Recently I attended Worktech Melbourne, where many of the speakers focused on wellness (or health and wellbeing) which seems to have become the next big thing in workplace design. Australia is about to have its first certified “well” building, the new Macquarie Bank building at 50 Martin Place.
When Tony Armstrong from CBRE mentioned this concept of a certified “well” building, and that it had been around since 2013 (with CBRE’S global headquarters actually having being first certified WELL workplace) I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this building assessment tool before. I keep pretty up to date with what is happening in both the world of workspace and of green buildings, and this concept of a well building certification seemed like something that would have grabbed my attention before. Someone suggested maybe it was the Living Building challenge rebranded (it’s not). Whilst the WELL building standard may have been around for a little while, it’s been a pilot (version 1 was just released in February 2015) and there are so far only a small number of WELL certified spaces (coincidentally I have been to one of the restraunts registered for certification in Chicago).
So what is a WELL building? According to the website of the International Well Building Institute, who developed the WELL Building Standard “Buildings should be developed with humans at the centre of design.” Interestingly this sounds almost the same as TILT Studio’s concept for codesign, who also spoke at Worktech (and is fresh in my mind because I have just been reading their book Codesign).
A WELL building is more than just human centred design – a WELL building sounds pretty amazing actually. The Well Building Institute claims not only will a WELL space improve our health, nutrition and fitness, but also our mood and our sleep patterns. And of course our improve our performance. There have long been claims that a well (as in good!) designed building, in particular workplace increases productivity, which one assumes equates to increased performance. From my own experience as a designer,it’s clear to me how buildings can help or hinder the activities within. Buildings improving mood also makes send to me – stimulating design, natual light and sufficient ventilation all play a part in enhancing our mood. But how can our buildings help improve sleep? Or nutrition? Clearly I need to learn more about what a WELL building might be.
So this week I set out to undertake some research on the WELL Building standard to see what it entails and how it differs from and compliments a green building (I should mention that the WELL Building certification is administered by the GBCI who certify LEED). When I started reading the WELL concepts (or categories) it sounds a lot like GreenStar (Australia’s equivalent to LEED) – air, water, comfort… nourishment and fitness are a bit different. WELL has 7 categories (called concepts) are air, water, light, nourishment, fitness, comfort and mind. Like GreenStar these categories are then broken down into features (a total of 102). Some features are baseline essentials for certification and some are optional for extra points and a higher level certification. Also like GreenStar some features relate to the built fabric and some are management, policy or education strategies.
Air – this category is all about indoor air quality so is very similar to what you would expect for a green building.
Water – green buildings tend to focus on water use, WELL is all about water quality.
Nourishment – I am going to quote this one because I am not even quite sure what it might mean yet. “Implement design, technology and knowledge building strategies to encourage healthy eating habits. Provides occupants with design features, behavioral cues, healthy options and knowledge to enable healthier food choices”!!!! How will my building do all that? More research required on this element for sure!
Light – this seems a little more straight forward. It’s all about appropriate light and enough natural light. I can see how lighting can impact health, so many people complain about headaches and muscle tension related to poor lighting. Daylight also regulates our mood and sleep patterns so maybe his is how well buildings help improve our mode and sleep?
Fitness – is about introducing opportunities for occupants to excercise. So I expect this category will include features such as gyms but also design strageties that encourage using stairs over the lifts.
Comfort – again this is someone similar to some similar GreenStar credits. Acoustics and thermal confort a key to providing a “soothing, distraction free environment”.
Mind – this is another category I want to research further. Here we are looking to support mental and emotional health, relaxation spaces are important but so is “providing feedback and knowledge about their personal and occupational environment”. What does that mean?
Obviously to understand the tool and what it means for the design of buildings I need to do a bit more reading (all the above was gleaned from the overview sections of the website). Next step download the standard.
