In an urban world where we are increasingly paying attention to our physical and mental health needs, the buildings that we occupy can be designed and managed in ways that help us improve our health and wellbeing. The WELL Building Standard provides indicators that can be used by the designers, owners and managers of buildings to create a healthier built environment.
WELL is a system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the impact of buildings on the health and wellbeing of their occupants. In addition to factors such as air and water quality, aesthetics and lighting in buildings, it also pays attention to the choices available for healthy living, such as fresh fruit and physical activity, and the support that is provided for occupants’ mental health.
It is based on scientific and medical research and literature on subjects such as architecture, medicine, environmental health and human behaviour, and builds on existing international and government standards and performance indicators. It was launched in 2014 after a lengthy development process by professionals who personally implement health and wellness practices in their lives. Its development included a scientific, practitioner and medical peer review.
WELL has over 100 performance indicators within the themes of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. All are designed to make buildings healthier places for working, living, learning and playing.
With air, among the factors that WELL looks at are how well the building is ventilated, whether air filtration effectively cuts the amount of pollution entering the building, and the avoidance of potential sources of pollution such as tobacco smoke or emissions. The levels of common pollutants such as formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and radon have to be kept below certain levels, which – among other things – entails choosing paints and building materials carefully. Entrances can be designed to prevent harmful substances coming in with people, for example through grilles or grates that capture particles from shoes, as well as air seals such as revolving entrance doors. Pests, allergens and bad smells can be controlled with chemicals that do not worsen indoor air quality. High-touch surfaces need disinfection schedules, and cleaning products have to meet stringent standards.
Poor air quality can diminish productivity and cause sick building syndrome, in addition to acute effects such as headaches, fatigue and upper respiratory illnesses. Improving air quality in buildings therefore has significant health benefits for occupants.
With water, WELL requires an evaluation of the building’s water source, and the installation of adequate filtration. Limits are imposed on the concentration of certain organic and inorganic contaminants, and water quality should be tested periodically to make sure that standards are maintained. All occupants should have easy access to water, which can be promoted through drinking fountains indoors and outdoors.
Mental and physical health are closely connected. For example, exercise can be a healing aid for people with mental health illnesses, and reducing stress can increase resilience to physical illnesses. In the mind theme, WELL indicators include incorporating beautiful and mindful design elements to improve mood and morale, and providing dedicated private space for contemplation and relaxation, as well as stimulus management through creating different work or living zones, such as designated quiet zones and collaboration zones.
Physical activity is essential for mental and physical health, and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles threaten our ability to remain fit. Many buildings inherently include simple options for activity, but they aren’t always attractive. For example, using the stairs instead of the lifts brings short bursts of activity into our working lives, but we aren’t likely to do this if stairways are badly lit or dirty. Within the fitness theme, WELL looks at factors such as whether stairways are accessible throughout the day, visible from the entrance of the building, and incorporate aesthetically pleasing elements. Some of the other fitness indicators are whether there are spaces for physical activity indoors
and outdoors, options for standing desks and active desks such as bicycle desks and treadmill desks, and support for people who use active transport, such as bicycle storage and showers. Exercise equipment on site is also measured, specifically age-appropriate, muscle-strengthening and cardiovascular equipment.
Our dietary choices and patterns are influenced by increased availability of healthy foods, reduced marketing of unhealthy foods, and information about the content of foods. In the nourishment theme, WELL considers factors such as the variety and promotion of fresh fruit and vegetables, labelling of allergens, hand-washing stations, minimising high-calorie and processed foods, and signage at eating venues to indicate the availability of healthy food options, including small salad-picking planters that encourage occupants – residents or even office workers – to regularly add fresh, healthy green leaves to their meals.
Within the light theme there is consideration of factors such as whether lighting is adequate for work and focus, reduced solar and workstation glare, and surface reflectivity. Light is the most important cue for our circadian rhythms, which affect our alertness, digestion and sleep. These functions, in turn, affect morbidity such as diabetes, obesity, depression and heart failure. The body needs periods of brightness and darkness to maintain healthy circadian rhythms, as well as the right levels and colours of light to provide cues about time of day.
Within the comfort theme, WELL addresses acoustic comfort, thermal comfort and ergonomic design. A number of options can be implemented to address the reduced productivity, concentration and performance that can be caused by excessive noise. Buildings can include loud and quiet zones, limits can be imposed on noise levels, and surfaces can meet certain noise reflection criteria. Sound masking can also be used to decrease distraction, and provide a certain degree of privacy.
WELL building practices contribute significantly to the health of occupants, and this encourages them to stay longer. Although it is more often marketed for use in office buildings, WELL is applicable to all types of buildings – residential, commercial, office, educational, and even health facilities – and can be applied to new and existing buildings. It is administered by the International WELL Building Institute. www.wellcertified.com