For decades, many developers and architects worked to ensure that their buildings were kind to the planet. Now, their focus is on the effect that buildings have on the people who work in them.
Studies show that healthy workers tend to be more productive, a concept that is behind a growing trend in real estate to create offices with measurable wellness benefits. One frequently cited Harvard study showed that improving air quality caused mental cognition to soar.
New certification programs have sprung up to guide the way, including the Well Building Standard, introduced in 2014 by Delos, a real estate and technology firm. The Well system is based on medical research that shows how our surroundings affect our health.
Delos’s new headquarters, on the fourth and fifth floors of a 10-story tower in Manhattan, were designed by the architecture firm Gensler. The 19,000-square-foot office space houses 70 employees and serves as a showplace for the Well standard.
In the reception area, where a tour of the office was about to begin on a recent afternoon, the air quality was good. There was proof: A digital display measuring about two metres by 3.6 metres covering one wall showed the indoor temperature, the humidity level, and other measurements of cleanliness and comfort with data supplied by sensors throughout the office.
“We have 51 sensors, which is extreme overkill,” said Janna Wandzilak, a Delos director, who was leading our tour.
Triple-filtered air whooshes in from floor vents, while ceiling ducts suck out carbon dioxide-filled air. Plants cascading from walls and partitions also help clean the air while satisfying our innate need to connect to nature, a concept known as biophilia.
Standing desks are everywhere, and a wide oak staircase stretches between the lower and upper floors, encouraging staff to walk up and down rather than take the elevator – all contributing to fitness.
“I definitely find myself sitting less,” Paul Scialla, Delos’s chief executive officer, said in an interview in his office, which was decorated with framed photos. One showed him with the wellness guru Deepak Chopra, a member of the Delos advisory board.
After 18 years trading bonds on Wall Street, Mr. Scialla founded the company in 2014, having identified an untapped market at the intersection of real estate and the booming wellness movement.
The Well system has criteria in seven categories that promote the health of a building’s occupants, including nourishment – which explains the almond butter, the whole-grain bread and the organic apples in the Delos cafe. The other categories are air, comfort, fitness, light, mind and water.
A 282-page manual explains the standard, which is administered by the International Well Building Institute, a public benefit corporation spun off from Delos. The third-party certification is done by Green Business Certification – which also certifies Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, projects – and involves in-office auditing and laboratory analysis of water and air samples.
According to Delos, 954 projects in 35 countries are registered for Well, certified or precertified; 327 of them are in the United States, including 24 in New York. The vast majority of projects are offices. Not surprisingly, the Delos headquarters achieved the most demanding level of certification, platinum.
The workplaces are designed to coax people to change their behaviour. Stairs are placed front and centre, for instance, to encourage their use.
But occupants benefit simply from being in an office that has been designed to optimize their health. For instance, the circadian lighting that changes throughout the day, keeping pace with the brightening and dimming of sunlight, has been shown to improve sleeping at night.
“If we can engineer the box we spend 90 per cent of our lives in to deliver health care automatically, that’s a very big impact,” Mr. Scialla said.
Other standards have been created for health and wellness. Fitwel, for instance, offers a certification program with similar goals but a different origin and methods.
Developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fitwel is based primarily on public health data and promotes strategies shown to have the greatest effect on health.
After testing the system on workplaces of the General Services Administration, the CDC contracted with the Center for Active Design, a nonprofit organization in New York, to administer the program and apply it more broadly.
Started last year, Fitwel is essentially a do-it-yourself web-based checklist and scoring system. A building owner or manager enters information about a facility and submits photographic evidence.
“It was designed to be so simple that you can walk around a building with a tablet and check on a checklist and take photos with the tablet and upload them,” said Liz York, the CDC’s chief sustainability officer. “At the end, you click a button.”
Reviewers process the information and give the user a score as well as a to-do list to improve office conditions.
Some companies, such as the commercial real estate firm Tishman Speyer, which has a seat on Fitwel’s advisory board, are applying the program across their portfolio of buildings.
“You can use Fitwel in an individual building, but we want to support massive users,” said Joanna Frank, president and CEO of the Center for Active Design. “We’re looking at large-scale market transformation.”
Certification for Fitwel costs far less than that for Well.
The Well program costs $1,800 to $4,200 to register, depending on square footage, and $7,500 to $131,250 to certify. This does not account for the financial outlay to apply the health-promoting features required to achieve certification.
Furthermore, recertification every three years is recommended, to ensure that offices continue to be healthy places.
Fitwel charges $500 to register and $6,000 to certify. And the financial outlay required to meet some recommendations can be quite modest. One recommendation might be to put up signs directing employees to the stairs to encourage their use; another might be to set aside a lactation room or a station for nursing mothers.
Even after attaining Fitwel certification, building managers can work to increase scores – and enhance interiors – by making additional investments as their budgets allow.
The expected improvements in employee wellness from either program can result in productivity gains, including lower health-care costs, lower rates of absenteeism and increased revenue from better employee performance.
The American Society of Interior Designers said it had achieved a 16-per-cent productivity gain after moving into its Well-certified headquarters in Washington two years ago. The organization, which spent about US$2-million outfitting the space, tracked the impact of the design and found increased engagement and reduced absenteeism, CEO Randy W. Fiser said.
Mr. Fiser, who is also a member of the Delos advisory board, said the organization added nearly US$700,000 to its bottom line in its first year from the productivity increase as well as savings from energy costs.
However, the desire to attract staff seems to be driving many companies to turn to programs that help them develop healthy offices, according to architects and designers who work with clients on such projects.
“In today’s economy, people can change jobs,” said Paula McEvoy, an architect and co-director of sustainable design for Perkins & Will, which last year completed two Well-certified projects and five Fitwel certifications. “They can choose their workplace.”
With the two certification systems doing essentially the same thing, some designers say there can be confusion over the programs.
But Ms. Frank of the Center for Active Design brushes that off.
“We believe there’s room in the marketplace for both certifications,” she said, adding that the existence of two programs might strengthen the healthy-office message.
“The more people talking about promoting health in the workplace, the better,” she said.