One difference I notice immeadiately on reviewing the executive summary is that “the space must undergo a process that includes an onsite assessment and performance testing by a third- party” – this sounds interesting someone must actually visit the building – and is not required for a GreenStar certification. The assessor will spend up to 3 days onsite undertaking tests and verifying features applied for. This is pretty stringent and I imagine comes at a cost (Certification is charged by the square foot, prices are on the website).
The program allows for certification only of completed occupied spaces. Buildings yet to be tenanted cannot be certified, only designed as WELLL compliant. Like GreenStar or LEED there are levels ranging from silver to platinum. WELL is being designed for many building types, although at this point is mainly aimed at office and institutional projects. Other project types (retail, residential, healthcare and more) are encouraged to register and help develop the pilot programs.
Like GreenStar has recently introduced, certification has a validity period of 3 years after which time, it must be re-verified and certified again.
If you are familiar with LEED, the standard has a comparison table identifying how the WELL features relate and cross over with LEED.
At this point I decided to read up on the nutrition and mind sections of the standard as these are the areas that I feel I have the least understanding of how design could affect space occupants in these areas. So I am by no means an expert on the standard yet!
Unsurprisingly a large part of the nourishment section relates to food and drinks provided or sold by or under contract with the project owner. So if I wanted to have a WELL certified shopping mall and my food outlets would have to meet pretty specific items around fruit, vegetables, fat and sugar as well as serving sizes and labeling. I’d say it would be simpler for a workplace which would tend to provide less food to employees. Hand washing is a feature where design plays a part – provision of disposable paper towels and soap at all sinks as well as minimum sink sizes are required for this feature. Under another feature, food preparation area require separate sinks to prevent cross contamination. (I wonder if a workplace breakout counts as there wouldn’t usually be raw meat there?) There are some specific requirements for refrigerators which might be selected by a designer. The main areas where nourishment features are impacted by design would be the provision of gardening space and spaces for mindful eating, both of which are optional features. Mindful eating is the provision of breakout areas as unsurprisingly getting away from out desks is good for reducing stress, and apparently eating with others encourages healthier eating. The eating space must have fridges, microwaves, sinks etc and contain tables and chairs to accommodate at least 25% of total employees at a given time as well as be located within 60 m [200 ft] of at least 90% of occupants. The new GreenStar interiors tool also requires breakout space, with an area based calculation per occupant and less definition of what the space contains – the GreenStar credit is about providing staff for employee enjoyment as opposed to specially a space for eating (it can be part of an activity based work area)
The mind concept is much more diverse. Covering biophilia, workplace policies in travel and flexible working, charity, beauty, the design process and post occupancy evaluations. Some features would be perhaps difficult to demonstrate objectively – how do we measure if the project contains features intended for human delight and celebration of the spirit? (This feature is apparently derived for the Living Buildings Challenge). The feature related to adaptable spaces and requirements for both diverse spaces for collaboration and private spaces for concentration could start to provide a good guide to the amounts and types of private spaces required within workplaces when clients start pushing design teams to cram in more workstations. Not sure the sleep pods and meditation cushions will take off just yet though! Inclusion of plants has already seen a big increase in Australia due to GreenStar, and forms part of the biophilia features along with patterning from nature, water features and roof top gardens. Other design oriented elements include minimum ceiling heights and the inclusion of artworks. This mind section would be worthwhile for designers to take into account even when not designing specifically to meet the standard.
Having reviewed in more detail two of the seven concepts, only around one third are design related. Clearly certification under the WELL building standard requires a high level of commitment from management and will have far reaching effects on the organisation and it’s employees and building occupants. The question is who will drive adoption of this standard – whilst design teams can educate their clients as to its existence, I think ultimately it will have to be driven from within an organisation’s leadership team for there to be any chance of sucess. Perhaps also we will soon be finding a new consultant on our team, a wellness consultant who might have a background in HR or psychology rather than in buildings. Personally I believe, this could only be a good outcome for workplace design. What do you think? Can design contribute more to health and wellbeing? Will your own or your client organisations be interested and committed to this process? Would you like to have a wellness consultant on your team?