Workplace Wellness: How Buildings Shape Our Health and Habits

A recent IIDA forum in NYC explored how workplace wellness measurements are shifting from buildings to occupants.

Dana Pillai (standing) and others, listening to the presentation on comfort. Photo by Janani Kannan.
Dana Pillai (standing) and others, listening to the presentation on comfort. Photo by Janani Kannan.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American spends 93 percent of his life indoors. Full time U.S. workers report working an average of 8.7 hours per day, which also translates to more time spent working—in indoor office environments—than sleeping, eating, or participating in leisure activities.

There’s no question then that buildings are particularly crucial to our health. The proliferation of profound statistics on occupant activity and well-being points to the undeniable impact of the built environment on every aspect of our lives, including their length. As consumer demand for transparency shifts the real estate value proposition towards more occupant-centered design, new standards are forming for measuring not just building sustainability, but also how buildings impact people’s health and well-being. The availability of metrics and data, occupant awareness, and cross-industry provocation have all increased as well, prompting a greater demand for more comprehensive sustainability standards that account for the health of humans in buildings.

A focus on people in relationship to the built environment

The demand for a forum to explore these topics was especially evident at “The WELL Building Standard: A Closer Look”, a panel sponsored by the Sustainability Committee of the International Interior Design Association New York Chapter (IIDA NY) featuring Delos Living‘s WELL Building Standard, a performance system for measuring and certifying features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being. The event was hosted on March 30 in Teknion’s New York City showroom. Jessica Cooper, the executive director of project management at Delos Living, introduced attendees to the standard and its differentiation as a sustainable measurement focused on people in relationship to the built environment. Following her intro, attendees rotated between four breakout sessions focused on air/water, nourishment/fitness/mind, light, and comfort. Each session was led by specialists representing the technical requirements around the seven elements of the standard.

The audience listens to opening remarks from Seema Pandya (co-chair of IIDA NY Sustainability Committee), Mary Beth Sullivan (VP, Teknion), and Jessica Cooper. Photo by
The audience listens to opening remarks from Seema Pandya (co-chair of IIDA NY Sustainability Committee), Mary Beth Sullivan (VP, Teknion), and Jessica Cooper. Photo by Janani Kannan.

How buildings shape our workplace habits

The nourishment/fitness/mind session highlighted how our buildings shape our workplace habits, often more significantly than we realize. Particularly apparent in the modern workplace is the proliferation of inactive design and the normalization of unhealthy habits. Delos’ specialists, Elizabeth Miles and Regina Vaicekonyte, referenced current workplace wellness metrics as proof of a pandemic. Considering that the average American is only active for 6 – 10 minutes a day in a country where physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for mortality, the workplace presents a critical and urgent opportunity to explore new standards for design-driven occupant well-being.

A number of design, infrastructure, and societal drivers discourage healthy practice in the workplace, including inactive spaces, unfriendly pedestrian environments, and lack of fitness-promoting policies. Though many buildings provide complimentary gym facilities to their occupants, stairwells remain sketchy: underserviced and unappealing. While examples of design mismatch proliferate, occupant behavior is just as integral to the success or failure of sustainable investment. In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers reported that people spent an average of 64 hours a week sitting, just over nine hours of sitting a day. Even the one hour that a person spends at the gym is of relatively minimal impact when compared to nine or more hours spent sitting at a desk, in a car, or on a couch.

A number of design, infrastructure, and societal drivers discourage healthy practice in the workplace, including inactive spaces, unfriendly pedestrian environments, and lack of fitness-promoting policies.

While these statistics are improving, organizations like the Center for Active Design have been working for some time towards greater industry awareness and inclusion of public health solutions in architecture and urban planning. Trailblazers in designing for health and wellness, the center issued its Active Design Guidelines in 2010, prompting a recognition of these topics as part of urban, civic, and building scale social responsibility.

The technical requirements of the lighting portion of the standard were presented with a deeper dive into the often-overlooked benefits of appropriate blending of daylighting and artificial lighting. Jessica Cooper and Soyoung Hwang outlined the importance of aligning lighting levels with workplace tasks, leveraging natural light, and the influence of light on occupant circadian rhythm.

Dynamic duo, Elizabeth Miles and Regina Vaicekonyte, speak about access to nutrition and physical fitness in building environments. Photo by Janani Kannan.
Dynamic duo, Elizabeth Miles and Regina Vaicekonyte, speak about access to nutrition and physical fitness in building environments. Photo by Janani Kannan.

While measuring the thermal, acoustic, and olfactory effects of the workplace are important, the technical requirements of the comfort theme also explore occupant access, control, and protocols for experiencing these elements of the environment. These topics are an increasingly important subject as the cognitive and neurological influences of the built environment become more apparent through new research and debate. Finally, though measuring the quality and usage of water and other resources is not a new focus of building sustainability, WELL incorporates a breadth of baseline research and existing conditions to define this technical requirement.

How to build more awareness around healthy building standards

Following the technical breakout sessions, attendees returned to the main stage for a discussion moderated by Melissa Marsh, founder and CEO of PLASTARC, who explored the WELL standard with end user Martha MacInnis of TD Bank’s workplace team, Delos Labs president Dana Pillai, and sustainability expert Chris Ashworth of Healthy Buildings. The group reflected on the development of standards: how they beneficially build awareness around topics of building sustainability and occupant wellness, and where they potentially constrain or complicate design.

Many WELL standard conditions are aligned with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED and other existing environmental certifications, and exploring these relationships is proof that there are many brands in the sustainability conversation. For instance, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) recently commenced its Living Future Conference in Seattle, where sustainability professionals explored rigorous performance standards in the green building movement. LBC is comprised of seven performance categories called Petals: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty.

Closing remarks at Teknion showroom, thanks to the exciting topic, and everyone having moved around over the course of the evening (from break out to breakout), audience was still attentive and engaged well past 8 PM. Photo by Janani Kannan.
Closing remarks in the Teknion showroom. Thanks to the exciting topic, and everyone having moved around over the course of the evening (from breakout to breakout), the audience was still attentive and engaged well past 8:00 PM. Photo by Janani Kannan.

In an era of certification domination, many organizations are facing challenges in defining and practicing sustainability. Some are challenging normative sustainability practices to develop their own guidelines; for example, Google has developed a customized “Red List” that extends beyond the LBC and U.S. EPA’s Chemicals of Concern to incorporate stricter transparency and material compliance.

The proliferation of standards for measuring the health and wellness of buildings and occupant experience suggests a trend driven by both industry and public interest. While the expansion of industry certifications remains debatable, these multiple standards confirm that there is room for more than one measurement, and thus greater opportunity in an industry where the occupant, developer, building manager, and designer have varying interests and requirements.

Following presentations and discussions at the IIDA NY panel, attendees came away better informed on the growing importance of measuring, documenting and pursuing both occupant and building health. The panelists and audience resolved that while sustainable standards and their implications continue to develop, achieving the end goal – healthy people and buildings – is largely dependent on industry education.

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