The new WELL building standard guides the way towards supporting employee wellbeing and shows how workplaces can improve health and wellbeing. Investing in the health of employees can yield a valuable return on investment since employee salaries are a significant cost of doing business.

A new tool emerges

The WELL Building Standard (WELL) was developed specifically to provide best practice guidance on factors that impact occupant health. It resides at the confluence of architectural design interventions, wellness programme concepts, and company operational practices with the clear priority being human health issues. Administered by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), it is a third-party certification tool that can be used to inform the design process by providing a framework of interventions, which contribute to healthier workspaces that support employee health.

“Our mission is to bring human health to the forefront of building practices and reinvent buildings so they are not only better for the environment, but also for the people in them,” says former IWBI senior vice president Michelle Moore. “Historically, sustainability has focused on the impact that buildings have on our climate and environment. Bringing wellness into the conversation adds a new emphasis on the individual, and opens up the field for research and development.”

At minimum, the standard provides a useful checklist of potential strategies to incorporate within any new building, renovation or interior fit-out commercial project. It addresses issues such as air and water quality, lighting, fitness, comfort, biophilia and healthy food. Upon successful implementation, projects can pursue the certification, which has global recognition. Notable aspects include:

  • The first standard of its kind that focuses solely on the health and wellness of building occupants.
  • The WELL Building Standard marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based health and wellness interventions.
  • Identifies 100 performance metrics, design strategies, and policies that can be implemented by the owners, designers, engineers, contractors, users and operators of a building.
  • WELL is based on a thorough review of the existing research on the effects of spaces on individuals and has been advanced through a thorough scientific and technical review.
  • WELL Certified spaces and developments can lead to a built environment that helps to improve the mood, sleep, comfort, nutrition, fitness, and performance of their occupants.

Already going green

The WELL Building Standard shares some objectives with other established green building rating tools, such as Green Star SA and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The developers of WELL were mindful of the interconnection, not only conceptually, but also in how the technical aspects of the program have been developed and how the market would put it to use, according to Moore. Developers and designers who are familiar with and see the value of green certification will find that the WELL certification fits seamlessly into the same implementation process.

The Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) supports the idea of certification, since independent validation through certification of building attributes and operations, and tenant behavior is critical to ensuring the industry moves forward in a measured and comparable manner. One of the GBCSA’s stated purposes is to create an environment “where people and planet thrive”, explains Manfred Braune, the GBCSA’s chief technical officer. The importance of health and wellbeing in buildings is considered intrinsic to green buildings, and thus has featured in all of the various Green Star SA rating tools. “There is significant synergy between the two certifications, and projects that target Green Star SA will have a significant head start in achieving WELL, and vice versa,” Braune says.

Green Star SA is primarily an intrinsic building and performance evaluation, where WELL is assessing occupant experiential factors, concludes Ludwig Design Consulting (LDC) after an in-depth comparison of the two tools. They have a 20-25% overlap of interventions, do not contradict, but prioritise different things. For example, the WELL Building Standard can be thought of as an expansion of focus for the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) category in particular. Green Star SA already addresses many of the big ideas – air quality, lighting, and occupant comfort, which are also rewarded in WELL, but WELL takes the focus further in some aspects and is more biased towards humans. WELL encompasses other human-centric activities such as eating, moving, and interaction. The support of these activities is not specific to a building’s structure or captured by Green Star SA, but rather related to layout, company operations, furnishings, and policies.

Footing the bill

Employee salaries and benefits comprise 90% of a business’ costs and are typically 100-fold more than utilities. Where energy and water efficiency interventions often pay for themselves in lower utility bills, the payback for the investment in health and wellbeing comes in the form of human capital. Even a modest improvement in employee productivity will have significant financial implications many times larger than other financial savings accrued from building performance, such as energy conservation.

Early indications of additional costs to implement are promising. “Anecdotal evidence is that added costs for implementation are in the 1% to 2% of capex range, from what we’ve seen,” says Moore, basing the number on the handful of projects that have been built and certified so far and the budget projections for many others that are progressing through the pipeline. “If the health and wellness benefits of the environment help eliminate one sick day per year for an employee or helps them to be more productive and engaged because they have a better sense of well-being, then you have your payback,” Moore says.

Many of the WELL interventions are best practice interior design, LDC suggests. Therefore given an enlightened, sophisticated design team, they should reasonably be within the scope of a ‘green’ project, particularly if they are targeting a 5- or 6-Star Office or Interiors. Additional costs include fees for registration and an on-site audit, which are scaled according to project size. Other likely costs include specialist testing of air and water, WELL accredited professional consultation, and upgraded lighting.

Getting on the band wagon

The WELL Building Standard certification was released just over a year ago and there are now eight buildings successfully certified with an additional 158 projects registered for certification throughout 18 countries. Roughly half are in North America, but notably, 36 are in China and 17 in Australia.

Another tool in the marketplace is initially confusing, concedes LDC and suggests it can be viewed more as being another ‘category’ or bonus alongside the others for what constitutes a responsible and progressive building. Pursued along with Green Star, the concept of ‘green building performance plus human performance’ will set a new benchmark in the market and differentiate those companies who are tangibly investing in their employees’ wellbeing.

By Michelle Ludwig

See earthworks Issue 33, August-September 2016 for the full feature.