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In 2015 the WELL building standard, hailed as the first in the world to focus entirely on human health and wellness, was introduced to the UK. Last month, another such standard got its UK debut. Healthy buildings are fast supplanting sustainability as the ‘must-have’ building certification. Martin Read reports.
12 April 2017 | Martin Read
Building standards – they’re not exactly thin on the ground.
The green building certification standards BREEAM (the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) already focus on the delivery of sustainable buildings – so where does the much more recently introduced WELL Building Standard, brainchild of American property developers Delos, fit in? And what are we to make of another healthy building certification scheme, Fitwel, which just weeks ago launched in to the UK?
Certainly, BREEAM and LEED meet sustainability standards in building design, construction, fit-out and operation, but they do so from the perspective of the building rather than the occupants, and are focused more on preserving the environment and cutting costs than enhancing the health of the people inside.
The distinction is in the ‘client’ that the standard sets out to represent. While BREEAM and LEED focus on the sustainability of the building and its impact on the environment, WELL is concerned solely with how the building enhances the health of its occupants. It is based on research conducted in partnership with architects, scientists and doctors.
Perhaps the rise of WELL should not come as a surprise. Worker well-being has become the focus of events across the world, with the diet and hydration of workers suddenly sharing the debate on workplace design alongside more physically immediate topics such as big data and the Internet of Things. How comfortable, how well nourished and our levels of mental and physical fitness for purpose, all are quickly becoming determining factors for the design of the space in which we work.
The WELL Building standard assesses seven areas of building performance (see box, right). Of these, nourishment stands out as something that architects would not previously have prioritised. The ability for building users to make better and healthier choices of food should in itself be a design choice, the standard suggests, as too should opportunities to maintain physical fitness. Making stairwells an attractive alternative to lifts and doing more to reduce sedentary behaviour while in the building is another example of entirely new priorities for designers that the WELL standard forces into discussion.
The standard is vetted by medical professionals to identify protocols such as, for example, the size of plates to control portion size. That again speaks to nourishment of individuals, and is certainly not a detail that BREEAM would focus on, for instance.
WELL is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI – set up in 2013) and third-party certified through IWBI’s collaboration with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) – the certification body for the LEED Green Building Rating System. Meanwhile, BREEAM and WELL have signed a deal offering 35 per cent of credits on each other’s certification schemes – the result of BRE (owner of BREEAM) recognising the extent of nascent demand from London office developers for sustainability and well-being to be designed into best practice standards in their properties.
It’s hardly a secret that most of a company’s costs are tied up in workers’ salaries – so it is perhaps odd that a focus on maximising the health of occupiers has only recently been identified as critical to a building’s performance rating.
The WELL Building Standard has made some dramatic inroads into filling the gap since it came to the UK in early 2015. The number of WELL projects in the UK has doubled in the past 18 months, the largest of which is 22 Bishopsgate, the building set to tower over all others in the City of London and provide the highest profile possible for the WELL building idea. One Carter Lane, the new London headquarters of engineering consultancy Cundall, became the first European project to gain WELL accreditation 18 months ago.Will the standard take off across the UK? It is interesting to note that the rise of the WELL building standard has come at pretty much the same time that worker well-being has gained currency with nearly everybody across the built environment professions.The introduction of another standard to adhere to does indeed add another unwelcome potential cost layer to building projects. But WELL has raced to prominence with the support of major organisations such as the British Council for Offices (BCO), which welcomed the standard’s introduction and called for “a better understanding of related medical science research and a deeper collaboration between owners, architects, engineers, contractors and FM to identify design criteria that go beyond comfort”.
Multinational property firms including CBRE have also signed up as early standard bearers. In 2013, CBRE became the first company in the world to achieve WELL certification for a commercial office space with its corporate HQ in Los Angeles. Post-occupancy feedback from staff has found that 83 per cent of staff feel more productive, 93 per cent think the design allows for better collaboration, and 92 per cent say the space creates a positive effect on their health. The nuances in how WELL assesses categories such as light, air and water could be usefully applied to individual FM fit-out projects.
Fitwel for purpose
Late last month, competition for the healthy building certification crown was joined with the introduction in to the UK of Fitwel, another American-led healthy building certification programme created as a joint initiative led by the USA’s General Services Administration (GSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fitwel is based around 63 “cost effective design and operational strategies for enhancing building environments to improve occupant health and productivity”, according to Joanna Frank, executive director at the New York-based Center for Active Design, which operates Fitwel in the US and beyond. Each strategy is linked to one of seven health impact categories, including what aspects of the environment instills feelings of well-being, what reduces morbidity and absenteeism, and what promotes occupant safety.
In the US, fifty projects are certified by Fitwel while three are already in the process of being certified. UK engineering firm, Integral, has completed the certification programme. According to Frank, a lot of the work required to be Fitwel certified is operational, with responsibility for changes falling to FMs. She says that Fitwel could easily fit into an organisation’s renovation, refurbishment and refitting programmes.
WELL was formulated by American developer Delos, an organisation whose mission is “to build a better world”. Founder and CEO Paul Scialla talks of building owners and tenants “waking up” to the topic of human well-being, comparing the 90 per cent of ongoing building cost represented by the salaries of building occupants to the multi-trillion-dollar industry in support of the 3 per cent of a building’s ongoing cost that is energy use. An unusual assessment, perhaps, but it’s far from un-fashionable for it to be put it in such terms. Clearly, measuring a building’s impact on occupants is a discipline whose time has come.
Seven steps to WELLness
The WELL Building Standard sets performance requirements in seven categories relevant to health in the built environment, each comprising a series of features, totalling more than 100, which must be applied to each building project.
They are intended to address specific health, comfort or knowledge aspects, meaning that a WELL-certified space can help to create a built environment that improves the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns, and performance of its occupants. Each category is scored out of 10 and, depending on the total achieved, silver, gold or platinum certification is awarded. Certification includes the submission of project documentation and onsite audit, which can result in the award of a silver, gold or platinum standard. James Cornwell, environmental and quality director at design and fit-out firm Fourfront Group, explains.
Although other standards address air quality from the perspective of heating and ventilation, WELL goes further in determining if the quality of air – whether through air conditioning or natural ventilation – meets “medically validated performance based thresholds for healthy indoor air quality”.
Water is approached from the perspective of the consumer, putting the emphasis on implementing design, technology, and treatment strategies to achieve optimal water quality for all internal water uses.
Sets protocols to reduce the availability of unhealthy foods in the environment and encourage healthy eating among building inhabitants.
Lack of exposure to natural light can have an adverse effect on quality of sleep, level of alertness, emotional state and overall well-being. WELL seeks to ensure that room illumination minimises disruption to the body’s circadian rhythm while providing appropriate illumination for all tasks.
The objective is to provide building occupants with opportunities for physical activity. A WELL certified building must meet a performance threshold that includes access to a gym, fitness protocols and technologies.
This takes a holistic approach to address the different factors at work – ergonomics, acoustics, electromagnetic fields, hygiene, temperature control and air flow – to enable occupants to experience comfort, both physically and mentally.
This implements design, technology, and treatment strategies to provide a built environment in which the occupant’s mental and emotional well-being is enriched. It even introduces the idea of biophilia – that there is an instinctive bond between humans and nature.