The Well Standard has all the buzz these days, but are we taking our eyes off the ball?
It's now pretty much official; wellness is the new green. Tony Whitehead of WSP tells us that the wellness industry was worth US$ 3.7 trillion in 2015, including "'wellness lifestyle real estate' worth US$118.6bn, and a US$43.3bn workplace wellness market."
Wellness looks very much like the next big thing in building design — the new “green”... For decades, environmental considerations have been to the fore in architectural and engineering thinking, the aim being to create highly efficient buildings that used as little energy and water as possible. Now, however, there is a growing concern that a focus on efficiency might have caused designers to lose the plot somewhat. Certainly efficient buildings save money and are better for the planet, but what about the people in them?
There are a lot of architects I know who would argue that point about "losing the plot", and who always put the health of the occupants first. When I first asked "Is wellness the new green?" architect and author Lance Hosey reminded me in a series of tweets that green building was always about healthy building. And I also have been saying for years that, in green building, you can’t separate energy from health, and wrote:
We should be focusing on people, not buildings; that the real role of a building is to keep us healthy, happy, safe and comfortable. Energy is just an input, a variable; the fact that a comfortable building will use a lot less of it is a happy coincidence.
But the fact is, sustainability has always been a hard sell. Many people don't care about it, governments in the US actually tried to ban LEED, energy is cheap, and the President of the United States says climate change is a hoax.
But nobody is against health and wellness.
That's why the Well Standard has been so successful. TreeHugger has followed the phenomenal growth in the Well Certification system, which was pretty silly when it started but has become less Gwyneth Paltrow and more Rick Fedrizzi, who jumped from running the USGBC and LEED to the much trendier Well. Whitehead writes:
As so often, the momentum for change seems to have sprung from a timely confluence of several trends, as WSP technical director and wellness specialist Meike Borchers explains: “First, there is a bottom-up driver. These days, occupants — employees — understand how the environment affects them far better"....Increasing gym use, wrist gadgets, even the popularity of organic food all testify to our growing preoccupation with health: “So naturally we are also taking more interest in our working environment.”
Whitehead asks if there is real science behind all this, and even Borchers admits that "the research ranges from the robust to the frankly somewhat flaky." Take lighting; for decades, everyone worked under fluorescent lights of one color temperature and spiky spectra. Then the importance of circadian rhythms were confirmed, and architects are now "using light to promote wellness". WSP lighting expert Jay Wratten says, “Our bodies don’t react in the same way for a 12-hour period, so why should the building?”
Yes, but on TreeHugger I have always argued that natural light from windows gives you this, along with a view. Wratten apparently concurs: “Personally, I feel nervous about dosing people with prescribed amounts of certain light. It’s advisable, where possible, to use natural light to reinforce an awareness of the day outside."
In concluding, Whitehead raises some important reservations and concerns about how all this information might be misused.
Health and productivity, while correlated, are not necessarily the same, Borchers points out: “Employers monitoring their staff’s every move and health level through wearable technology and keeping the blue light on until midnight to keep their workforce working hard — there is line between caring and exploitation that should not be crossed.”
Whitehead notes that "it will be fascinating to see how the wellness megatrend pans out." That is an understatement. I have spent a lot of time with my nose in the Well Standard, working with my students at Ryerson School of Interior Design to develop a comparable standard for homes, and have found that some of it is indeed flaky, some contradictory, and some I believe to be wrong. It is also expensive; Whitehead estimates $40K for a 100,000 square foot building.
But most importantly, it ignores the critical issues of sustainability, of carbon, of energy efficiency. Many architects and builders will also go LEED, but that is even more expensive. It is all very well to have a healthy building interior but it would be nicer if there was still something healthy outside.
Well certification is all well and good, but not if it stands alone.