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Insights to Optimize WELL Building

For decades, a prevailing trend in design and construction has been sustainability. With LEED and other rating systems at the forefront, a series of criteria have been well established that focus on the health of the environment. Today, that is evolving.

What about the health, wellness and productivity of the people who occupy the building? 

A new standard known as WELL Building (WELL) is gaining momentum in the market. WELL views sustainability through the lens of employee health and comfort. 

WELL is an expansion on successful sustainability concepts that have changed the face of the industry over the past quarter century and presents a host of new opportunities to improve performance and occupant satisfaction of the buildings that espouse its principles.

While pursuing the WELL certification process, stakeholders and decision makers find ways to leverage WELL to enhance corporate workplace design, as well as unique ways to optimize design and opportunities to impact policy and improve employee wellbeing and productivity. 

The people-centric focus of the WELL rating system is informing changes to both policy and design. Leaders examine their current policies and operations through the WELL lens with a goal of integrating operational and design decisions.

The challenge is that leaders must look closely at operational and human resource policies. Since the rating system touches on so many emerging concepts, even companies with more progressive employee benefits and operations are seeing the rating system push policies in new directions, creating a need to make changes to align with WELL. 

The standard is newly emerging, and companies interested in pursuing certification are still working to fully grasp the new requirements, including extensive initial and continued testing and keeping records, such as maintenance and cleaning logs, to achieve and maintain certification. The certification costs are higher than other rating systems, but on-site testing and verification, which is included in the certification process, adds value in ensuring optimal performance of the building in a similar way that commissioning does. 

The rating system is gaining market acceptance not only because it is complementary to traditional sustainability efforts that focus on conserving resources and the reduction of energy, but because the emphasis is on improving the quality of people’s lives by making changes to where people spend 90 percent of their time: indoors. In this competitive marketplace for talent, it sets a company apart when they show they are looking out for their employees’ well-being. 

Providing + choice 

What are design strategies and policy considerations leaders can consider when designing work spaces? 

Employers can allow their staff to have a free workspace address – to choose their ideal work location, rather than being assigned a static work station. Free movement throughout the space allows an occupant the choice to find a work environment that is tuned to their needs. It gives the employee the opportunity to find a space with the right light levels for the task they are working on and a temperature that aligns with their idea of comfort.  To optimize design, free address should offer not only a choice in location, but alternative seating, levels of privacy, temperature options, and noise.

Large, open spaces with multiple seating options offer the opportunity for independent or collaborative work. The synthesis of providing spaces that work this way and developing policies that allow free address offers a prime example of how design and policy support each other through WELL.

Another opportunity to enhance user experience is through acoustical design. WELL is holistic, as both exterior noise intrusion and internally generated noise – both named WELL Features in the standard – are addressed.

Grouping like spaces creates a gradient of sound between spaces, distancing noisier and quieter spaces from one another.  Flexible floorplans that have ample breakout spaces for individuals and groups fulfill the need for quiet when a main office area is louder. On the flip side, having ample meeting space moves noise generating activities out of the open office and into rooms designed for acoustic separation  

RECHARGE.

Break rooms and eating spaces are another major factor in the experiential quality of a building.

Cafeterias that are inviting—with enjoyable views and flexible seating options—encourage “mindful eating,” another WELL Feature, where employees take a real break from work to enjoy a meal alone or with colleagues. To promote this idea, cafeterias can be centrally located, ideally near high-traffic areas with existing activity. Space planning that factors an understanding of occupant circulation patterns promotes use of the area and makes such places destinations for employee relaxation and decompression. An appealing, versatile design with various seating arrangements that allow people to congregate encourages people to linger and enjoy the space.

The design of a space can reflect the philosophy and atmosphere of a company. Incorporating natural elements in the finishes and textiles and having access to the outdoors contributes to the biophilic qualities of a space by allowing employees to experience nature during their mealtimes and breaks. According to the 14 patterns of Biophilic Design, incorporating biophilic principles of design or patterns can “reduce stress, enhance creativity and clarity of thought, improve our well-being and expedite healing.” As the world population continues to urbanize, these qualities are ever more important. 

AIR + WATER. 

The paradigm shift beyond environmental sustainability to a human wellness focus means that there are sometimes tradeoffs that deprioritize traditional sustainability goals, such as energy conservation, water conservation, and carbon offset of materials, and these tradeoffs potentially increase operational expenses.

