There’s much ado in the building world of late about well-being in the built environment. Such a novel idea – that buildings should be designed for occupants!

The recent release of the WELL standard has seen some of the most occupant-driven designs realised for some of Australia’s largest new projects. With 20 registered projects across the nation, including some of the highest profile commercial developments and for the biggest names, it seems occupant well-being has hit the mainstream. And it’s a savvy business that invests in their employees.

The link between investing in staff and profitability has not always been so clear cut. While staff costs typically account for about 90 per cent of business operating costs, the emphasis for ‘green’ building design has been on the readily measurable effects such as energy and water. The World Green Building Council notes that, while “research clearly demonstrates that the design of an office has a material impact on the health, well-being and productivity of its occupants” that “this evidence is not yet translating at scale into design and financing decisions, certainly not in all parts of the globe.”

A new report from the Harvard School of Public Health and SUNY Upstate Medical University has found that “employees who work in certified green buildings have been found to have higher cognitive function scores, fewer sick building symptoms and higher sleep quality scores than those working in non-certified buildings.”

So the impacts of our environment are very directly linked to our health, and perhaps more significantly than we care to believe.

Factors such as indoor air quality (IAQ), thermal comfort, biophilia, noise, interior layout, active design and physical amenities and location of a project can seriously impact occupants. Indeed, many people would, given the option, select a workplace with positive views on many soft criteria such as “look and feel” of a space as well as locality, though they are often not given the opportunity.

The WELL standard takes an approach not seen in other rating tools, by laying out all issues against the one key consideration: impact on the human body. The tool uses performance-based, heavily researched ‘markers’ or thresholds, as well as strategies, to optimise the built environment provision. All impacts are ascribed against the human body system on which they impact: cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, immune, integumentary, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal or urinary.

In understanding the entirety of the WELL rating system, it can be understood that the systems view of buildings is the only successful approach to ensure we thrive together.

There can be some great outcomes: 92 per cent of those who worked in WELL-rated spaces said the new space has created a positive effect on their health and well-being, while 94 per cent said that the new space has a positive impact on their business performance.

Other standards and rating tools offer great benefits in the areas of health, well-being and comfort. The old guard of Green Star, BREEAM and LEED cover issues such as the reduction or exclusion of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), increased fresh air rates to increased daylighting and external views.

While it may, on first glance, seem overly scientific and stifling, the basis for the rating tool is a very large bulk of research, some of it long-standing and even adopted by the WHO. The outcome? A space that promotes health rather than seeks to minimise harm. Some of the criteria include seemingly simple measures such as providing outside space. WELL Certified spaces and developments can lead to a built environment that helps to improve the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep, comfort and performance of its occupants. This is achieved in part by implementing strategies, programs and technologies designed to encourage healthy, more active lifestyles and reducing occupant exposure to harmful chemicals and pollutants.

So how does it fit in amongst all the other rating tools?

As far as comparable building rating tools or standards go, WELL can be seen as a rigorous extension of tools such as LEED or Green Star, in particular in the IEQ category and with measures targeting materials, emissions and building management. Another that warrants comparison is the Passivhaus standard.

Features shared by both the WELL and Passivhaus standards include a focus on high indoor quality through proper ventilation and air filtration, as well as requirements that eliminate the occurrence of mould and condensation.

As an ultra-high performance standard, many Passivhaus buildings (often by virtue of their ventilation systems) include sensors that measure and control internal levels of temperature, humidity and CO2. Additional control of shading and natural ventilation (sometimes also using a bypass system) can also work to optimise IEQ as well as energy consumption. Automated external shading, often used to meet the energy and comfort requirements in a Passivhaus building, are required under WELL to avoid glare and improve occupant comfort.

Thermal comfort is the Passivhaus specialty, where indoor temperatures rarely strays from 20 to 25 degrees across the whole year. This ticks WELL’s metric for thermal comfort and ensures that mood, performance and productivity is optimized for occupants. The WELL requirements may be met with a simple tweak of the ventilation system – or even by default in some cases – with adequate filtration to achieve metrics for particulate matter, odours and inorganic gases. The use of Passivhaus certified components may also help achieving WELL metrics, such as high performance windows, air purification, ventilation systems, or fireplaces with an external air supply to seal off combustion by-products from the living spaces.

There are several WELL metrics that pertain to both exterior and interior noise limits. Due to the high-performance exterior envelope in a Passivhaus building, ambient outdoor noise is reduced to a negligible level indoors and Passivhaus mechanical ventilation systems must stay below certain levels to become certified. The lack of overly technical systems means that Passivhaus buildings typically don’t have acoustic concerns anyhow.

The are many complementing measures in the Passivhaus and WELL standards, with the core focus of both being to provide excellent buildings for people. Combined with additional measures such as embodied energy assessment, water and social sustainability factors, WELL + Passivhaus buildings would enable streamlined certification under other tools such as Green Star and LEED. Indeed, both can be used together for reaching even more stringent standards, such as the Living Building Challenge, and advancing sustainable building practice in a holistic, occupant focussed manner.