The WELL Building Standard is an evidence-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring building performance features that address wellbeing, that has established a highly visible focus on occupant health,” says Joyce Chan, an architect and head of sustainability at HOK in London.
But how new is WELL? “Some of the established principles seem familiar, with various elements sprinkled across other systems, codes and environmental management systems,” says Chan, explaining that the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI)’s building standard, which brings everything together, is a new framework and also a first attempt to change the way architects and interior designers create and implement strategies concerning health and wellness at the earliest stages of design.
WELL’s focus is new. “The system is inherently human-centric – concentrating on the person, for example, rather than a metric like energy consumption,” she says. “This makes sense – as occupants, not buildings, consume energy.”
She explains: “Investing in people, for which there is a robust business case, is core to WELL. People account for 90% of corporate expenditures. If WELL can enable a healthier, more engaged and more productive workforce, there will be financial benefits.” For example, an HOKs client reduced energy use by 30% purely by engaging staff – without any changes to the building or systems.
“The topic of employee health is being increasingly recognised in business,” claims Chan. That JP Morgan’s Europe Property Report has a Real Estate and Well-being category is a testament to it becoming a major area of interest, she adds.
But it is a long-term strategy. “Certification isn’t equivalent to pursuing LEED or BREEAM to secure planning. It entails continuous client engagement and education of a building’s occupants, and requires long-term investment and commitment. It’s a process that’s at the heart of change management, and becomes a strong tool for post-occupancy evaluation.”
She adds: “WELL promotes health by stealth, providing a holistic environment, better space design and elements including improved daylight, healthier food and fresher air: all providing compound impacts on the different human body systems. Occupants improve wellbeing by default without actively needing to engage.”
Contrast this with specific wellbeing initiatives, which require active engagement and, as recent research by wellness real estate and technology firm Delos has shown, are only adopted by about half of all employees.
HOK has partnered with Delos to spread the word about WELL, which Chan says has helped its human-centric approach to design: “Their research shows that WELL increases employee satisfaction and also plays a critical role in retention and productivity, with reduced sick leave and turnover among the other benefits.”
But achieving certification comes with some challenges. “WELL can be more expensive than other rating systems, though that’s less relevant when amortised long term and compared with initiatives that experience partial engagement.” Sustaining initial enthusiasm is another challenge, she says. Unlike other systems, WELL requires ongoing performance verification for three years, with quality maintained.
“While positively received, UK adoption of WELL has been slow and there’s work to do. But there’s a demonstrable business case here, and we’ve seen movement and early adoption in healthcare and education and with clients such as Lendlease, which has made a clear commitment to developing WELL-ready buildings,”she says.
“WELL is really an attempt to make a cultural change and to quantify something we couldn’t before: quality of space and health. The interest so far has been extremely encouraging.”
The WELL Building Standard is changing the way architects focus on the occupants of their designs, says HOK’s head of sustainability