Words:
Josephine Smit

It’s no longer enough for a building to be green: clients are increasingly looking for them to foster wellbeing

There appears to be no end to our enthusiasm for foods, drinks, gadgets and activities that, we are told, will help us keep well and live longer. From avocados and kale to cycling and FitBits, our lives are packed full of stuff marketed as beneficial for our health and wellbeing, and it’s big business.

So why shouldn’t buildings be part of the wellbeing trend? After all, we spend most of our time in them and there’s the potential for us, and the companies we work for, to reap benefits. A stream of research has assessed the impact of good and bad quality indoor office environments, on everything from typing speeds to sleep levels and absenteeism.

At the same time, the healthy building debate plays into bigger questions about how to relieve pressure on the NHS and improve the UK’s woeful record on workplace productivity. Poor quality, draughty homes are reckoned to cost the NHS £2.5 billion a year, while UK workers are around 30% less productive than those in Germany, the USA and France. Tackling all this sounds such a good idea that you can’t help wondering why every government, developer, office tenant and homebuyer isn’t clamouring for healthy buildings, but making it stack up is not so simple.

What’s in a word

Wellbeing may be a popular term but it can be hard to pin down. The World Green Building Council gives eight priority areas for offices: indoor air quality and ventilation, thermal comfort, daylighting and lighting, noise and acoustics, interior layout and active design, biophilia and views, the look and feel of a space, and location and access to amenities. By contrast, the key standard targeting wellbeing in offices, the WELL Building Standard, also extends to occupier factors, such as the food on offer in the canteen.

The US-based International Well Building Institute (IWBI) launched WELL in 2014 and now has more than 300 WELL projects registered or certified globally. Only one project has achieved certification in the UK to date, the fit-out of One Carter Lane, the new London office of consulting engineer Cundall. In November IWBI announced plans to collaborate with the UK’s BRE in a move that it hopes will help increase WELL’s uptake. ‘The objective is to help internationalise and localise the standard,’ says Paul Scialla, founder of IWBI. BRE’s BREEAM and WELL will harmonise common credits – reckoned to be around 30% – and give mutual recognition, cutting the time and costs of certification, particularly in areas such as the building services-related aspects of WELL, which are based on US ASHRAE standards.

Clients have driven the move to harmonise, says Gavin Dunn, director of the building performance group at BRE. ‘We had a number of key clients in Europe asking what we could do to ensure that the two processes aligned. The conversation is going from environmental buildings that avoid doing harm to designing and operating buildings that promote positive health outcomes.’

That shift in business thinking is confirmed by Beth Ambrose, director in the upstream sustainability services team at property consultant JLL. ‘Wellbeing is driving a lot of interest, in a way that I wouldn’t get if I were talking about energy efficiency. It’s especially important for the banking and tech sectors where there is a war on talent, for millennials. Millennials want to work for companies with a social purpose, and you can visualise that in your real estate, with features like bicycle racks.’

Well-ready, set, go

However, Ambrose acknowledges that this interest does not always extend to buildings themselves. ‘There are a lot of wellbeing programmes that don’t take on buildings. Wellbeing is broad-ranging – it extends across human resources, facilities management and sustainability.’ For many developers, this is a conundrum: wellbeing and WELL ultimately rely on occupier strategies as well as the building itself.

This has led to the emergence of what many are calling the well-ready building. ‘Being well-ready means developers take the building as far as they can, so the tenant can take it further if they want,’ explains Festus Moffat, director with John Robertson Architects, which has a well-ready project on the way and a project targeting WELL waiting in the wings. ‘Developers are increasingly incorporating wellbeing in a soft way. They are looking at how they can be aligned to the standard.’ That can mean simply incorporating more showers and cycle facilities into a design, or making the staircase more prominent.

Developer Igloo Regeneration brought health, happiness and wellbeing into its schemes seven years ago as part of its own sustainability assessment methodology, called Footprint. Overall, Footprint helps to make Igloo more competitive, improve the financial return of places and maximise social impact, says executive chairman Chris Brown. ‘We benchmark our performance against the market on our schemes and it’s quite rare that we do anything that’s the same as the market.’

Brown sees other developers catching up, in time. ‘In environmental sustainability, as regulatory levels went up, the market performance got better and if it had continued, we would have had no competitive advantage,’ he says. ‘I can see a similar thing happening in health, happiness and wellbeing – only this time it’s not regulatory.’

