of multifunctional open space
  6. High quality streets & spaces
  7. Appropriate infrastructure
  8. Active buildings
  9. Management, maintenance, monitoring & evaluation
  10. Activity promotion & local champions

(check out Sport England’s website for more info including a great 2 minute video summarising what it’s all about and the principles in detail)

Active Design, Sport England

Active design aims to make the most of health and wellbeing benefits of physical activity by empowering people to be more active through the way development is designed, using well researched principles to influence how people interact with the built environment. These solutions aim to tackle major health, environmental and social and challenges, adding value to projects and ultimately supporting public services by making people happier and healthier.

Nick Evans (Head of Planning at Sport England) said “We believe that, the physical environment of where we live, work and rest can provide the right conditions for people to be more physically active. The Active Design principles developed with PHE help to guide those delivering new communities or improving the environment of existing ones to achieve this”

To help deliver these principles in practice, we need to ensure that these design features are of a high, benchmarkable standard that are delivered in practice, which developers can work to and that communities can trust. This is where the BREEAM family comes in.

Delivery: Using BREEAM to deliver Active Design in practice

The health and wellbeing of occupants and other users lies at the heart of any ethical and sustainable approach to the design, construction and management of the built environment. The BREEAM family of schemes, which includes Home Quality Mark for new homes and CEEQUAL for infrastructure projects (hereafter referred to collectively as BREEAM), provides market differentiation for buildings that reflect best practice across a range of sustainability issues. From its early beginnings in 1990, BREEAM has included a range of factors that influence health and wellbeing, such as lighting, temperature, and noise and air quality. Over time it has expanded its scope to include a wide-ranging set of issues relating to the design, construction and operation of buildings and the wider environment[3].

As part of this, BREEAM already provides many solutions that support and deliver Active Design principles as part of its broader drive for sustainability. This includes design features that recognise good cycling facilities and networks, inclusive design, high quality and managed outdoor spaces and good connectivity throughout the community. They also recognise the processes required to implement these features early on and to ensure they are delivered in practice, backed by third party certification (see below summary)

The only thing that is missing is to bridge the gap between the high-level principles of Active Design and delivery in-practice. To tackle this, BRE and Sport England are working together to map the BREEAM family of schemes against SE’s active design principles so that clients, communities and planners have a clear pathway to delivering and recognising active design in practice, which is backed up by tried and tested third party certification established for c. 30 years.

In turn, this intends to save time and money during planning by providing a consistent set of benchmarks that are assessed and certified using BREEAM.

Charles Johnston, Property Director of Sport England said “We welcome the aligning of the Active Design principles with the BREEAM family, making it easier for developers to create healthy, active communities. This, combined with application of the BREEAM certification through the life of a project, helps ensure that this will happen and we look forward to continuing to work with BRE in this space”

Here’s a summary of how the BREEAM family of schemes can collectively support active design across lifecycle stages and sectors:

Design features that promote activity:

  • Sustainable transport (cycling networks and infrastructure, car sharing)
  • Public transport links
  • Nearby local amenities, making walking and cycling more accessible
  • Good connectivity throughout public realm
  • Inclusive design for all
  • Safe and appealing streets
  • Managed outdoor communal space for recreation (e.g. exercise, sport and growing food)
  • Access to public green spaces such as parks
  • Good air quality, reduced noise and light pollution – helping to create attractive and healthy places to be active in
  • Multi-functional space (e.g. green infrastructure) that can deliver multiple benefits including active design as well as flood resilience, overheating resilience, better local air quality

Processes from master planning/infrastructure (BREEAM Communities and CEEQUAL):

  • Consultation and engagement with local community
  • Design review
  • Community management of facilities and local champions
  • Review of local demographic needs and priorities – helping to ensure solutions are right for them
  • Assessment at early stages of master planning (outline planning) and again at detailed planning when the final certificate is issued (for BREEAM Communities)

Processes from building level schemes (Home Quality Mark, BREEAM New Construction):

  • Early project planning and community engagement
  • Post occupancy evaluations
  • Design stage assessment to check what will be delivered
  • Post-construction assessment to check as-built evidence for final certification
  • Innovative solutions

Quality assurance for all schemes:

  • Assessments are carried out by independent specially trained and licensed assessors
  • Third party certification and quality auditing of evidence

Benchmarking high standards, speeding up planning and adding consistency


The collaboration between Sport England and BRE is a great example of how BREEAM packages up solutions to key challenges and opportunities in the built environment. We have done the research and development and have the certification processes in place, based on decades of experience. The BREEAM family can be used to reliably benchmark sustainability and quality in a ready-made format that industry is familiar with. And it is ready to use right now, to help very busy planners to speed up reliable and consistent decision making for the client and local authority.

A good example of how planners can use BREEAM is the Essex Design Guide, which refers to homes with Home Quality Mark (HQM) certification to recognise homes produced to a high quality standard (case study here). This helps to provide designers and developers with a clear and consistent route to quality standards that the local authority recognises. This helps to speed up and standardise the planning process, which can free up much needed time for planners and clients alike.

In the same design guide, Sport England’s Active Design Principles are promoted to guide developments (case study here), which can use resources such as Sport England’s guidance document for helpful examples. The work that BRE and Sport England are doing together will build on this helpful guidance to show how active design can be delivered in practice, by recognising BREEAM as a way to meet active design principles in a repeatable and benchmarkable way, made possible with third party certification. This will also add value to projects meeting BREEAM credits relating to health and wellbeing, and how this meets specific priorities and solutions such as active design.

More broadly, many other local authorities are driving high standards for sustainability and quality by using the BREEAM family of schemes as a clear and consistent compliance route for local plans. Due to the holistic scope of BREEAM, local authorities can focus on different key areas, whether it be energy for homes (e.g. by using HQM’s Environmental Footprint indicator) or various parts of the National Planning Policy Framework. See appendix 2 of Resource Pack 1 here for a list of local authorities using this approach already and further guidance on this.

The mapping document being created for Active Design will provide another helpful resource to draw out value in a particular area that is important for many place. This will add to the growing planning resources that BRE has developed, to show planners and other industry professionals how they can promote and deliver sustainability in their communities and as part of projects. The sustainability planning guidance so far has been developed in partnership with Town and Country Planning Assocation (TCPA) and by working with Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

If you are interested in applying active design using BREEAM for your project or community and can’t wait for the mapping work we are doing with Sport England, you can still find lots of useful information about the principles and see some great case studies of them in action, here:

To stay informed about BRE’s work on health and wellbeing, including topics about active design, you can sign up to updates here:

Or if you want to get in touch about active design and BREEAM, please get in contact with the BREEAM team

For more information on putting Sport England’s design principles into practice visit Achieving Sport England’s Active Design Principles with BREEAM.



[1] Lee IM, et al. (2012) Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. The Lancet 380: 219–29 cited in Everybody Active, Every Day (2014), Public Health England, page 8.

[2] Sport England (2015) Active design, Available at:

[3] Yates. A, (2016) BREEAM Health and Wellbeing Strategy, Available at: