WELL Design Series: Who Needs WELL anyway?

February 11, 2021
Architecture Interior Design Senior Living Senior Living Interiors

Five ways a WELL-certified building might make you healthier. 

The WELL Building Standard (WELL) is becoming increasingly prevalent and gaining recognition among the general public. As far as building and construction standards go, few systems, including the fairly well-known LEED rating system, have seen a similar level of recognition among the general public. Thanks to a recent PR campaign, awareness of the WELL Building Standard and the impacts of building on our health is growing even further; and as awareness increases, it’s important to understand the ways WELL is revolutionizing the way buildings address occupant health and well-being.

Launched in 2014 by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), WELL is a building standard focused exclusively on human health and wellness that can be applied across multiple building types. WELL marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research to harness the built environment as a vehicle to support human health and well-being. WELL focuses on indoor air quality (IAQ) and lighting, as well as ergonomics, food quality and the implementation of HR policies that positively impact mental health.

So, can a building really make us healthier?

It’s a valid question. When we think about “getting healthier,” we often point to individual choices such as changing eating habits or increasing movement or exercise. But, consider that Americans spend on average 90 percent of their time indoors. Between work and home, much of our time is spent inside where – thanks to increased use of synthetic building materials, furnishings, personal care products, pesticides and household cleaners – concentrations of some pollutants have increased over time.

We’re also creatures of habit, healthy or otherwise. Habits help to get us through each day because they take a lot of the thinking out of our behaviors (consider how many “habits” you employ in a single morning). The challenge in our habitual behavior is that it can be difficult to reverse course – habits are difficult to change because they become innately ingrained in brains, they’re practically automatic.

Alvine Corporate Offices in Omaha, Nebraska by RDG. Photo by Tom Kessler.

WELL aims to influence the spaces we occupy to support, reinforce and introduce us to healthy habits. It seeks to impact more than just the physical building, but also the policies and “rules” that govern occupancy. To support WELL, IWBI and Green Building Certification, Inc. (GBCI) offers a professional certification, WELL AP, a distinction that signifies extensive knowledge of human health and wellness in the built environment. WELL AP trains designers, sustainability consultants and real estate industry professionals on how to create spaces that support human health.

Knowing that we spend a good chunk of our time inside and that health and well-being are deeply impacted by our habits, what are we to do?

Though you may not be fully aware of it, the buildings you reside in can actually make you healthier. Whether subtle or explicit, building design changes can greatly impact user well-being.

Here, we look at five ways WELL-certified buildings can improve health:

  • Movement. Buildings can encourage or discourage us to be more active throughout our day. In the past, there’s been a great deal of emphasis on reaching 10,000 steps a day to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. Though additional research has shown this number may not be the gold standard we once thought (the origins of the number go back to a 1960s Japanese pedometer marketing campaign), there is merit in focusing on consistent movement and activity. And this movement doesn’t necessarily need to come from high-intensity, hours-long workouts. Regular movement throughout the day has been demonstrated to be just as effective as a large burst of activity followed by relative inactivity. The more we can do to maintain movement throughout our day, the better. For instance, designing an attractive stair as a focal point of the building, with elevators located off to the side, may inspire folks to take the stairs. Strategically located printers, mailboxes and social and dining areas can encourage users to walk between frequently used destinations. And of course, including activity spaces such as pools and gyms in-house can help increase the physical activity of building occupants.

  • Communication. We are healthier when we are able to effectively communicate with those around us. Features within WELL focus on creating spaces that improve our ability to communicate by reducing disruptions and supporting speech intelligibility. For instance, something as simple as assessing early on in a project where distracting or undesirable noises might come from can significantly impact the experience of a building. WELL also encourages the consideration of more nuanced features such as the design of reverberation times to support speech intelligibility as well as the design of floor-ceiling assemblies to reduce disruptive impact noises.

  • Stress Management. Our lives are inherently stressful, and our health can be most improved by our ability to manage stress rather than our ability to avoid stress. Buildings can support healthy stress management through physical interventions such as incorporating daylight, offering views to the outside, use of natural elements and organic materials and including restorative spaces such as wellness rooms or fitness areas. Non-physical interventions such as wellness programs, tobacco cessation support and access to substance abuse services can also be critical in helping building occupants get or stay healthy, both inside the building and outside of its walls.  

RDG – 301 Grand Office Remodel in Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by Jacob Sharp.
  • Thermal comfort. It’s difficult to be productive if you are cold, hot or both. Many buildings are still designed to and operate on a thermal comfort standard that was developed in the 1960s, during a time when most office workers were men wearing suits. Updating thermal comfort standards to meet the needs of modern office workers can provide an environment that’s comfortable for everyone. These adjustments can, in turn, benefit occupants’ mental and physical health. For instance, allowing users to choose the location of where they work can leverage a building’s natural daily temperature variations; likewise, designing and installing mechanical systems that aid in accentuating these variations can create more equitable thermal comfort.

  • Sustenance. Most buildings offer access to food or beverage options – whether a full-service restaurant, beverage dispensers or a hospitality station that offers drinks and snacks. The food that we have access to is most likely what we will consume, out of both ease and familiarity. Those habits might then get translated to life outside the building – the more accustomed we become to healthy options, the more we will habitually gravitate to those options; the converse is true of unhealthy options. Promoting healthy options inside buildings can improve our health and the health of our families outside those very buildings as well.

So, who needs WELL anyway? It turns out, we all do. Everyone can benefit from increasing the amount of time they spend in buildings that focus on improving our health in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. At the end of the day, our health is a personal responsibility, but as a society, we can create environments that make that responsibility easier for individuals to manage.

Written by Jay Weingarten, Architect