The experiments

Studio Ben Allen is the only architect to have worked on a WELL certified project in the UK, at One Carter Lane. Although Ben Allen came to the project with little knowledge of the standard and a tight timescale, the experience was ultimately positive. ‘The most challenging part for us was volatile organic compounds, because at that time, products either didn’t comply or there was a lack of information about them,’ he says. That led the practice to use bespoke designs and even to design furniture itself.

In an office sector where unhealthy working cultures are prevalent and, says Allen, ‘design can be picked from a catalogue’, WELL provided a refreshing opportunity to take a different approach. ‘We quite quickly realised that a lot of what we wanted to do could be used as our submission for WELL. It opened up possibilities to provide a great quality space.’

Studio Ben Allen is now working on a second project for Cundall, also targeting WELL, and would like to do more in the sector. ‘If we hadn’t had such a good experience, we might have thought differently, but it has provided an opportunity to experiment,’ says Allen.

Many more experiments in wellbeing are in progress, including the UK Green Building Council’s Wellbeing Lab programme, which brings companies together to gather and share knowledge. Environmental design consultant Greengage Environmental is participating in that programme and other initiatives, including NHS England’s healthy towns programme.

Mitch Cooke, the company’s director, says that understanding and application of wellbeing in buildings has made progress. ‘People like talking about health and wellbeing. Clients now understand that making offices more productive makes them more marketable.’ But there is still a way to go in driving home the business case, he adds. ‘The cost of certification is something that people will have to justify.’

Baytree, Chetwoods, Dagenham.
Baytree, Chetwoods, Dagenham.

Baytree industrial Dagenham project

An industrial scheme in Dagenham is the first project to test BRE and IWBI’s collaborative approach, targeting both BREEAM Excellent and WELL. Developer Baytree Logistics Properties is constructing the first 110,000ft2 phase of the scheme, and future phases will provide a further 250,000ft2. The design by architect Chetwoods and environmental consultant Delta-Simons includes such features as rainwater harvesting and the use of recycled and recyclable materials, and will promote wellbeing through measures such as encouragement for people to use the stairs.

What makes a BREEAM building? BREEAM covers 10 areas: energy, health and wellbeing, innovation, land use, materials, management, pollution, transport, waste and water.

One Carter Lane.
One Carter Lane. Credit: Dirk Linder

One Carter Lane, London

Solid oak doors, a brass countertop, bespoke desks, artwork and plants: these are the wellbeing-inducing features in One Carter Lane, the London office of consulting engineer Cundall. The 15,400ft2 fit-out project officially became the first building in Europe to achieve WELL certification in November, and has also achieved BREEAM Excellent and SKA Gold ratings. ‘We wanted the space to feel more like a home, to feel wholesome,’ says Ben Allen of Studio Ben Allen.

What makes a building WELL? WELL’s seven factors cover: indoor air quality, water quality, healthy eating, lighting to minimise disruption to the body’s circadian rhythm, fitness – encouraging physical activity, acoustic and thermal comfort, and support for mental and emotional health.

Zig-Zag Building, Victoria.
Zig-Zag Building, Victoria.

The Zig Zag Building, London

‘The thoughtful building’: that’s how developer Land Securities describes its Zig Zag Building in London’s Victoria. That thought has gone into ‘occupier focused design, providing a considered environment to boost productivity and wellbeing’, according to Land Securities development director Tom Venner. The design, by Lynch Architects, maximises natural light, allows for natural ventilation, has views onto planted terraces, and bicycle racks to encourage healthy, sustainable commuting.

What makes a building thoughtful? The approach considered 10 elements: efficiency, flexibility, cycling, lifestyle, open space, productivity, creativity, fit and healthy staff, corporate social responsibility, and doing business in London.

Latest

South Africa’s housing crisis puts the UK’s in the shade. Joseph Noero takes a practical approach to his mission to change that

Simple, affordable Table House has huge potential to improve lives

RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner famed for buildings such as the Olivetti offices, Fountains Abbey visitor centre and the Downland Gridshell among others; teacher, collaborator and known above all for his inclusive, optimistic approach

Hugely influential designer, teacher and Royal Gold Medallist

Architect Tom Bennett explains why the urgency of arresting climate crisis leaves him no alternative but to get involved – seriously

One architect on why climate activism is worth a criminal record

Profits flatline in the RIBA Business Benchmarking 2019 survey despite bigger workloads for architects bringing in more revenue

Employment is up, so is international work – the results of RIBA’s Business Benchmarking survey

The latest Cupa Pizarras ventilated slate cladding features vertical rectangles ideal for the clean lines of modern projects

Slate cladding in vertical rectangles is the perfect fit