Office buildings sway, and scientists are now studying how it affects us

Ladders is fortunate enough to work at the top of a high-rise building with sprawling views of a harbor on one side and skyscrapers on another — which, on a sunny day, can make you feel like there’s nothing you can’t achieve.

But on a stormy afternoon in our office last week, we heard a persistent creaking, a kind of low roar. We traced to the sound to a small corner conference room, where we could literally hear the walls moving.

The building was actually swaying. It’s not a horror movie. It’s just science.

Your building is vibrating

Researchers at the University of Bath and the University of Exeter recently announced a five-year, government funded project designed to study “the impact of vibrations from very tall buildings and wobbly bridges and floors on people’s health and wellbeing” at a “government-funded national research facility.”

The center will use “simulators” to replicate various situations— like working in an office skyscraper.

In a University of Exeter statement on the study, Dr Antony Darby, Head of Civil Engineering at the University of Bath, commented on how well people tolerate movement in different situations: “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 completely different level of vibration than those in a hospital operating theatre.”

How much vibration you can stand could depend on the circumstances you’re in.

According to the statement, “despite looking rigid in appearance, tall buildings can flex in response to external forces, and strong winds can make them vibrate or sway at low frequencies, sometimes with bursts of motion at random intervals,” adding that studies have shown that some people can detect the movement, which can at times result in “motion sickness and causing fear.”

Sick building syndrome

If you don’t feel well in the office, don’t just brush it off— you could be dealing with stale air, or maybe even sick building syndrome, which has been connected to vibrations and noises in buildings. Studies have shown that office spaces and the air we breathe there affect our performance.

A 2008 article in the Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, published on the website for the US National Library of Medicine —part of the National Institutes of Health— detailed the condition.

“The sick building syndrome comprises of various nonspecific symptoms that occur in the occupants of a building. This feeling of ill health increases sickness absenteeism and causes a decrease in productivity of the workers…” the article said.

The article listed certain symptoms, including: “dizziness,” “eye, nose or throat irritation,” “headache,” “dry or itching skin,” “fatigue“ and “difficulty in concentration,” attributing them to a specific text.

A 2008 article by the Air & Waste Management Association called “Linking Noise and Vibration to Sick Building Syndrome in Office Buildings” said that “in recent years, several studies have linked excessive noise and vibration in the office to illnesses, such as headaches, dizziness, irritability, and stress. This is similar to the more well-known indoor air quality triggers associated with sick building syndrome…”

If your building’s vibrations or noise is throwing you off, be sure to step out for fresh air and let someone else know about your symptoms.