Healthy buildings may be the breath of fresh air in the world of sustainable design. Green building proponents and practitioners increasingly promote healthy building outcomes. New certification programs, such as the WELL Building Standard, up the ante. A building’s health may soon become a common conversation with clients.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates Americans spend 93 percent of their life inside (87 percent indoors and 6 percent in automobiles). Is it any wonder a healthy building movement would emerge? Researchs shows the impact of buildings on human health. Green building certifications that address thermal comfort, indoor air quality and lighting already improve building occupants’ health. WELL goes further.


“LEED set out a baseline for how green building practices can improve the health and wellness of a building’s occupants, including access to daylight and outdoor views, active design, improved air exchange, and better materials choices,” said Rick Fedrizzi, founding chairman and former CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council and chairman and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI).


WELL addresses seven concepts related to the health and wellness of building occupants: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.


“As human health and wellness can impact everything from stress levels to alertness to productivity, it is no surprise building owners, developers and corporate tenants are now incorporating design and construction elements that positively contribute to people’s health,” Fedrizzi said. “We and others believe this helps attract and retain talent, lowers absenteeism, and potentially improves overall human well-being.”

Lighting in particular can have a profound effect on building occupants and is a key element 
of WELL.


“Light is the primary driver that aligns our body’s biological clock with the sun’s 24-hour day,” Fedrizzi said. “Circadian lighting provides optimum light exposure for different times of day, such as energizing light in the morning and an evening ambiance that prepares the body for rest and, therefore, can help improve one’s energy, mood and productivity and overall sleep quality.” 


The building community takes note


An emphasis on healthier buildings has grown in recent years. In 2014, McGraw-Hill Construction (now Dodge Data & Analytics) produced its SmartMarket Report, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings.” Building owners, architects and contractors (among others) were interviewed to glean their market exposure and future role in healthy building design. 


“The incentive for green building has been to keep buildings from doing harm to the environment,” said Donna Laquidara-Carr, industry insights and research director, Dodge Data & Analytics. “Now there seems to be a direction where buildings can actually enhance occupant health.” 


In the report, some 47 percent of business owners attuned to building health reported healthcare-cost reductions between 1 and 5 percent. Sixty-six percent saw improved employee satisfaction and engagement while 56 percent saw lower absenteeism. Finally, 21 percent reported higher employee productivity. The contrast lies in the remaining respondents, who didn’t know if they saw any change. 


Seeking measurements and data


“What’s lacking is actual data tied to results,” Laquidara-Carr said. “There’s no true tool to measure rate of return on healthy building investment; not a lot of measurement is going on at this point. Owners often evaluated building health based on employee comfort complaints. To me, this illustrates the real need for greater tools that can capture a fuller picture of building health beyond issues of thermal comfort.” 


Owners, architects and contractors favored a return on investment that showed greater worker productivity and satisfaction. Contractors also would factor in reduced healthcare costs. Beyond better data, contractors and owners said they need to see a demand in healthy building. Locales with stringent codes are possible triggers.


“Owners also felt there just wasn’t enough contractor expertise in healthy building,” Laquidara-Carr said. “It was learn as you go. Adding WELL-accredited staff could be a way to address this need.”


A WELL project tests a design team


The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) opened its new Washington, D.C., headquarters in May 2016, calling it “a living laboratory.” Designed with optimum sustainability in mind, it earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification. Occupant health is an equal concern as ASID hopes to also achieve WELL Platinum. 


“The 8,500-square-foot office includes biophilic design (engaging nature through natural light, vegetation, and organic forms and materials) to reduce stress and promote health; enhanced air quality; stringent water quality standards; and a lighting system that is both efficient [and] helps to regulate the body’s circadian rhythms,” said Ken Wilson, principal in Perkins+Will’s Washington, D.C., office.


David Cordell, senior associate and senior technical coordinator, Perkins+Will, served on the project and navigated his deep understanding of LEED with his new WELL-AP training. 


“LEED and the Living Building Challenge have paved the way to think about indoor air quality, light quality and material health from the built environment,” Cordell said. “WELL takes these things to a new level with 100 features aimed at elevating the health quality in a building. LEED is bricks and mortar and building efficiency. WELL is operational protocols. Occupancy behaviors are especially important in WELL. You can’t certify if you don’t buy into it.” 


While a construction design team applying LEED analyzes a building to discover sustainability solutions, WELL might add other voices. In the ASID project, the input of the building landlord and other tenants was sought.


“ASID moved from a building they owned to a fit-out office space, making them one tenant out of many in a building,” Cordell said. “So the challenge was how do you proceed to earn WELL certification in isolation of other building tenants? Working with shared mechanical systems and water filtration in core restrooms were just two areas to be resolved, which we did.”


Internalizing light


ASID added a Lutron Quantum Control circadian lighting system that can recognize geographic location, the time, date and the 24-hour natural lighting patterns of the day. 


“We start the day with cooler white light (5,000K) that is brighter and more intense,” Cordell said. “Light levels dim a bit as the day wears on and the light warms (2,700K). This creates psychologic changes. One has more energy at the start of the day. As the day draws to a close, the attending light is quieting your body.”


Open areas of the office feature fluorescent fixtures with warm and cool-colored tubes that run on dimming drivers and are activated at the appropriate time of the day. Color-changing LED lighting is featured in the offices, collaborative areas and corridors.


“To register circadian benefits, you need more light entering the space,” he said. “To avoid glare on computer screens and other surfaces, we bounced light from walls and ceilings and generated as much ambient light as possible. The long, rectangular shape of the office places most conference and office spaces no further than 20 feet from windows and natural light.


“WELL did have some trade-offs with LEED when it came to energy performance in this project. For us, the circadian control system was not always the most energy-efficient. The carbon filtration system also required more power to push air through, so we lost some efficiency there, too,” Cordell said.


IWBI recently introduced several WELL “crosswalks” to streamline the certification process for buildings registering under multiple programs including LEED, Green Star and the Living Building Challenge, Fedrizzi said.


Similar to LEED, Cordell’s team submitted required documents dictated by WELL, received comments back and then responded. The team scheduled the on-site review, a major component of WELL. Program certification is valid for three years and recertification is required. 


“WELL isn’t this altruistic effort,” Cordell said. “The Centers for Disease Control cites $153 billion is lost annually in the U.S. through reduced productivity due to chronic illness. The World Health Organization says 20 percent of individuals’ health status is based in the quality of their environment. Theoretically, if we could make 20 percent healthier with good interior building health, that’s $20 billion brought back.”


Fedrizzi added to this idea.


“The benefits that come with healthier, more productive employees far outweigh the one-time costs,” he said. “Fortune 500 companies spend, on average, $700 per employee, per year on (fractured but well-intended) wellness programs whose impact is hard to quantify. WELL delivers immediate and measurable benefits for every employee. We break that down to a one-time, $100 per employee. That’s significant.”


While WELL certification can be expensive, a number of early projects are proving otherwise.


“[In February], the first project in New York City achieved WELL Certification, and they were able to do so for less than $1 per square foot,” Fedrizzi said. “Given WELL is still young, this low-cost achievement is very encouraging and underscores the fact that WELL building decisions are not necessarily more costly decisions, but simply more conscientious ones. Many other early projects have also achieved certification at this low-cost level.”