WELL Design Series: A Case Study in WELL Workplace Design

By taking measurable steps that incorporate WELL policies and ideas, companies can create a healthier, happier workplace.

As my colleague Jay Weingarten, AIA, WELL AP pointed out in his first piece of our discovery article series on WELL Design, most adults spend an average of 90 percent of their lives indoors. In pre-pandemic times, a huge amount of that indoor time was spent in the workplace, and it’s safe to assume that when we are closer to herd immunity, we’ll return to some level of regular in-office work. An integral component of this indoor work life is our understanding of how to create spaces where employees are taken care of mentally, physically and emotionally. Research has shown that healthy, happy employees are also more productive employees – which begs the question: how can we design an office that not only supports but encourages positive health and well-being for employees?

The Courtyard at 301 Grand offers an informal, light-filled space with park-like furnishings and a living wall that allows users to connect with nature. Photo by Jacob Sharp.

The long, but important answer to this question involves a closer look at how we incorporate WELL Building Design strategies to help enhance an organization’s cultural health. WELL is based on extensive research into understanding that an individual’s sense of workplace well-being, (and by extension, workplace productivity) is influenced by a variety of environmental factors. Productivity is often impacted by individual emotions and preferences. For example, people tend to be less productive when they’re unhappy, distracted or angry, but can also be impacted if they’re too cold or too hot, if the indoor air quality feels stale, if the lighting is poor, if there are minimal opportunities to get up and move around. Even the time of day can be important; some people work better in the morning, some work better in the afternoon or evening.

A vast number of emotional and environmental influences impact our day-to-day productivity, to say nothing of the days when we’re under tight deadlines, working on a big project or stuck in back-to-back meetings. To address these influences, WELL design seeks to create choice, allowing individuals to select when, how and where they get their work done – it requires a focus on levels of comfort and well-being and on knowing that one size doesn’t fit all. Let’s take a closer look at one example of how WELL practices can be incrementally incorporated into an office.

WELL-Led Design at 301 Grand

One specific example of WELL design in practice is the work we did for the renovation of our own RDG Planning & Design office (affectionately known as 301 Grand) in Des Moines, Iowa. The principles of WELL design and the concept of choice informed decisions every step of the way: we incorporated sit-to-stand desks, “plug & play” workstations throughout the office, and a variety of open and private locations for employees to use. The office is designed as a flexible landscape that empowers workers to choose the space that suits their preferred work modality and offers variety – whether it be focused, collaborative, educational, social or rejuvenating. With its immersive video wall and large movable tables, The Exchange is an active, high-tech space used for collaboration, shared learning, and virtual reality sessions. The always-on video wall projects design models, project imagery, natural scenery and an office directory. Contrasted against the technology-rich, task-focused elements of The Exchange are The Courtyard and Parlor spaces. Once an outdoor alleyway, The Courtyard offers an informal, light-filled space with park-like furnishings and a living wall that allows users to connect with nature; likewise, The Parlor is a quiet, analog space designed specifically for contemplative tasks.

The Exchange at 301 Grand is an active, high-tech space used for collaboration, shared learning, and virtual reality sessions. Photo by Jacob Sharp.

But our focus on WELL design didn’t just influence straightforward elements of the office space – it also impacted less obvious decisions that are equally as important to positive health and well-being. To enhance indoor air quality (IAQ), we incorporated a natural ventilation system that continuously filters the air, and strategically placed live plants in locations throughout the office to further support clean air. The design uses natural materials so that over time the breakdown of these products won’t result in chemical emissions or hazardous off gases that can negatively impact IAQ.

Whether conscious of it or not, our bodies recognize these elements intuitively. When we’re in an environment that incorporates natural elements such as brick and wood and daylighting, not only do we relax and focus better, our bodies also release endorphins and our blood pressure and stress levels decrease. In response to this, 301 Grand’s design blends natural shapes, finishes, colors and patterns with sleek, modern characteristics. Set against exposed wood ceilings and brick walls are high-touch materials like felted wool. Used in blue and green hues, the felt material promotes a biophilic response, connecting users to the environment and fostering an overall sense of well-being.

Contrasted against the industrial aesthetic of the existing building is a striking art installation titled, “Murmuration.” Recalling the natural phenomenon of birds moving together, shaping and re-shaping as they fly, “Murmuration” is an organic suggestion of softness and movement, nature and joy. The hand-crafted ceramic forms that make up the installation respond to natural light, casting soft petal-like shadows across the interior, and at night, self-illuminating to further emphasize their presence.

Murumation,” the art installation at 301 Grand, is an organic suggestion of softness and movement, nature and joy. Photo by John Hansen.

WELL’s focus on individual well-being can also extend to company policies. As we were renovating the space, we decided it was a good time to revisit many of RDG’s guiding principles and programs to ensure they aligned with our space’s emphasis on wellness. While many did align – we have robust health and wellness programs, offer support for employee fitness expenses, etc. – there were other things we were doing in practice but hadn’t officially codified, like making sure we always have a vegetarian option when we provide lunch, making healthy drinks or snacks available rather than junk food or ensuring that no one is required to go straight from a red-eye flight into client meetings without a rest period. None of these policies require a big financial investment, but they do signify a holistic commitment to the health and well-being of employees.

For most firms, WELL can be as much a process as a thing. Though the path to full WELL certification takes time, by adopting WELL principles and taking measurable steps that incorporate WELL policies and ideas, companies can create a healthier, happier workplace.

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Naura Godar, AIA, WELL AP is a senior partner and architect and has been a WELL Accredited Professional since 2019. Naura has 20+ years of experience in designing a multitude of building types and serves as a studio director for RDG’s College & University team. She has a notable interest in construction administration and works to ensure design intent is implemented during the construction process on every one of her projects.

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