A lot of building services engineers and property developers have been talking about the WELL Building Standard recently. Unlike other popular rating systems and building standards, WELL focuses exclusively on how a building affects the health and well-being of the people that occupy it.

It was launched in 2014 and there are already a few hundred registered or certified WELL projects around the world. So far, WELL has been optimised for commercial and institutional office buildings but, through pilot programs, it is expanding to other building types, including residential. While most are in the United States and China, there are WELL projects in at least 25 other countries. There are currently more than 30 projects in Australia and, particularly given the calibre of organizations that are getting involved, WELL looks set to have a big influence on the construction and management of Australian buildings.

One of the interesting things about WELL is that, even though it is focused on people’s well-being, there is a lot of alignment with green ideals. After all, healthy people need a healthy and sustainable environment. Reinforcing this alignment is the synergy between WELL and Australia’s own sustainability rating system, Green Star. As of 2017, this includes official guidance for those seeking a dual rating for the two programs.

The alignment also provides opportunities to use green infrastructure, such as green roofs and walls, to achieve WELL certification. Indeed, green infrastructure is already commonly used in office buildings, at least partly for its known benefits for wellbeing and productivity.

How WELL works

WELL is organized into seven concepts which, in total, are comprised of 100 features. The concepts are Air (features 1-29), Water (30-37), Nourishment (38-52), Light (53-63), Fitness (64-71), Comfort (72-83) and Mind (84-100).

Each of the 100 features addresses a specific aspect of the health, comfort, or knowledge of the building’s occupants, and relates to one or more of the human body’s systems, such as the respiratory system. Each feature is one of two types:

  • Precondition features must be addressed for a building to be WELL certified. All applicable preconditions in every concept need to be met for WELL certification to be awarded.
  • Optimization features are optional elements, but the level of optimization determines the level of certification of the building (Silver, Gold or Platinum).

In addition to the seven concepts, projects can receive credit for up to five Innovation features (101-105), to encourage novel approaches to wellness.

Assessment covers the building itself and the tenancy. For the latter, WELL is essentially a measure of how well the company treats its staff, and the tenant does not need the base building to be compliant to get their own WELL tenancy rating.

To recognize that not all features apply to all buildings, given different stages of development, WELL is also organized into typologies (New & Existing Buildings; New & Existing Interiors; Core & Shell). To keep their WELL certification, buildings need to be recertified at least once every three years. By rewarding long-term performance, it ensures that conditions are not allowed to deteriorate over time.

How WELL calls for green infrastructure

A solid understanding of the value delivered by green infrastructure is critical to maximising its use in WELL. Most notably, green infrastructure can be used to satisfy Features 88 and 100, which are both called Biophilia. Biophilia refers to our innate affinity with the natural world. In WELL, these features are listed under the Mind concept, as a benefit for the nervous system. It recognizes that a connection with the natural environment can have a positive effect on human health, stress, and productivity.

Feature 88 is called Biophilia I – Qualitative. It is a precondition feature for New & Existing Interiors and New & Existing Buildings, and an optimization feature for Core & Shell. It takes its inspiration from the Living Building Challenge, which is an American certification program for sustainability in buildings.

To satisfy this feature, you need to conduct historical, cultural, ecological and climatic research and use it to develop a biophilia plan. Your plan must include a description of how the project incorporates nature and “nature’s patterns.” The plan must also provide opportunities for human-nature interactions. Clearly, green infrastructure would be a natural consideration in all of this.

Feature 100 is called Biophilia II – Quantitative. For all three typologies, it is an optimization feature. It calls for the provision of outdoor gardens and landscaped areas, and indoor design elements reminiscent of the natural environment. Unlike Feature 88, it sets quantitative targets:

  • Outdoor biophilia: At least 25 per cent of the project site area must feature landscaped grounds or rooftop gardens accessible to building occupants, with at least 70 per cent plantings including tree canopies.
  • Indoor biophilia: Potted plants or planted beds must cover at least one per cent of the floor area (per floor), and there must be a plant wall on every floor that covers a wall area of at least two per cent of the floor area, or the largest of the available walls, whichever is greater.

The extent to which green infrastructure has been used to address these biophilia features in existing WELL projects is unclear, but green infrastructure is prominent in some high profile WELL projects such as 480 Queen Street in Brisbane, a 34-storey office building with a park on its fourth floor and trees on its rooftop.

Note that Feature 88 has no equivalent in Green Star, and Feature 100 is aligned with Green Star’s criterion for indoor plants but has different requirements. Green Star does, however, have an Innovation Challenge called Connection to Nature, whereby one point is awarded for incorporating connections to the natural environment and then providing ongoing feedback to biophilic research at RMIT University. Those connections can include, explicitly, green walls and rooftop gardens.

Other ways green infrastructure can score with WELL

Beyond Mind, green infrastructure is potentially relevant to multiple other concepts, such as Nourishment. In particular, Feature 51 (Food Production) calls for the cultivation of produce, with the aim of increasing access to healthy foods and encouraging engagement with food production processes. It is an optimization feature that is intended to benefit a few of the body’s systems; cardiovascular, digestive, immune, muscular and skeletal. It includes a requirement that at least 0.1 square metre per occupant (up to 70 square metres) is allocated for a garden or greenhouse, or both.

It seems there is considerable flexibility in the type of space that can be provided. One possible solution is the type of rooftop community garden created by GMHBA on their head office building in Geelong, and there are certainly other ways to grow food in green infrastructure.

In any case, one of the likely consequences of WELL is that the way developers and facility management think about green infrastructure will change, not only in terms of design but in operations, management and maintenance. This includes greater investment in maintenance and operational activities to ensure long-term value from green infrastructure, and more programs to engage the building occupants.