While LEED is nearly a household name, not everyone has heard of WELL, the first building standard for human health and wellness. Used for an office, LEED looks at environmental sustainability, but WELL is focused exclusively on the health of employees, whose salaries account for the vast majority of the total cost of any commercial building. The new rating system, which was just released last fall by the International Well Building Institute, is in its pilot testing phase, but already a number of companies and organizations are jumping on board. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which is transforming its 20-year-old Washington, D.C. headquarters into a state-of-the-art Center for Landscape Architecture, will aim for both LEED Platinum and WELL Silver in its renovation.
At an event in Washington, D.C., Whitney Austin Grey, International Well Building Institute, said WELL will help architects “design out health problems.” Like others, she believes the built environment has a major impact on health, mostly a negative one. Chronic diseases — like obesity and stress — are in large part created by poor environments that encourage sitting and eating fattening foods, and limit walking and access to nature. As a result, “planners, architects, landscape architects have a bigger impact on our health than physicians.”
As Nathan Stodola, also with the Institute, explained, the new system, which is being tested in everything from residential to commercial to restaurant environments, has 7 categories, with 122 features, and 450 requirements. Categories include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. WELL seeks to create indoor building environments that “create habitats for life.” The prerequisites and credits are based on “best empirical research and practices.”
Grey provided a brief run-down of each of the seven categories as they relate to offices:
Air: Indoor air quality and building materials are deeply linked. “There are about 75,000 chemicals in existence. About 7,000 have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a further 700 are known to be carcinogenic.” While it’s hard to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a chemical and cancer, “we can look at the chemicals in a environment we don’t know the impact of and take precautions.” WELL calls for both strict air quality testing and details on the materials of all products used in the building.
Water: While there is source treatment of water in the U.S., urban water infrastructure is eroding and outdated building pipes can be problematic. “There is great misuse of water in infrastructure.” WELL aims to get all heavy metals out of the water coming into a building and moving through it. For some buildings, that will mean completely redoing the pipes.
Nourishment: “We need to create full health for employees, which means staff cafeterias or caterers don’t serve fried foods.” Grey also talked about making smart use of “choice architecture.” For example, cafeteria managers can put healthy food front and center and make it more difficult to get to the M&Ms. “We have to make it easy to do the healthy thing.”
Light: “We are concerned with circadian rhythm issues. Humans are meant to be exposed to light; its how our organs function and repair themselves.” Grey said there are studies showing that shift workers who don’t have access to daylight have higher rates of some cancers. “Light is not optional, but far too often it’s a privilege.” Already, some $63 billion in company losses can be associated with poor work performance due to sleep deprivation, which can be tied to issues with the circadian rhythm.
Fitness: “Employees need to be active throughout the day.” To accomplish this, employers must realize not all environments are for everyone. “It’s not ideal for employees to be sitting 8 hours a day. Going to the gym for half an hour in the morning it’s going to help.” Wider staircases can help as well as using “choice architecture” to force people to circulate.
Comfort: This is about everything from acoustics to temperatures to ergonomics and even smell. If any of these things are off, they can cause stress.
Mind: “Buildings need to incorporate beauty and equity.” Employees should have access to everything from spaces for respite to progressive travel policies to paid volunteer work opportunities, in the effort to restore productivity and improve wellness.
Already, efforts to achieve WELL are shaping the overall design of the new ASLA headquarters. For example, ASLA is cutting a hole through its roof, putting in a light well with a sunbeamer that will intensify and direct light all the way into the basement level so all employees benefit (see image above).
But putting all WELL asks for into practice may prove to be a challenging but fun puzzle, said Gensler architect Katie Mesia, who explained how LEED rewards buildings for reducing energy use and therefore lighting use, while WELL calls for having “light on your face and in your eyes” at all times to restore the natural circadian rhythm. She said this will be tricky to reconcile the competing requirements, but one possible solution will be to use blue lights, which have a healthier color temperature under cabinets and in task lighting, leaving out ceiling lights all together.
Another challenge relates to water: D.C.’s water standards are about 4 times lower than what WELL wants. “The standard here is not good.” A water filtration system would need to be added to ASLA’s building, but the existing mechanical system doesn’t have space for UV light or carbon filters. Replacing the existing system may be cost-prohibitive.
But Mesia is optimistic she can find solutions with ASLA: “they are a special, progressive client. I’m getting into the heart of their business, and they have opened and exposed all of that.” Plus, using LEED and WELL in combination has meant the challenge is really just “choosing between multiple healthy solutions.”