The Current Health and Wellness Trend Represents Another Tipping Point in the Building Industry

WELL Certification health and wellness

In his bestselling book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell observed that “in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.” In the building industry, it seems we’re at a tipping point in that, since the early 2000s, a series of
trends has reshaped the way buildings are designed, constructed and operated (for the better)—and it’s not over yet.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Inouye Regional Center, Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, is a renovation of two WWII hangars. The glass section in the center is a new connector piece. The skin on the hangars had to be replaced because of asbestos and other contamination, but the new construction reflects the prior building conditions. PHOTO: Alan Karchmer

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Inouye Regional Center, Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, is a renovation of two WWII hangars. The glass section in the center is a new connector piece. The skin on the hangars had to be replaced because of asbestos and other contamination, but the new construction reflects the prior building conditions. PHOTO: Alan Karchmer

Consider this: The introduction of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system in 2000 created a massive ripple effect around the globe in the way we think about environmentally responsible building practices, as evidenced by the more than 34,700 certified commercial projects on record to date. These projects represent more than 5 billion square feet of green building space. The sustainable design trend has also ushered in an age of material transparency (see retrofit’s November-December 2014 issue, page 66), thanks to the market’s adoption of Health Product Declarations and Environmental Product Declarations that are transforming the manufacturing of products, furnishings and finishes that fill our interiors. Further, as a result of the green-building movement’s success, there also has been a renewed interest in the social side of sustainability—the “people” component of the Triple Bottom Line that involves social outcomes for underserved communities (see retrofit’s November-December 2016 issue, page 68).

These movements are converging to the point where we find ourselves today: at the forefront of the wellness trend in design and construction that promises to alter the built environment yet again. And the need has never been greater. According to the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), Washington, corporate health and wellness are a major concern for U.S.-based companies. In fact, nearly 50 percent of employers say health and productivity programs are essential to their company strategy while 91 percent of employers report offering health and wellness programs beyond medical cost savings. Further, IWBI reports the physical workplace is one of the top three factors affecting job performance and satisfaction, citing a study in which 90 percent of employees surveyed admitted their attitude about work is adversely affected by the quality of their workplace environment.

Add to this the mounting evidence-based research linking buildings to human health and it’s clear green building and wellness are interrelated.

“We have always grappled with questions around the real impacts the environment has on our health and wellbeing but haven’t always had clear design direction” explains Mara Baum, AIA, LEED Fellow, WELL AP, WELL Faculty, and vice president, sustainable design leader, Health and Wellness at HOK, San Francisco. “We’re now learning much more about the direct scientific basis behind the health impacts our buildings have on our bodies and minds.”

Stairs in the NOAA Inouye Regional Center help improve building occupants’ physical activity, as well as support social connections between occupants. Social connectivity is a significant factor in occupant wellbeing. PHOTO: Alan Karchmer

Stairs in the NOAA Inouye Regional Center help improve building occupants’ physical activity, as well as support social connections between occupants. Social connectivity is a significant factor in occupant wellbeing. PHOTO: Alan Karchmer

Drawing a correlation between rising health-care costs and the amount of time people spend indoors (up to 90 percent on average), Baum says the time for market transformation is now.

“If you consider the significant health problems we as a society are facing and the massive health costs these health problems are incurring and then consider the research that links these problems with specific conditions inside and around buildings, then connecting these dots can become a call to action,” she says.

Well, Well, Well …

Much like USGBC did in the early 2000s, calling for the building industry to rethink its position and impact on the natural environment, IWBI is issuing a similar challenge as it relates to human health. With the launch of its WELL Building Standard, a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact the health and wellbeing of occupants, IWBI developed the program as the first building standard to focus exclusively on people. It takes a holistic approach to health in the built environment by addressing behavior, operations and design.

Although its focus may be different from LEED, the WELL Building Standard is designed to work harmoniously with LEED to optimize building performance for human health and the environment.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen

Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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