In developed countries today, people spend the vast majority of their time indoors. Consequently, the design and construction of those interior spaces have powerful effects on human health, for better or for worse. The entire built environment can be designed to enhance health through how things are designed, where they’re built, and what they’re made of.

The WELL Building Standard, administered by the International WELL Building Institute, was launched in 2014 to quantify and enhance the human health effects of the built environment. The standard is based on seven years of research involving physicians, scientists, and building industry professionals, and addresses seven factors: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

Some of the factors are obvious, such as ensuring healthy indoor air quality through removal of airborne contaminants, and providing convenient access to pure water. Other factors, such as comfort, are less obvious. This factor calls for addressing thermal and acoustic properties to “create an indoor environment that is distraction-free, productive, and soothing.” According to WELL, the standard “marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research.”

WELL founder Paul Scialla, writing in Healthy Indoors, noted that recently published research by Harvard, SUNY, and Syracuse University highlights the cognitive effects of indoor CO2 levels. Workers in average CO2 environments showed “cognitive functions such as information usage, strategy, and crisis response scores particularly jarringly affected” in comparison with workers in low-CO2 environments.

Not only do healthy buildings have potential to curb increasing healthcare costs, Scialla wrote, they can help companies’ bottom lines through increased employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention.

Increasing employee productivity by just one per cent could completely offset a building’s utility costs, according to Helen Brennek, of engineering consulting firm WSP Canada. Brennek told CBC News of the building industry’s 3-30-300 ratio, where for “every square foot of space, $3 is spent on utilities, $30 is spent on facilities, and $300 is spent on the people inside it.” Boosting productivity by one per cent thus results in covering the utility cost for the building.

The WELL standard recently gained a foothold in Australia, with the completion of 480 Queen Street in Brisbane. The 153-metre tower provides occupants with access to greenery with a rooftop grove of trees, and a 1,400-square-metre park with river views on level four. Showers and parking for 600 bicycles help occupants take advantage of the nearby riverside bike path. The project was designed to achieve 6 Star Green Star certification, as well as the NABERS 5-star rating.

Recently, the Green Building Council of Australia joined forces with the International Well Building Institute to “work collaboratively to promote health and well-being in the design, construction and operations of buildings, fitouts and communities in Australia.”

“A truly sustainable building not only addresses environmental impact, but social and economic impact too,” said Romilly Madew of the GBCA. “Green Star’s focus on indoor environmental quality provides a critical foundation for human health and well-being – one which WELL enhances through its dedicated focus on evidence-based medical and scientific research and measurable performance.”

Other building professionals have also addressed the power of the built environment as it pertains to human health. The American Institute of Architects has devised a program that outlines six areas of design, including:

  • Environmental quality, such as “materials that limit allergies or potential toxins” and “adequate air exchange”
  • Natural systems, such as “views and adjacencies to nature”
  • Physical activity, such as “multi-modal transportation systems” and “bicycle and pedestrian trails”
  • Safety, such as “elements to minimize falls” and “adequate lighting”

Two other elements of the program illustrate the complexity of the modern built environment. “Sensory environments” includes design and policy approaches such as reduced construction noise, individual thermal controls, mood-enhancing lighting systems, and noise barriers.

In the sphere of social connectedness, architects can foster relationships with approaches such as public spaces like lobbies and staircases, public squares and courtyards, parks and green spaces, and mixed-use zoning policies.

The AIA noted in the document that architects can create positive change in the built environment, with the result that “the physical environment creates access to health opportunities and facilitates positive health behaviors.”