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New certification system quantifies health and wellness credentials

Hattie Hartman
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The case for including green design credentials within new projects should give architects additional leverage with clients, writes Hattie Hartman

In their new book The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederström and André Spicer decry the fact that wellness today has become an overbearing ideology. They argue that wellness ‘has wormed itself into every aspect of our lives’. While I was writing this, an email with the subject line ‘Well Being’ dropped into my inbox announcing lunchtime yoga at EMAP.

The Wellness Syndrome authors lament that this obsession with the body may come at the expense of the mind, contrasting Jean-Paul Sartre’s student diet of books, cigarettes, coffee and alcohol with a trend at some American universities for students to sign ‘wellness contracts’. Yet when it comes to the built environment, surely this focus on wellbeing is a good thing.

The WELL Building Standard, launched at Greenbuild in New Orleans last October after a two-year pilot, pushes this agenda further by quantifying it. Developed by Jason McLennan, founder of the Living Building Challenge, the WELL Building Standard delineates the health impacts of performance across seven areas: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. WELL documents such easily quantifiable metrics as air filtration and filter maintenance, amount of inorganic contaminants in drinking water, balance of ambient and task lighting, as well as more elusive metrics such as stress-management and mood swings.

These metrics can give architects additional leverage with clients. Further ammunition can be found in the British Council for Offices’ report Making the Business Case for Wellbeing (2014), to be followed by another report based on interviews with occupiers this summer.  The UK Green Building Council’s John Alker sees architects as key advocates for healthy buildings. ‘It’s a way of putting quality, which should be synonymous with sustainability, on the agenda for clients and occupiers,’ he says.

Arup is one practice taking wellbeing seriously. The practice is sending seven staff, including three from Arup Associates in London, to the first WELL AP (accredited professional) workshop, to be held at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio in February. Arup Associates’ Ann Marie Aguilar observes: ‘After listening to Jason [McLennan], you realise there is a lot of medical and scientific knowledge you just don’t get in an architecture curriculum.’

Bennetts Associates is also looking closely at wellbeing, particularly in the retrofit sector. ‘End-user clients are just beginning to catch on,’ says director Rab Bennetts. Occupant wellbeing is one of five parameters that make up a proposed sustainability kitemark for existing buildings, released last September by Bennetts Associates together with Stanhope and others.

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris sustainability specialist Craig Robertson notes ‘productivity and attracting and retaining the right staff are more frequently recognised as important issues in workplace design.’

Wellbeing is also on the radar of schools of architecture. The 2015 SCHOSA conference at the RIBA this April will focus on building performance, including several sessions on healthier buildings.

But do we really need another green building certification system? Arup Associates have compared the percentage of health and wellness criteria in LEED (28 per cent), BREEAM (36 per cent), the Living Building Challenge (56 per cent) and WELL (100 per cent). It is clear that WELL pushes the debate further and challenges designers to look in detail at health issues not yet addressed by regulation. So where do we start? Simple approaches such as measuring indoor air quality for one month before and after retrofit will help the case for healthier buildings to gain momentum. Architects should take a cue from the latest wellbeing research.

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