The notion that buildings can impact human performance is nothing new; yet, with growing evidence showing the positive or negative potentiality inherent in the decisions made by designers upon the health of their buildings' occupants, more attention is being given toward directing positive outcomes through the power of intentional design.
The WELL Building Standard (WELL) emerged in 2015 to help designers bridge the knowledge gap between scientific evidence, the design process, and how the two impact human health outcomes. The standard boasts 102 "Features", which offer assistance for building design and construction, organizational operational policies, and transparency through on-going feedback loops—all with the goal of creating truly transformational sustainability in support of healthy built environments—in perpetuity.
Wellness is pertinent for several reasons. First, the U.S. Green Building Council estimates Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors. Indoor environments have upwards of five times the concentration of toxins relative to the outdoors, due to chemical off-gassing of consumer products. Our built environment is not constructed to promote circadian rhythms or active lifestyles, having negative consequences on stress, sleep, weight, etc. These are just a few examples of the way society is beginning to question the structure of our built environment and how it currently supports flows of commerce, often at the expense of the health of the people commerce serves. More and more, people are questioning not just how we can better optimize the built environment but also how the built environment can better optimize our health and experience.
Another reason for this growing awareness is economic. Information from the purveyors of WELL, the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), breaks down the 30-year life-cycle cost of a typical organization as building design and construction (2 percent), building operations (6 percent) and employee cost (96 percent). When viewed from this perspective, organizations should prioritize any positive impact they can have upon their staff satisfaction as money in the bank. Lab environments are no different, especially as they seek to gain and retain top talent, as they are a building typology already at the forefront of energy conservation and other sustainable design imperatives, as lab environments are becoming more open and collaborative (even shrinking), and because often, there are bridges between the research taking place and the mission of improved health.
WELL's 102 "Features", similar to LEED credits, are spread across seven "Concepts": air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Also, similar to LEED, there are "Preconditions" required for certification and "Optimizations" achievable towards enhanced certification levels. The goal is to harmonize with LEEDv4 (23 features) and the Living Building Challenge "Petals" (16 features) through "two-for-one" awarding, assuming the standards shall be applied in unison—not in competition. While not intended to be exhaustive, this and next months' articles will present a two-part introduction to each of the WELL Concepts and provide ideas to inspire the conversation for inclusion of WELL Concepts into laboratory environments. Part 1 will cover air, water and nourishment, while Part 2 will cover light, fitness, comfort and mind—followed by a conclusion tying together learning and themes from both articles.
Air quality is vital for productivity, satisfaction and comfort. It is impacted by outdoor conditions, interior furnishings, filtration and delivery methods, construction practices and on-going cleaning and pest management. It is a complex correlation, further abstracted by the fact that air is invisible! Many protocols for healthy air within WELL reinforce familiar LEED(v4), including integrated pest management (IPM), building flush-outs, and increased ventilation—referencing the newer ASHRAE 62.1-2013. New features encourage the use of ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UGVI), construction equipment emissions, idling policies, hazards abatements for renovations, Building Envelope Commissioning (BECx), air purification and humidity controls in regularly occupied spaces and building dashboards for real-time display of air quality made available to occupants. Many recommendations are mainstays in sustainably-focused lab design due to importance of air quality and its delivery being a major energy consumer. Referenced standards pull from the best resources available, providing an early and clear picture of how projects should operate ongoing, as well as provides annual collection and verification to be shared with occupants and the IWBI.
Water is one of the most technical and least spatially-altering WELL Concepts. While LEED and the Living Building Challenge address potable water reduction, WELL asserts the importance of quality of the water delivered and importance of access to water, asserting the majority of building occupants do not maintain proper levels of hydration, which is crucial for maintaining health. WELL requires on-going testing, filtration and monitoring for a range of hazards, as well as turbidity to ensure taste encourages proper occupant hydration. Like with air, specific filtration, cleaning protocols and UVGI are referenced, as well as a recommendation that water dispensers be no further than 100 ft. from any part of an interior space. While this will not drastically alter lab environments, it could be a challenge in large research suites. WELL is currently attempting to create supplemental typology-specific versions to address such issues; however, like LEED, there is no pending lab-specific pilot on the horizon. As lab design moves towards increasing "collisions" between scientists and departments, the addition of quality drinking water in these spaces can make these encounters healthier.
WELL is the first standard to promote nourishment-focused metrics for the built environment, which apply to onsite cafeterias, catering, and vending. Typically hectic lifestyles discourage healthy eating habits and culturally manifest the spread of several chronic illness, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease. WELL provides guidelines for types, placement, handling, display, quantity, and quality of food sold onsite by providing guidelines for dining spaces, food storage, equipment, utensils, etc. While the standard does not ban less healthy options, it promotes awareness of healthier alternatives, giving them greater prominence. Two interesting metrics it introduces are spaces for onsite food production and communal eating spaces (sized for a minimum of 25 percent of occupants) to encourage mindful eating through socialization. This provides excuses to activate grounds, roof gardens, or even living walls—all increasingly common in labs (particularly on campuses)—offering a glimpse of and appreciation for where food comes from and the effort it takes to produce.
The inclusion of these new wellness parameters, while not fundamentally and physically transforming lab environments, adds much needed spaces and amenities which promote passive health. More so, it enables fundamental testing, treatment, optimization and continual feedback loops with stakeholders regarding environmental quality and flows of goods and services through the buildings. Much of WELL, like LEEDv1, is written for a hypothetical workplace environment. Thus, alterations, additions, and metrics which transform the physical environment are much more aligned with promoting better quality workplaces and experiences. Regarding labs, this may hold promise as they are increasingly becoming more workplace-oriented, which can promote humanistic design elements, behaviors, and positive health outcomes.
Blake Jackson is a registered architect, Associate and is the Sustainability Practice Leader with Tsoi/Kobus & Associates in Cambridge, Mass. He has over 12 years of experience in retail, hospitality, higher education, healthcare, labs and commercial structures. www.tka-architects.com