Building well, building better?

Buildings were originally created to protect us from a hostile world. But what if the structures designed to protect us were also damaging our health?

The concept of health and wellbeing was a major component in the original BREEAM 1990 New Offices scheme and has moved up the agenda since 2014, in response partly to the World Green Building Council’s 2015 Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices report, which made the case for health and wellbeing and their relationship with productivity.

New kid on the block

Today, a new certification is attracting attention. Launched in 2014, the WELL Building Standard is the world’s first building certification that focuses exclusively on human health and wellness and is based on seven years of scientific, medical and architectural research.

While some of the common risks to our health today include airborne pollutants, poor diet, stress and lack of sleep, which can weaken the immune system, WELL research has found that buildings also have a profound impact on our bodily functions, ranging from our endocrine (hormone production) system through to our nervous system.

Clocking off

Humans need to be connected to the natural environment to maintain their circadian rhythms, or internal clock, which helps regulate sleep patterns and other physiological processes. Workplaces with deep floor plates cut off access to daylight, corresponding sun angles and colour temperatures (the colour characteristics of light), which calibrate our body clocks. Electric light is often the wrong colour temperature, making us alert when we should be winding down for the night, leaving us tired for the following day. The WELL standard requires buildings to be designed with good access to daylight and electric lighting with appropriate colour temperatures.


Mechanically ventilated buildings attempt to protect us from some of the air pollutants prevalent in our cities by constantly filtering the air, but this only removes the particulates. Meanwhile, we’ve introduced a whole set of toxins into internal environments through microbial contamination of ductwork and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in our furniture, fittings and even cleaning products.

WELL sets standards for, and measures, the air quality in internal spaces to reduce exposure to contaminants. This is done by combining ‘source control’ – removing the contaminants from materials in the first place – and good ventilation design, to provide enough freshly filtered air into a space. For example, it shows that using underfloor displacement ventilation with ceiling extractors is a far more effective way of bringing fresh air into a space than using overhead ventilation. Displacement ventilation drives contaminated air up and out, without cross-contamination with incoming air. In one study, displacement ventilation has shown to be up to 6.6 times better than standard air conditioning.

Stressed out and in

The internal environment can cause us physiological stress by having to live with discomfort caused by glare, relentless grey, noise and cold draughts. The WELL standard encourages design features that give occupants more control over their environment, allowing them to adjust internal conditions to reduce the need to filter out distractions and put up with discomfort.

Going down well

Each level of WELL certification — silver, gold or platinum — requires buildings to meet a number of minimum standards. These preconditions alone set a high standard. The apparent simplicity of the scheme, with just one page per feature, belies the consequences and implications of the design and operational measures that have to be implemented to meet the required performance standards. For example, the idea of flushing out a building before occupation, to expel VOCs from its internal finishes, is a sensible idea and already included in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification — the US version of BREEAM.

However, this is no overnight exercise. Depending on the size of the building, it can take up to 20 days of running the ventilation system to push the required air volumes through the space. And this can only be started once all the fittings, finishes and furniture have been installed, as they are often the source of the pollutants. It is hard to see how those extra weeks are going to fit into the typical project programme.

Food for thought

Under WELL food standards, drinks offered for consumption in buildings must contain no more than 30 grams of sugar per container, which eliminates lots of fizzy drinks, while food should not contain any trans fats (partially-hydrogenated oil). Trans fats do not have to be declared in most jurisdictions and many manufacturers have phased them out, but they can still be found in some pies, cakes and biscuits.

Lifelong commitment

WELL has set itself apart from most other building assessment methods because certification is based on actual operational performance. After completion, the building operation is audited and everything that can be measured is measured.

The audit includes measuring water and air quality, lighting colour temperature, radiant temperature, decibel levels and sound reverberation. Design features like the installation of flexible work stations, including the provision of standing desks, are subject to spot checks by the auditor. And it doesn’t stop there — the certification has to be renewed every three years and there is an on-going commitment to provide records of post-occupancy surveys, maintenance logs and measurement of environmental parameters such as air and water quality. It’s a lifelong commitment.

Lost in translation

WELL was developed in the US, so there are some notable anomalies when applying the standard across Europe. Some of these differences help. A good example is the indoor smoking ban, which is already the case in most European countries. Equally, our high standards of water treatment and quality may help to gain some points, although recent experience shows that water filtration may still be required to meet WELL’s high standards. Some of the ideas, like mindful eating and biophilia (the affinity of humans and the natural world), may seem slightly unusual, but there is an increasing awareness of these issues, especially among enterprising companies who are competing for employees and finding that people choose companies on the quality of the workspace as much as the quality of the work.

Well balanced

The ‘mind’ section of WELL highlights the link between mental and physical health, with stress being a primary risk factor for many chronic diseases. This section includes having a balanced lifestyle that promotes healthy sleep patterns. To achieve these optional points, organisations need to have a range of policies that include allowing staff to avoid those notorious all-night flights that leave people dazed and confused. Recent experience with WELL shows that for the fit out it is just as important to engage with the human resources team as it is with the design team.

Setting things right

The WELL standard is currently influencing a very small percentage of buildings, meaning that only a few will be able to benefit from living, working or convalescing in healthy buildings. However, this is a new voluntary standard that is setting out how building performance could be improved, which should have an influence on what people consider to be standard practice in the future. Judging by the uptake of WELL in the US there is certainly a demand for setting higher standards for our buildings.

There seems to be sense in reducing the stresses caused by the work environment from distractions, poor posture and pollutants and by conditions that confuse our body clocks and hormones. Though currently a voluntary certificate, the ultimate aim is to turn best practice into business as usual.