Make Your Buildings WELL: A New Design Standard for Health
This diagram—a representation of the Delos Real Estate wellness database—shows the complex interactions between human health and the built environment, according to creators of the WELL Building Standard.
By Paula Melton
Feeling stressed? Having trouble sleeping? Unable to shed those extra pounds? Maybe your office is to blame—and a new building standard called WELL could help. The standard, now being piloted in homes, offices, and hotel rooms, takes a proprietary set of health-focused design guidelines used by real estate developer Delos and attempts to codify and share them with the world.
When you think of “healthy buildings,” indoor air quality and toxic chemicals may be the first things that come to mind, but WELL will take a holistic view, incorporating several alternative-health concepts with the idea of promoting psychological and emotional well-being as well as physical health.
Delos worked with the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Columbia Medical School to develop its original guidelines, and it is now working with a diverse advisory board that includes wellness guru Deepak Chopra, M.D.; former U.S. Representative Dick Gephardt; and Jason McLennan, CEO of both the Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute and co-creator of the stringent Living Building Challenge rating system. Although the standard will not be published until 2013, and stakeholder groups and the public haven’t been invited to comment on WELL, McLennan discussed its goals and shared a few details with
“We’re looking at health domains or areas where doing the right things within the built environment contributes to better outcomes,” McLennan said, citing better sleep as an example. Promoting sleep is seldom a part of the green building conversation, he notes, but “our ability to get really good sleep is essential to our well-being,” and the places where we live and work—especially how they are lit—have been shown to affect the amount and quality of our sleep. Although rating systems like LEED already offer incentives for introducing natural daylight, which not only saves energy but in some studies has also been shown to improve both sleep and daytime productivity, WELL takes the connection between lighting and sleep much further—and extends it to residential and hospitality settings as well. “We have requirements for a combination of features that ensure a much better sleep environment,” McLennan said, “everything from black-out shades to the proper light spectrum for hallway night lights.”
If designing the places where we spend most of our time can help us sleep better, then we should be doing it, McLennan argues. By integrating the science of wellness with sustainable building design and operations, he says, the WELL standard is “beginning to outline and provide guidance about what it means to optimize our environment.” Other issues the standard is likely to address include respiratory health, cardiovascular health, and healthy weight and metabolism.
As far as the design guidelines themselves, “there are actually about 48 specific amenities that we’re dealing with right now,” McLennan told
EBN, naming mechanical systems, air filtration, cleaning practices, lighting design, acoustics, and electromagnetic fields (or EMFs, a type of radiation we’re exposed to routinely in homes and offices) as potential areas of focus for the standard.
The standard will also take into account the potential toxicity of building materials—particularly interior finish materials, furnishings, and other items with which building occupants come into direct contact. McLennan is working to get the Living Building Challenge’s Red List of proscribed ingredients included in WELL, at least for interiors.
There are many aspects of sustainability the program will not address, but Delos says WELL is intended to work as a complement to LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and other rating systems. However, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), creator of LEED, was quick to point out that their systems already take health into account.
“We agree that health and well-being are critical, witnessed by thousands of LEED projects that have used strategies to protect indoor environmental quality with daylight, views, supplemental ventilation, and other practices,” Chris Pyke, Ph.D., vice president of research at USGBC, told
EBN. “This has resulted in higher occupant satisfaction and other measures of well-being.” He added that “LEED users are also innovators on health-related issues,” citing New York City’s Active Design Guidelines and USGBC’s Center for Green Schools as examples.
McLennan argues that a separate wellness standard is still needed: “If we try to make a single tool do everything, it ends up doing nothing very well. To ram all the things we’re thinking about into LEED would be more confusing and less effective.”
Delos and its partners announced its creation at the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2012 and committed to piloting the standard in 41 hotel rooms by the end of 2012 and in six homes and 500 office spaces by the end of 2013; the company also committed to implementing the standard in a much larger number of offices, living spaces, and hotel rooms by 2017. An organizational model for implementation, including financial concerns, has not been announced.