One way to justify the potential added expense is to think about what these spaces can become and how they can add value through employee interaction and collaboration. For example, when thinking about the design of drinking stations these can become more than just scattered drinking fountains to active spaces where people can not only get water, but also have impromptu interactions with colleagues. With the addition of seating and white boards, screens and other tools for discussion it can feel more like a destination than a quick pit-stop. Although per WELL, drinking stations are required to be placed every 100 feet for ready access, features like these can be purposely designed to help strike the balance between convenience and encouraging people to be active. 

A component of air quality to consider is the impact that materials have on the space and reviewing materials used against the “red list” of materials that contain harmful chemicals. Designers might have to cast the net wider to find “red list free” materials and campaign for more manufacturers to be transparent about the ingredients they use for their products. This may lead to exploring new products that haven’t typically been on clients’ preferred products lists.

WELL Features dealing with ventilation effectiveness and outdoor air systems seek to ensure adequate ventilation and high indoor air quality for occupants. For example, increased ventilation and airflow improves focus and concentration for employees, but these environmental conditions can require more energy and additional dedicated equipment. 

The same is true for some water filtration methods, such as reverse osmosis, that “wastes” water during the filtration process. It is a balance between providing high quality drinking water that tastes good and  that people want to drink, and conserving water use in the building.

The key is informed decision making: balancing goals of budget and sustainability through the lens of occupant health. 

NATURE CONNECTION. 

While emphasis on providing employees access to the outdoors is gaining ground, how does WELL factor in access to the outdoors and the integration of natural materials?

Designs that provide views to nature are favored, as well as indoor design features such as surfaces that are finished with materials that have patterns and textures reminiscent of natural elements, as indicated in the WELL Feature Biophilia —a quantitative review of biophilic materials. The intent of this feature is to nurture the innate human-nature connection. This includes materials such as wood and stone, carpet and textile patterns that reflect patterns in nature, and balancing earth tones with vibrant colors. 

Gardening on site—either as a rooftop garden, or on the grounds—is gaining momentum. Gardening represents several aspects of WELL, including physical activity, relaxation and mental well-being, good nutrition and local food production. When surplus crops are donated to food pantries, there is an altruistic element as well. Gardening provides a reason to be outdoors, and a greater sense of well-being and higher productivity for participants.

TESTING. 

For WELL certification, a series of tests must be conducted on the space and components of the building. Many companies choose to conduct pre-testing, so they feel confident systems are performing as designed before the site assessor comes to test at the end of the project.

Test criteria guide early planning and design because continued testing guidelines and recertification requirements mean that the facility must perform to the standard long-term.

As WELL building gains momentum in the industry and the second version is released, the insights of early adopters will form the basis of practice for those seeking certification with an integrated design/policy approach as the driving force. The following highlights insights from these early adopters who have already been through certification:

SURVEY. 

As employee wellness is key, soliciting their opinions via surveys – both pre-and post-occupancy – about what does and doesn’t work for them is useful for designing a space as well as for continuous improvement of the building post-construction for occupant satisfaction.

Observing employee behaviors helps companies implement protocols that can increase productivity and hopefully improve work-life balance. 

INTEGRATED PROJECT PROCESS.

An integrated, collaborative process brings all the involved parties to the table through a design charrette. This approach opens inclusive conversations with representatives from all areas of a company’s business.

The keys to effective integration are to study and implement the data gathered from pre-occupancy surveys, gather input on the current state, and solicit suggestions for improvement. The data will help set priorities as the design moves forward. In addition to employee surveys, it can be helpful to borrow successful ideas from other industries, such as hospitality for the cafeteria design. 

The more effort put toward visioning and mapping out the sustainable and health goals for a project, the easier it is to have guidance for decision making throughout the process to keep the project on track. More input only broadens the potential pool of solutions and allows companies to innovate, finding the right solutions for their staff culture.

With the guiding principles of WELL and input from occupants leading to a thoroughly defined vision, buildings that emphasize the health and well-being of the employees within will become more numerous. Occupant comfort in a corporate environment results in happier workers with better physical and mental health, as well as the validation that comes from knowing that their employers assign value to their happiness and comfort. Companies that view their space through this lens will also be in the lead when it comes to attracting, retaining, and engaging top talent, positioning them to be successful in the future. 

Eric Romano, AIA, EIT, LEED AP
Workplace Studio Director

Maggie Pipek, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP
Project Architect | Sustainability + Wellness Specialist