New Building Programs Focus on Occupant Wellness

Building programs focused on wellness have succeeded LEED as the next trend for construction programs to improve the health and wellness of individuals and the communities where they work.
By Lauren Gant
April 29, 2020

Building owners traditionally sought designs from well-known architects to provide a brand identifier that would distinguish the structure for marketing and overall ownership satisfaction. More recently, developers are embracing branding that relates to social goals of sustainability and wellness.

Today most people are aware of the LEED rating system for buildings as an environmentally conscious set of goals, features and sustainability strategies for our built environment. The LEED rating system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1998. Since its inception, LEED has grown to encompass more than 14,000 projects in more than 30 countries covering 1.062 billion square feet of development area. LEED is a brand in and of itself and provides developers, contractors and designers with a value proposition to offer clients that seek a genuine, sustainable, and commercially innovative design objective.The building community has been waiting for the “next LEED” to emerge for quite some time. Now more than ever, the future of built concerns will turn the development lens on the buildings’ occupants. Building programs focused on wellness have succeeded LEED as the next trend for construction programs to improve the health and wellness of individuals and the communities where they work.

Development of Wellness Certifications

Wellness certifications are an effective source for guidance in creating a built environment and company culture that fosters wellness. Currently, there are two primary certifications for occupant wellness.

  • Fitwel, which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and General Services Administration and administered by the Center for Active Design; and
  • WELL, which was developed by Delos, administered by the International WELL Building Institute, and certified by Green Business Certification Inc.

Fitwel and WELL are similar in that they rely on evidence-based medical and scientific research and often draw on the same findings. The applications of the programs can differ; while Fitwel may be seen as more economical and quicker to implement, WELL is design-focused and performance-based, meaning on-site testing must be passed before a project can call itself WELL certified. These certifications promote spaces that actively contribute to human health, performance, and well-being by combining the best innovations in technology, health, science and real estate. The interest in promoting wellness has led to the growth of new companies to support this movement. Delos, for example, offers programming, consulting, research, and an array of innovative, built-in amenities that may improve occupant well-being. This is the next frontier in building innovation.

“Wellness” Basics

The construction community has been talking about ergonomics and safety for some time now, and some companies are starting to consider how to incorporate wellness in the office. There may be some confusion about how all of these different prevention programs work together. Consider this conversation in light of the thought process outlined by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which proposes that humans have an order in which their requirements need to be fulfilled.

For example, basic biological needs such as adequate food take priority over psychological factors (e.g., sense of belonging). The highest level of this hierarchy is self-actualization, or reaching one’s full potential. If we were to outline a similar pyramid for consideration of workers, holistic wellness programs may be the pinnacle of the hierarchy. At the bottom of the pyramid, basic safety needs are addressed (and required by law) to prevent fatalities and acute injuries. This is the absolute minimum requirement of corporations. Once these considerations have been satisfied, inclusion of ergonomics is important to reduce the risk of long-developing injuries and provide a comfortable work environment.

The ultimate goal should be an all-inclusive consideration of the worker—beyond the prevention of injuries—that is, wellness. So, broadly, we are working our way up this pyramid as a culture. Building spaces to promote wellness is the next step to improving the environments and cultures where we work.

Building Wellness/Healthy Structures

Whether a company develops, designs or constructs structures, implementing wellness design considerations communicates to tenants that the company is committed to partnering with them in creating a healthy environment for their employees.

On a more granular level, the ultimate objectives for WELL spaces include enhancing the quality of air, water, light, acoustics and thermal comfort; and promoting movement, workers’ mental health, a sense of community and the use of safe materials. If project owners choose to pursue WELL, the location and design of the building structure, window locations and glazing, and building systems, including the heating, cooling and ventilation system, should all be taken into consideration and designed to meet the requirements. WELL also advocates for building owners and developers to install HVAC and other building systems that meet acoustic and thermal comfort standards, avoid toxic materials that may affect air quality and the health of workers, and install appropriate sound barriers to the interior and exterior of the building to prevent acoustic distractions. All of this, and more, helps to create a built environment that promotes wellness. Future tenants can then add wellness-focused elements such as nourishment programs, fitness policies and outfit their spaces with healthy materials, among many other strategies, to create a workplace that considers holistic wellness for its employees.

ROI and Wellness

The ROI is typically what people want to know when faced with a decision about whether to spend money on a wellness program. One study found $1 invested in wellness yields an ROI of $1.50, and that metric does not consider employee performance, job candidate attraction, talent retention, workplace satisfaction or team engagement. These are objectively enticing factors for any development to consider. Early projects that have achieved WELL Certification report rent premiums and an increase in leasing velocity. WELL construction can be a valuable marketing opportunity to differentiate an owner’s building and can demonstrate leadership and innovation in a competitive real estate market.

Wellness Beyond 2020

The coming decade is sure to see tenants seek to develop work environments and cultures that promote health in a comprehensive way and encourage employees to work in a way that align with their preferences.

“Workplace safety and health no longer is just about sending workers home with all of their fingers and toes … It’s about protecting them physically and also about supporting them mentally by keeping them healthy and engaged.” – Environmental Health and Safety Today.

There will be a growing emphasis on the need for a holistic view of health to protect employees. Owners, designers and contractors can use WELL knowledge to communicate to tenants that they are committed to partnering with them in creating a healthy environment for their employees.

by Lauren Gant
Dr. Lauren Gant, PhD, CPE, WELL AP, is the Human Factors and Ergonomics manager at Allsteel, where her goal is to ensure that the products encourage healthy postures, promote productivity, and that are intuitive to use correctly for a broad spectrum of worker types, sizes, and capabilities. Lauren has taught engineering and ergonomics courses at the university level, has conducted extensive research in the field of ergonomics, and holds a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering.. Lauren is an Adjunct Associate Professor, a Certified Professional Ergonomist, and  a WELL Accredited Professional and Fitwel Ambassador.

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