Why WELL? Going Beyond Design to Total Health

Over the past few decades professionals involved in the planning and construction of buildings have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of the built environment over the planet and humankind. Third-party building certification systems such as LEED, Green Globes, and Energy Star have been developed to evaluate and rate the performance of projects while also serving as a sustainability guide during design and construction. Recently The WELL Building Standard was created and launched as another certification system, but WELL certification focuses specifically on human health and well-being and evaluates the impact of the built environment on people’s mental and physical health. While the current LEED system has an Indoor Environment Quality section, WELL certification takes into account that we spend 90% of our lives indoors and ensures the space where we live, work, heal and study do not become harmful to our bodies and minds. It goes beyond the integrative process suggested by other standards and considers how a building or built community can influence the nutrition, overall health and physical activity of the buildings end users. WELL Health Design_1The American Journal of Public Health stated in “The Impact of the Built Environment on Health: An Emerging Field”:

“The current generation now faces its own challenges. One challenge is to better understand the broad impact of our built environment on health and then to build future communities that promote physical and mental health. Public health has traditionally addressed the built environment to tackle specific health issues such as sanitation, lead paint, workspace safety, fire codes, and access for persons with disabilities. We now realize that how we design the built environment may hold tremendous potential for addressing many of the nation’s greatest current public health concerns, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, injury, depression, violence and social inequities.”  
The system addresses the impact of specific features in the built environment that could affect the cardiovascular system, the digestive, endocrine, immune, integumentary, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal and urinary systems. According to the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and based on the pilot projects certified under WELL:
  • 83% of the people working in WELL spaces feel more productive
  • 92% said the WELL space has a positive effect on their health and well-being
  • 94% said the space has had a positive impact on their business performance
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) has been the general term used to describe the effects of a poor indoor environmental quality on humans due to the exposure to air contaminants, flaws in ventilation or HVAC systems. These effects are mainly described as fatigue, irritation of eyes, throat, headache, etc., and can be associated to high rates of absenteeism in schools and work spaces, or low productivity. Have you ever felt really tired and sleepy after a couple of hours in the classroom or at a conference room for no apparently reason? It may be caused by the inadequate ventilation in the space, poor quality of daylight or toxins around you. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites scientific literature as evidence that good physical conditions can reduce absenteeism and even improve test scores in schools. This is only one example of how architecture is linked to human wellness. A good design beyond the aesthetic and functional point of view can not only lead to an increase of productivity in learning and working environments, but it can also positively impact the recovery of patients in a health care building and even prevent diseases that develop in our own homes and in public spaces we frequent. Evidence and case studies show the built environment has a clear impact on health and demonstrates how different life is for families living in single and multifamily buildings, and how the latter require special attention regarding the connection to the community and urban planning to guarantee a comfortable and healthy home for their inhabitants. The comparison among multifamily buildings in China and Austria shows how different the quality of life is in each situation by the fact that one has a direct connection to a green area and the other doesn’t. As designers we should consider our projects not as single independent cells but as part of the community and explore ways to connect people to their community and to nature. School children looking at a globe When I first started my architectural studies I never imagined how big of an impact my work would have on people’s lives apart from designing aesthetically appealing and functional spaces. I’ve since learned how the design and location of just stairs and elevators can greatly impact the amount of physical activity a person has in their daily lives. The WELL certification system caught my attention with it’s suggestion to go beyond design and common specifications. For example, selecting a paint is not only about specifying color and purpose anymore but also should be specified as low or zero VOCs (volatile organic compounds) content to prevent adverse health effects as dizziness, headache, irritation on eyes and skin, etc. After realizing that some VOCs may (according to the EPA) be associated with cancer in both animals and humans, how can one feel comfortable or justified in selecting products for a built environment? Although this is a new field, it’s clearly an important one when it comes to the Architect and Interior Designers’ role in achieving well-being through the spaces we design and preventing harm from the design phase through the lifetime of our project. The WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP) credential will launch in November and the program is designed to work with AIA, LEED AP, ASID, and other professional credentials. A free introduction course is currently available that summarizes the certification process and introduces the seven concepts of the standards. WELL is a new tool to help everyone become more aware, and even without certification it’s worth utilizing and incorporating wherever possible to further protect and enhance the space for the clients, end users, and our communities at large. Christian García Arreguín, LEED AP BD+C, received her Master's degree in Sustainable Architecture and Computer Aided Environmental Design from The University of Sheffield and has worked on seven LEED projects and the first New Housing NAMA in Mexico