For many companies, telling workers to drink water may not seem like cutting edge innovation in employee wellbeing.

Yet at its showroom in Sydney’s Surry Hills, doing just that is one of several initiatives which has helped German office furniture maker Wilkhahn Forum to achieve recognition for its health and wellness efforts.

As part of a strategy to create collaborative and inspiring spaces, the company’s project team for the showrooms looked carefully at opportunities for initiatives to help deliver a vibrant environment. One such opportunity saw the roll out technology which reminds workers and visitors about the importance of drinking enough water to remain hydrated. Another saw the internal atrium transformed into a biophilic wonderland which contains a myriad of plants and voice activated nature sounds.

Thanks to initiatives such as these, Wilkhahn’s showroom achieved Gold certification under the WELL Building Standard administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI).

This is not an isolated case. All up, Australia has 113 projects registered for WELL – thirteen of which have achieved certification. This gives us the fourth highest number of WELL registered projects anywhere and means that we account for roughly one in fifteen of the 1,686 WELL-registered projects globally.

In wellbeing, buildings matter. So too do the social environments within them. According to the Centre for Disease, Control and Prevention in the US, people’s physical and social environment accounts for roughly 60 percent of their relative state of health. This is above genetic factors and health related behaviours such as smoking or drug use (roughly 25 percent) as well quality and availability of medical care (approximately 15 percent). Given that a study published in 2001 by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that people on average spend about 90 percent of their time indoors (mostly sleeping or working), environments within buildings are crucial.

Introduced in 2014, the WELL Building Standard is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features of the built environment that impact health and wellbeing of its occupants. To achieve certification at any level (Silver, Gold or Platinum), projects must include a set of features known as ‘preconditions’ which constitute the foundation for health and well-being across all building types. Extra credits toward Gold and Platinum certification can be earned through features known as ‘optimisations’ which include technologies, strategies, protocols and designs which enhance well-being.

The original version of the standard (v1), saw performance measured against seven ‘concepts’: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. This version contained 41 preconditions and 59 potential optimisations.

Under a pilot of a new version (v2) introduced in 2018, however, the number of concepts has increased from seven to ten whilst the number of preconditions has been pared back to 25 and that of optimisations available has been expanded to 94.

Jack Noonan, Vice President, Australia and New Zealand at IWBI, says the push toward greater WELL uptake and wellbeing effort in general is being driven by several factors.

From 2019 onward, criteria related to health and well-being are included as a mandatory part of the assessment under the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) which enables institutional investors to assess the performance of real-estate companies and funds in which they invest from a social, environmental and governance viewpoint. Thus each of the 978 companies and trusts who submit themselves to GRESB assessment now need to demonstrate good well-being practices as part of proving their overall sustainability credentials. (Previously, from 2016 until 2018, health and well-being was an optional module only under the GRESB assessments.)

Moreover, WELL certification can be used alongside Green Star as a marketing tool to help attract and retain tenants – many of whom want spaces that promote employee wellbeing and are conducive to productivity.

This, Noonan says, represents a shift. In the past, WELL was driven by developers and institutional investors. Now, it is being demanded by tenants and is being written into design documentation.

According to Noonan, improvements in WELL v2 will deliver substantial benefits.

The aforementioned move toward fewer preconditions and more optimisations has expanded the accessibility of WELL to both existing buildings and to projects outside of commercial offices, he says.

Beyond that, the new standard places greater emphasis on equity and bringing WELL into the school, community and healthcare arena where its potential impact is greatest. Toward this end, IWBI has established different pricing points for each sector and certification discounts for projects from sectors such as government, not-for-profit, education or social housing.

He says the conversation is evolving beyond avoiding ‘sick building syndrome’ to using buildings to promote health and wellbeing.

“The idea of sick building syndrome or that buildings can have a detrimental effect on health has been around since the 1980s,” Noonan said.
“WELL goes beyond the idea that buildings should avoid making us sick. Rather than just limiting or avoiding the bad stuff, WELL looks at how we can deliver spaces within buildings that help people thrive and give them a chance at physical and mental well-being.”

At the new Mirvac Headquarters in the EY Centre at 200 George Street (Gold certification), sensors monitor a number of environmental factors including thermal comfort and indoor air quality. The data is then shown to staff and visitors on interactive screens. (Source: International WELL Building Institute)

Asked about competition between WELL and Green Star, Noonan says WELL is complementary to sustainability rating schemes and should not be seen as a replacement.

He says there are differences between WELL and Green Star.

First, WELL focuses exclusively on people and wellbeing and does not deal with environmental sustainability. Whilst both Green Star and WELL look at water, for example, Green Star emphasises water efficiency whereas WELL focuses on water quality.

Next, whereas Green Star Design and As-Built ratings revolve around design and construction, WELL places greater emphasis on policies and operational performance which is assessed through performance testing and verification. With air quality, for example, Green Star focuses on how air quality features are designed whereas WELL instead measures the quality of air through testing.

Third, WELL performance metrics deal not only with air, water quality, lighting and comfort but also how the environment can promote things such as healthy eating, physical activity and cognitive performance – the latter three of which are not considered within Green Star.

Despite this, Noonan says Green Star is a good foundation for WELL. Companies who use Green Star are often well placed to also pursue WELL, he says.

For those using WELL, Noonan recommends strategies in four areas. First, organisations need to be open to feedback from their people. Next, stakeholders ranging from architects and engineers to HR personnel and facilities managers need to be engaged in dialogue about the health and well-being objectives of people who occupy the space in question. Third, organisations must understand the prerequisite conditions for certification and think about how their organisation might respond to these requirements. Finally, consulting a WELL Accredited Professional is recommended.

On this final point, Noonan says that whilst there is no requirement to have WELL APs on project teams to achieve certification, projects on which accredited professionals are engaged have generally superior outcomes to those for which no WELL APs are engaged.

Major players in Australia’s property sector have embraced Green Star and environmental sustainability.

A growing number are also embracing wellness and WELL.