Over recent years, Australia has improved the environmental quality of new construction in commercial buildings through NABERS ratings and the Green Star standard.

Now, many landlords and tenants are extending their focus to the health and well-being of occupants. The WELL Building Standard, a global standard, is emerging in this space.

But how will practices in Australia need to evolve to accommodate WELL ratings? These issues were addressed during a panel discussion at the recent Design Build event in Melbourne involving Edge Environment chief executive officer Jonas Bengtsson, Charter Hall workplace project manager Tony Short, Australian Trend Forecast director Kim Chadwick, Global Green Tag chief executive officer David Baggs and Good Environmental Choice chief executive officer Kate Harris.

It should be noted that WELL is not a replacement for – nor a competing standard to – Green Star. Nor is the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) in competition with the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA). Indeed, like many green building councils around the world, GBCA is a partner with the IWBI and sees WELL as complementary to Green Star.

Essentially, WELL is a scheme under which buildings are certified based on their performance in promoting the health and well-being of their occupants.

To gain certification, buildings are assessed according to 100 criteria across the seven concepts of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Of these criteria, 41 are known as preconditions. Each of these must be satisfied in order to achieve certification. The other 59 criteria are optimisations, which can be used to achieve a higher score and work toward a higher level of certification.

A feature of the assessment process is that all buildings are independently tested on site by a WELL certifier.

According to the aforementioned panellists, WELL has several significant features.

First, Baggs says, it is explicit in its requirement that those who assess buildings under the WELL accreditation are in fact certified assessors. This is different from Green Star, where he says the requirements for assessors to be certified is implicit rather than explicit.

Second, Baggs notes that WELL has a strong focus on outcomes. As noted above, the WELL accreditation process involves physical testing on site. Assessors literally go on site and test the air quality. They look at the health systems which come out of the kitchen while the building is occupied.

Third, Short says WELL focuses on individuals within the building as opposed to the building itself and emphasises the well-being of those individuals in a way which is personal in nature.

According to Chadwick, the certification taps into a worldwide trend for people to think more actively about their well-being. This could be through environmental considerations, food and nourishment, or other concerns. As well, recognition was also growing about the need to ‘disconnect’ from our senses and connect with our spiritual and emotional happiness.

For building owners, the experience of Charter Hall is an interesting study. According to Short, Charter Hall commenced a journey within its own workplaces in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth four years ago when there was a significant cultural push toward open collaboration and the promotion of a more positive work environment.

Upon the inception of WELL, the company looked at the standard and uncovered two challenges.

First, since the its makeover had begun before WELL come into being, the company had already nailed down its new designs and selected products when the standard came into being. Whilst the company was fortunate in that most of its products selected met the standard, it did uncover some gaps centred around air quality.

Second, the Charter Hall also uncovered gaps in its corporate policies and procedures surrounding wellness. Whilst it had believed it was doing well, bridging the gap between the policy and what was needed to meet the WELL standard forced it to formalise much of what it had been doing.

Finally, because WELL focuses on people rather than buildings, Short says it has transformed the company’s approach to buildings. Previously, the Charter Hall’s primary focus had revolved around the functional aspects of the building itself. Nowadays, the company has turned that on its head and is looking first and foremost at the people within the building.

In one case, a 15-year-old Sydney building went from being without a stairwell to having one which connected all of the tenants.

According to Baggs and Harris, another area of impact is in materials and manufacturing.

In WELL, there is a strong emphasis upon the materials used, and IWBI has published guidance for manufacturers on what their products need to do in order to support the achievement of WELL ratings.

Whilst Green Star does emphasise materials, products used are given less prominence in some of the other rating schemes, Harris says.

According to Baggs, this will challenge manufacturers to either transform their products to reduce toxic chemicals or risk losing business on buildings where WELL certification is targeted.

As for all the different certifications around (WELL, Green Star, Passivhaus and others), Baggs encourages building owners to understand the objectives of each certification and to determine which ones are suitable for a given project.

Finally, Chadwick would like to see healthy buildings move beyond offices and into the public realm such as education and healthcare.

“I would like to see it move more into the education sector and residential rather than it just being about commercial buildings,” she said. “Health should be a human rights issue when we are in the built environment and community space.”