Q&A on how the new WELL Building Standard helps employers boost productivity and eliminate common workplace gripes

Symantec’s corporate office is among the first buildings to be certified to the new WELL Building Standard — a holistic approach to designing spaces that directly supports human health and wellness.

In annual workplace surveys that track the leading gripes of office workers, temperature and noise levels consistently top the list of problems. Design trends that favor open floorplans have exacerbated these problems by spreading noise and reducing temperature zoning. A growing body of health and wellness research suggests that employers should take staff complaints seriously. The quality of the indoor environment directly affects the bottom line through health problems, absenteeism, reduced productivity and reduced employee satisfaction.

Third Partners co-founder John Haugen recently became one of the first WELL Building Certification practitioners (WELL APs) in New York City.

In this Q&A interview with John we explore why healthy building design matters to firms that compete for top staff talent and performance.

Q: What is WELL Certification?

John Haugen (JH): The WELL building standard is a new way to design offices and buildings that are better for health and wellness of people.

Q: Who should care about the WELL Standard?

JH: People, not the real estate itself, are the leading source of cost or investment in offices. Keeping people healthy is the best investment an employer can make.

Q: Is there a financial ROI for pursuing WELL building certification?

JH: It all comes down to the value of a healthy, productive employee. Managers are extremely aware of healthcare costs and the cost of their workforce. If you’re investing what might equate to basis points on a construction project it’s a no brainer. It’s important to note up front that the WELL design approach is science-based and not green for the sake of green. Because it’s a new standard, it’s critical to understand that the process is a bottom line driven business imperative.

Q: What problems with buildings does WELL address?

JH: First off, many buildings actually make people sick by exposing them to allergens, mold, exterior pollution, water contaminants, bad lighting, no sound control, etc. Using the latest in scientific research and technology, WELL identifies and eliminates the problems related to air quality, water quality, and occupant comfort and mental acuity. Companies already spend a bunch of money on wellness programs, but if you have a wellness day and then employees go back inside and breath in moldy air or toxic chemicals all year, what’s the point?

Q: What types of buildings does WELL apply to?

JH: There are certification options for offices, retail, multifamily and restaurants but it’s less about the type of building and more about the kind of owner or organization. High-performance cultures will receive a lot of benefit, especially creative firms, competitive talent pools, and brands that express their values through their spaces. If you have high-end talent, such as lawyers or traders, you’re going to give WELL a serious look to protect and optimize that huge investment in human capital.

Q: Can you give an example of how WELL actually applies to building design?

JH: Broadly, the focus is on body systems and human health. By applying public health data to design tactics, WELL leads to a direct positive impact on people. There are seven impact categories broken down into prerequisites and optimizations. The number of optimizations determines the certification level, either silver, gold or platinum. In the case of air quality there are 12 prerequisite features that prevent harmful pollutants. To achieve top performance, design teams are going to make strategic materials selections to reduce toxic chemicals off-gassing. They will also choose ventilation systems with strong control over fresh air rates, advanced particle filtration and sensors that improve indoor air quality.

Q: Why would an employer care about indoor air quality? Isn’t building code good enough?

JH: Codes are improving especially in places like NYC but there are still huge gaps. We aren’t just talking about energy usage here. Even modest improvements to air quality and physical activity during an otherwise sedentary work day can have drastic improvements in wellness, cognitive function, obesity, heart disease hypertension. Tackling these major health issues requires a dedicated focus on multiple interrelated design factors. That’s where having the structure of WELL is a real asset. The health research behind the WELL Standard ensures that the project actually achieves the desired health outcomes for workers.

Q: As a WELL AP how involved do you get in the building process?

JH: I am at the table from day one along with all the other construction team members. Like any other discipline, the first step is to get everyone on the same page, followed by design recommendations that help the project achieve the desired level of WELL certification.

Q: Can you tell a WELL office apart from a traditional office just by looking — without knowing more about the technical aspects of the standard?

JH: Yes, a person spending time inside a WELL building will feel alert, they’ll notice that light levels are appropriate which supports health in both visible and invisible ways. You’ll see healthy food being served, you might hear music in transition spaces, and you’ll probably see interior gardens. In a WELL building everything is intentionally designed to produce a positive response on a subconscious level. To a manager, it sends a positive message about the company and ensures the office is a great work environment.

Contrast that to offices that are poorly lit, the smell of fried slop food being served, the wrong lighting levels and color temperatures, too hot or too cold…we’ve all been in those offices, but no one really wants to be there.

Q: Are there half-measures when it comes to WELL?

JH: For certification, there isn’t a lite version. But there is a way to implement as many of the tactics as possible within the constraints of the project to achieve a better interior space. In the case of air filtration and ventilation management, adding a set of activated charcoal filters is an easy mod that most buildings can make today to improve air quality from leading sources of harmful indoor pollution.

Q: Where’s the slack? How do people undermine the intentions?

JH: The WELL Standard isn’t some idealistic roadmap, it’s designed with human nature in mind. It’s designed to trigger behaviors that improve health. For example, it is not about removing all fried foods but about making healthy options readily available and attractive. It still requires people to make the ultimate decision about what is or isn’t good for them. If someone doesn’t want a standing desk, they’re not going to have to use one. WELL makes it easier to make the healthier choice. If you’re in charge of thousands of people, the multitude of financial benefits associated with wellness are so huge, this certification is your way to build wellness into an office environment in a predictable way.

Q: What organizations would want to consider WELL certified buildings?

JH: It takes a forward-thinking CEO to sign off on something like this by understanding the interconnection between the many factors within the workplace that influence health and wellness. In terms of direct connections to the bottom line, there’s a lab at the Mayo clinic devoted to assessing building systems and the connection to human health so it will be a matter of time before insurers incorporate data into health care cost calculations.

Q: What is the most common workplace gripe that WELL addresses?

JH: The top complaint of office workers is overhearing other peoples’ conversations within an open office setting. There are ways to fix that using materials that absorb sound, limiting sound levels from mechanical systems, using sound masking equipment, and good general construction practices.

Q: After receiving certification is there ongoing performance measurement?

JH: Yes, re-certification verifies that the building continues to meet the criteria for original certification. For some features this is as simple as the facility manager verifying that water and air filters were changed. For others, a site visit and performance verification every three years is required.

Q: What do you look for when representing a client’s interests on a WELL project?

It’s important to have a strong sense of the cost-benefit of each of the features in order to make the smartest choices for the individual organizations or building. Messaging to staff is also a huge consideration. The standard is less valuable if employees are not given exposure the importance behind the WELL tactics their employer has invested in.

Q: For many people, LEED is synonymous with a green building. Is WELL the new LEED?

JH: Not exactly. A lot of the features LEED added in its latest iteration are synergistic with the WELL standard, but WELL is a much more comprehensive standard for health and wellness. It’s more like healthy is the new green when it comes to buildings. While energy efficiency and locally sourced materials are beneficial, purely environmental factors fail to consider the biggest cost centers and performance drivers for businesses, which are entirely reliant upon humans. Healthy humans perform better than sick humans.

If you are looking to send a strong message on both employee wellness and environmental stewardship, there are 36 WELL building features that overlap with LEED v4 credits. You’re on your way to LEED by pursuing WELL.

To learn more about WELL Building Certification contact John Haugen at Third Partners.