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WELL Building Standard Part 3: “People First Places”
By John Rizor, AIA NCARB CDT WELL AP
The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) has certified nearly four billion square feet of the built environment in over 100 countries worldwide under their pioneering program, the WELL Building Standard (WELL). The IWBI website describes WELL as a “vehicle for buildings and organizations to deliver more thoughtful and intentional spaces that enhance human health and well-being.” This human-centric approach is paramount to IWBI’s ethos, going as far as to include a tagline on their “About Us” page that reads: “People First Places.” So why would an organization founded on principles of building health and performance start with ‘People First’?”
In our work at Progressive AE, we believe in human-centered design. Our brand promise to drive performance through design emphasizes organizational outcomes by keeping stakeholders who will use the space at front of mind. No certification, best practice, concept, or white paper can justify a built environment that does not prioritize the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of its users. Human beings are our most precious resource, and their wellness is of paramount importance regardless of industry.
As we touched on in the first part of this series, the physical and mental health of employees and leadership are also keys to the prosperity and vitality of the workplace itself. Employee health has broad relevance to the recruitment, retention, production, and culture of the organization. Post-pandemic employees and users expect (and often demand) healthy built environments that focus on human wellness and performance.
These issues are even more prevalent in our healthcare environments, whose users are comprised of the “healing” and the “healers.” The benefits of healthy buildings for those recovering from illness and injury are well-documented, but we’ve also witnessed the mental and physical toll the pandemic has placed on our healthcare workers. Implementing WELL standards within healthcare environments can help bolster mental and physical wellness in all inhabitants.
How WELL addresses human health
The benefit of the WELL standard is the analysis and measurement of complex, comprehensive metrics to address our environments’ effect on various biological systems. The goal is to educate, protect and empower our friends, peers, and community members to become more aware of the places and spaces they inhabit daily.
Unlike other building codes and standards, WELL focuses on the health and wellness of a building’s occupants, rather than the technical performance of the facility. There are numerous reference standards, building codes, and governing documents that require a degree of technical performance to broad categories such as air, water, lighting, etc.–the WELL Standard considers these categories’ effect on the biological systems of the human body, including the cardiovascular, digestive, immune system, and more.
Nourishment, movement, comfort, and the mind
Poor nutrition coupled with an increase in sedentary activity can lead to broad detrimental health outcomes. As such, the WELL Standard promotes a heightened awareness of nutrition, prioritizing on-site and locally accessible food sources. Not only does this consideration provide nourishment options within your facility but can also contribute to more walkable communities and alleviate food deserts that impact a community’s ability to source healthy food. These considerations are what differentiate WELL from other metrics–the application of the concept is comprehensive beyond just providing and promoting healthy options on site.
The WELL Standard also examines the cultural implications of food offerings and the safety of food preparation and storage. The surfaces provided for food preparation should mitigate transmission of contaminants, the volume/performance of food storage (freezers, refrigerators, etc.) should prevent food waste and spoiling, and labeling/restriction of common allergy sources contribute to the health and wellness of users. The Standard also describes best practices for accommodating special diets (gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian,etc.) and acknowledgment of cultural restrictions to promote inclusivity within your organization.
To combat the trend toward more sedentary lifestyles, the WELL Standard addresses movement and fitness as critical factors in overall health and well-being. Movement within the WELL Standard is considered at the personal, organizational, and community level by prioritizing access and use of mass transit, active transportation (biking or walking, with amenities to support those functions), and active furnishings.
Providing on-site facilities with equipment and/or facilitated programming is a beneficial recruitment and retention tool as an employment incentive. The WELL Standard also recommends incentivizing the use of public corridors and stairways by prioritizing their location/accessibility and incorporating natural daylight, biophilic elements, art, and music.
Comfort is not often identified as a primary metric for health and wellness, but lack of comfort can be a major distraction and a source of significant physical strain. The WELL Building Standard focuses on thermal comfort at its core, but can also include acoustic, olfactory, and ergonomic comfort to promote overall wellness. In a 2006 study by IWBE, only 11% of buildings provided environments considered “thermally acceptable.” We understand comfort to be subjective and an aggregation of multiple environmental factors including temperature, air movement, humidity, and even clothing–the question is, how can a facility or organization support the broad notion of comfort despite varying interpretations of its individual users?
By providing agency.
The ability to control one’s immediate environment, or the ability to provide multiple TYPES of environments to suit a user’s needs, is critical to personal satisfaction and well-being. Being too warm, too cool, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, being subject to light glare, being distracted by air drafts, or hearing mechanical noise can adversely affect an individual’s comfort within a space and their ability to perform their role. The WELL Building Standard and its emphasis on “People First Places” acknowledges the importance of comfort and has requirements to reduce distraction and provide a comfortable environment for all.
Mental health is at the heart of our current social landscape, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. A unique outcome of the pandemic was how it affected various spheres of life, including but not limited to social (via distancing), physical (via the virus and its symptoms), financial (via employment change, medical expense, etc.), political (via the politicization of policy), and emotional spheres (via the stress imposed on all prior spheres).
The WELL Building Standard, while not a medically recognized resource, has identified a few basic means by which to reduce the stress brought on not just in times of a health emergency, but in our general lives. These include promotion of beauty, incorporation of biophilic elements, providing workplace family support such as parental leave, promoting mental health awareness, prioritizing sleep and avoiding business functions that adversely affect sleep, and promoting altruism and community through service hours or financial contributions. It stands to reiterate that the WELL Building Standard is not an acceptable medical resource but does have multiple licensed medical practitioners as advisors and contributors.
The cases for WELL – humanist and business
Improving the health and wellness of our community, friends, and peers is reason enough to prioritize healthy buildings–the more we educate and empower individuals to have a better understanding of their built environment, the more capable we are to hold organizations accountable for their facility’s performance. Thriving individuals contribute to thriving communities.
Thriving individuals also contribute to thriving organizations. With very few exceptions, labor is the greatest expense of any organization, so an increase in human performance can maximize the ROI of your labor force. In addition to increased performance, adherence to these principles can result in reduced healthcare expense and can be a means to attract top talent. Facilities are a growing resource as post-pandemic recruitment tools as the public becomes more aware of the roles our buildings play in physical and mental health. The WELL Building Standard is the means to objectively prove the value of “People First Places.”
Progressive AE has WELL accredited professionals throughout the firm. We’d love to answer any questions you have about WELL Building Standard or discuss a project you have in mind.