How Healthy is Your Building?
This is a question we’ve been asking our clients—and ourselves—since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Coronavirus brought into sharper relief a trend that is slowly but surely gaining traction: how the built environment can support occupant health and wellness.
One measure we take seriously is the WELL Building Standard. Architect Allison Beer McKenzie and interior designer Annie Morman are both WELL Accredited Professionals (WELL AP) and provided an overview of the challenges and opportunities related to meeting these requirements.
WELL: Like LEED, but for Health
Compare the WELL Building Standard to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the most widely used green building rating system in the world. Available for virtually all building types, LEED provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings.
Just as LEED certification improves a building’s environmental impact through design, the WELL Building Standard seeks to improve a building’s human impact. Developed over 10 years by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and backed by the latest scientific research, WELL sets pathways for supporting physical and mental wellbeing across 10 core concepts, including air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community and innovation.
“It’s not just about sustainability, clean air or clean water,” Annie explains. “We are always looking at how those concepts intersect with architecture and design. But WELL really focuses on nourishment, movement, mental health—it’s much wider in scope.”
What does this mean from a practical standpoint? According to Allison, that’s the biggest point of difference between LEED and WELL certifications. Unlike LEED—where architects can exercise a lot of influence over how program requirements are met throughout the design and construction process—WELL certification relies on operational strategies to be successful.
“LEED was so successful because, as architects, we were able to very thoughtfully and intentionally design against the rating system. But the long-term procedural, cultural, structural and operational policies required of WELL Building Standards often fall beyond an architect’s control,” she says. “The commitment required by building owners may be one of the biggest hurdles facing widespread WELL building adoption.”
WELL Offices vs. WELL Schools
“WELL Building Standards were originally based in workplace design,” says Annie, who sees potential in applying the program’s rigorous standards to other environments, including schools. “WELL just came out with revised standards that I’m excited to bring to our work, especially for our education clients. But as Allison mentioned, making that happen long-term ultimately rests on the owner’s shoulders.”
Consider a conversation we recently had with a school district client. SHP certainly incorporated some WELL Building Standards into our design process: low-VOC paint; ergonomic and movement-based furnishings; huge interior and exterior windows to take advantage of daylighting; beautiful, centrally placed stairs that invite movement; abundant connections to nature through easily accessible, functional outdoor spaces; and quick-and-easy access to clean, cold drinking water at numerous bottle filler stations throughout the building.
Then came the cafeteria.
“We had a really rich, deep conversation around the specific requirements of WELL certification and nourishment: the types of food that are served, the placement and prominence of healthier choices, how to accommodate specific dietary needs, providing nutritional information—and more,” notes Allison. “Day-to-day foodservice operations—that’s not something design can ‘fix.’ It makes achieving WELL certification more difficult.”
Achieving Accessible WELL Standards
Annie and Allison agree that certain good design principles can help clients achieve healthier buildings, even if they don’t fit strictly within WELL Building Standards. Some of the best practices they advocate for in their design include the following:
- Air: ventilation, circulation, filtration, IAQ, operable windows and smoke-free environments
- Water: quality, purification, hygiene, reuse and water filling stations
- Nourishment: cafeteria design, public gardens and edible landscaping
- Light: daylighting, lighting controls and pollution mitigation
- Movement: ergonomic and active furnishings, centrally located stairs and site planning
- Thermal comfort: zoning, humidity and building controls
- Sound: acoustic design, noise management, reverberation and reduction
- Materials: low-VOC paints, anti-microbial surfaces, materials selection, and waste collection and management systems
- Mind: access to nature, color theory and restorative spaces
- Community: ingress and egress, accessibility, inclusivity and universal design principles
- Innovation: prototype designs like our convertible indoor/outdoor atelier spaces, mobile handwashing stations, bipolar ionization and answering the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if…”
Allison says the next step in making WELL standards more accessible is to connect clients with resources and partnerships that can support long-term building maintenance and operations.
“Good building design principles need to be accompanied by both one-off strategies and ongoing resources and policies that promote a healthier building,” Allison explains. “As designers, we can design a great building that promotes health, comfort, safety and satisfaction. That starts with understanding a client’s current goals, strategies and processes and continues with implementing long-term partnerships that keep the building as healthy, as WELL, as it can be.”
Annie points out that—due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic—a greater collective awareness and focus health and wellbeing has opened the door to the potential of WELL buildings. And that’s half the battle.
“We’ve sort of been forced into a greater mindfulness about how we’re eating, moving, living in our environments,” she says. “Just having the conversation about how our spaces can promote wellbeing is a great thing.”
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