Six Principles for a Healthy, Sustainable Built Environment

The World Green Building Council builds a Health & Wellbeing Framework.



It's all so confusing; there's LEED for green buildings and there's WELL for health and FITWELL for fitness, and don't forget One Planet Living and Living Building Challenge. Add to the pile the Health & Wellbeing Framework from the World Green Building Council, "an action network comprised of around 70 Green Building Councils (GBCs) around the globe." It sounds like an old xkcd cartoon.

In fact, it is a different kind of standard that speaks to a larger audience; board member and former President Lisa Bate tells Treehugger that the audience is the building and construction sector, "but it has gone so broad to include the UN and the COP." Bate explains how she got involved: "When I was living in China during the Airpocalypse and new buildings would have a flush-out period of 6 months from the materials, I became fixated on Indoor Air Quality alongside exterior pollution." She is now Global Sustainability Lead and Senior Principal for B+H Architects in Toronto.

The Framework paints a bigger picture with its focus on health and wellbeing. From the executive summary:

"It is time to unlock the huge potential that the building and construction sector can have in improving human health and quality of life. The industry needs to address its responsibility regarding the quality of our indoor environment, our mental and physical health, and influence on our behaviour. These considerations must also embrace the people involved along all stages of the building lifecycle, from the health of construction workers to the environmental impacts of how we source materials, construct and operate our buildings."

After two years of work, the framework has been released in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is actually pretty good timing given its focus on health. The authors say "the principles are conceptual, allowing them to be universally applicable for an international audience and diverse range of stakeholders. It can be used by actors across the value chain, from designers to occupiers, construction firms to policymakers," but they are extensively documented and detailed.

The Six Principles

six principles


  1. Protect and improve health
  2. Prioritize comfort
  3. Harmony with nature
  4. Facilitate positive behavior and health
  5. Social value
  6. Take climate action

Each principle section includes Sub Principles; for example, for 1. Protect and improve health:

Sub Principles


This is followed by a detailed examination of each Sub Principle describing the problem, the desired outcome, strategies across the lifecycle, and real benchmarks as set by organizations like WHO and ASHRAE, followed by extensive lists of resources. It's really thorough and detailed.

Principle 6: Take Climate Action

Sub Principle 6 list


They don't kid around here either, looking at serious reductions in operating emissions and taking a strong stand on embodied carbon (the WorldGBC previously came out with a great report on the importance of Upfront Carbon Emissions and embodied carbon). The outcome they are looking for:

"All new and existing buildings demonstrate improvements in lifecycle energy efficiency, targeting net zero operational carbon emissions in all new buildings by 2030, and net zero embodied carbon in all new buildings by 2050 (including emissions from equivalent greenhouse gases, specifically HFCs)." 

Don't Bash the Bike Rack

Bike rack in green building
Bike rack in green building, Seattle.

Lloyd Alter

The framework shows how dramatically the world has changed in just a few years, and how the approach to sustainability and green building has evolved. A decade ago, everybody was bashing LEED because of bikes. Building science expert Joe Lstiburek complained “A bike rack? You get a green point for a bike rack?” Readers complained in comments: "Are you nuts? Bike Parking is NOT a part (and certainly not a necessary part) of a green building." Or my favorite: "Bike rack schmike rack. whatta bunch of baloney. Give me a trombe wall and some kind of sustainable design idea or stfu."

Now, of course, it is accepted that bikes are a whole lot more useful than trombe walls, and that getting people out of cars and on to bikes is climate action, but also that sustainability is a much bigger picture. Of the six parts of this Framework, only one talks about carbon, (Nobody mentions energy anymore, it's all about carbon now). Principle 4, "Facilitate positive behavior and health," covers the bikes and active transportation and shows how our understanding and definition of sustainability has changed, noting:

"Buildings and local community play a supportive role in the healthy lifestyle of occupants, including the reduction of obesity, by designing the space to encourage regular physical activity, reducing barriers to accessibility, availability and affordability."

This isn't mission creep for the sustainable design industry, it is reality. What we build affects everyone, inside and out of our buildings. This new framework covers all the bases, it is not so much a standard as it is a guide to the entire field of sustainable design. It's a really useful addition.

More at the World Green Building Council