The WELL Building Standard hopes to ensure that the buildings we all use are healthy places in which to spend time. Does this new standard offer anything new? Dave Howell reports.

Environment managers have understood for decades that creating healthy environments across their premises deliver real world benefits. The development of so-called green buildings has continued with a number of standards that this can be measured against.

We already have a number of tools to assess the environmental rating of any given building. Various green rating systems including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), BRE Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) standards and Green Star Communities tools, offer managers a guide as to how well their buildings are performing.

The World Green Building Council in its report into health and productivity in offices states: “Our understanding of the health, wellbeing and productivity implications of office design is deepening, aided by advances in technology and a growing awareness amongst a small number of enlightened developers, owners and tenants. For instance, it is increasingly clear that there is a difference between office environments that are simply not harmful — ie the absence of “bad” — and environments that positively encourage health and wellbeing, and stimulate productivity.”

Against this backdrop the WELL Building Standard has been developed — that is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. WELL is administered by the International WELL Building Institute.

Darren Bilsborough, CEO of consultancy Office Space Matters and author of Don’t Worry About The Rent: Choosing new office space to boost business performance comments: “LEED and BREEAM were created as environmental rating tools and therefore they are biased toward buildings which respond best to those concerns, the planet is therefore the main beneficiary. WELL has been created with people as the ultimate beneficiaries of how a building responds to the requirements specified in the standard. These tools are therefore quite different in their approach and the (ultimate) goals they hope to achieve.”

New tools

James Cornwell is Director of Area Sq, an independent office design and fit-out specialists who work directly with occupiers, landlords, developers, project managers and architects across a broad range of business sectors. When asked whether WELL offers anything new when compared to existing standards such as LEED and BREEAM, he replied: “The relationship between people and the building in which they are working is vital, but it is often an area that is overlooked. The traditional methods of making a workplace healthy, including improving access to fresh air, use of sustainable materials, glare control techniques and smart acoustic planning, have made — and continue to make — a positive impact on employee health and wellbeing. However, the WELL Building Standard takes this focus a step further, and addresses these important workplace issues in a different way to the LEED and BREAM standards.

“The standard marries the concern of human health and wellbeing with the desire for environmental sustainability. The guidelines enhance the potential performance of the built environment features that are associated with the seven categories relevant to occupant health: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. In an attempt to be proactive instead of reactive, WELL considers all components of a building and analyses how that could affect an occupant’s health and comfort.

“Unlike previous standards, like LEED, BREEAM and Ska, WELL allows for total human sustainability and directly relates each of its features to body systems such as cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive, immune, muscular, nervous, reproductive, integumentary, skeletal and urinary.”

Is it now possible to develop working spaces that promote health and wellness?

“Yes, most definitely. Based on seven years of medical research, the WELL Building Standard encourages organisations to explore the connection between the buildings where people spend more than 90% of their time, and the health and wellness that impacts their performance. The standard outlines the areas that require due consideration in this pursuit and, thanks to the sheer amount of detail, health and wellbeing initiatives will benefit from applying the results of this scientific research into the built environment.”

Does sick building syndrome still exist in your view?

“Before the WELL Building standard came into being, steps had been taken to improve the air quality within buildings, but sick building syndrome still definitely exists. And that’s not just my opinion; it’s based on tangible research. Global, independent think tank Leesman can reveal that only 38% of the 135,000 employees they’ve spoken to are satisfied with air quality in their offices. Lack of fresh air is a key performance inhibitor and, although other standards do address air quality from the perspective of heating and ventilation, WELL goes further in determining if the quality of air — whether via air conditioning or natural ventilation — meets medically validated performance based thresholds for healthy indoor air quality.”

Are there easy wins for managers in businesses and organisations when the WELL standard is considered?

“Over the past 12 months there has been a massive shift towards putting people first, which comes at a time when statistics show the rising cost to the UK economy of sick leave and long-term illness — estimated at £14 billion a year according to the CBI. In a British Council of Offices survey in 2014, 35% of employees felt that their employer did not value their wellbeing.

“What’s more, Leesman’s research reveals that only 55% of employees think their workspace enables them to work productively. The mental health impact for an employee who wakes each morning knowing that the workplace they are about to commute to does not support them working productively is considerably detrimental to business prosperity, let alone the overall health and wellbeing of the working nation.

“The standard, therefore, benefits both employers and employees. Through bringing health and wellbeing to the forefront of design, designers will be able to create better built environments for people. This will, in turn, reduce absenteeism, improve retention and make employees happier and healthier.”

Do WELL, LEED and BREEAM go far enough to deliver real healthy working spaces?

“BREEAM, LEED and Ska meet sustainability standards in building design, construction, fit-out and operation. But they do this from the perspective of the building, rather than the occupants, and are focused more on preserving the environment and cutting costs than necessarily enhancing the health of the people who inhabit the building.

“Whereas the WELL Building standard looks at the perspective of the people within the built environment. I would say that this combination of environmental assessment methods, in addition to the world’s first building standard to focus exclusively on human health and wellness, does go far enough to deliver healthy workspaces. However, the onus is on employers to work with the designers and architects who are able to breathe life into the standards, and into the buildings.”

What does the future look like for the design of working spaces that promote wellbeing and health?

“The productivity of staff, or anything that affects their ability to be productive, should be a major concern for any employer, and therefore the building in which they operate, should be a key focus. Working spaces that promote wellbeing and health will not only be able to attract and retain talent, but they will also contribute towards improving the health of Britain’s workforce. Longer-term this could take the pressure off the NHS. Happier people are generally more engaged at work. Considering salaries and benefits typically account for 85% of an organisation’s operating costs, this is an enormous opportunity to maximise the potential of a workforce, improve business productivity and employee morale.”

The creation of the WELL Standard is certainly a major step forward in the support of healthy working environments. Eszter Gulacsy, healthier buildings specialist, Mott MacDonald concluded: “A benchmarking system doesn’t have enthusiasm, willingness to collaborate and integrated thinking, which are all required in order to deliver healthy workspaces. What benchmarking systems can do well is to guide project teams and set performance criteria that are backed up by research and knowledge, so the wheel does not need to be reinvented every time. In that sense, it’s irrelevant to compare these rating systems as they can all be abused in one way or another, if the project team is not pursuing certification for the right reasons.”

Last reviewed 23 June 2016