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International WELL Building Institute Sponsored Series

The Science Behind Healthy Spaces: The Role of Buildings in Well-Being

With Return To Work Amid the Ongoing Pandemic, New Well-Being Standard for People in Buildings Aims to Provide a Sense of Security

By Amy Brown
International Well Building Institute IWBI Well Health-Safety Standard well-being standard

As a growing number of organizations begin to welcome their workforce back into physical office spaces and facilities, employees are understandably concerned about whether they can be assured of safe and healthy protocols being taken in their working environments in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic. In one survey, 64 percent of Americans said they were worried about their health and safety when returning to work. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) began to wrestle with the question of how to address these concerns shortly after it became clear that COVID-19 was going to pose a serious and ongoing global threat. IWBI is the creator of the widely adopted WELL Building Standard (WELL), a roadmap for creating and certifying spaces that advance human health and well-being.  

IWBI realized it needed to develop a new rating that was especially designed to respond to COVID-19 as a standard for managers and operators of existing buildings, to not only protect occupants from the virus today, but also to build resilience for the future. 

The result was the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management, launched in June 2020 and designed to help guide users in preparing their spaces for re-entry in a post-COVID-19 environment. It is an evidence-based, third-party verified rating for all new and existing building and facility types focusing on operational policies, maintenance protocols, stakeholder engagement and emergency plans. 

The rating, which consists of a subset of relevant features from the WELL Building Standard, was informed by the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to help users address matters of immediate concern such as air quality and emergency preparedness, but has broader applicability for supporting the long-term health and safety needs of people in a given space. Not only did IWBI’s work in generating diverse feedback lead to the new rating, but it helped inform the latest version of the WELL Building Standard itself, which publicly launched out of its pilot phase in September 2020. 

The WELL Health-Safety Rating is being adopted by a wide range of organizations and space types — including arenas and venues like Yankee Stadium, iconic buildings like the Empire State Building, retail giants like Simon Malls, global financial service organizations like JPMorgan Chase, corporate real estate owners like Brookfield Properties, school districts like Fairfax County, hotel leaders like Aimbridge Hospitality, and others. As of March 25, 1 billion square feet of spaces were enrolled in the WELL Health-Safety Rating and more than 1.5 billion are enrolled today. 

For human health outcomes, places matter

“One thing the pandemic has made clear is the significant role of buildings, organizations, and communities in supporting our health and safety,” Jessica Cooper, chief commercial officer for IWBI, told TriplePundit. “As organizations sought to mitigate the impact of the virus, we witnessed a dramatic rise in engagement with our WELL programs, which quickly eclipsed an average of about 1 million square feet of newly enrolled projects each day. There are now over 2 billion square feet enrolled in WELL programs across 99 countries.” 

Nathan Stodola, chief engineer at IWBI, added: “The pandemic has increased people’s awareness that when it comes to human health outcomes, places matter. Now more than ever, people are taking a real interest in the air and water quality in the space, inquiring if the filters have been replaced on time, looking for evidence of an effective cleaning routine, and considering how the design of a space may be influencing their decisions.”

Stodola expects that this closer attention to how buildings impact human health will continue: “Even after the temporary changes that result from the pandemic have passed, people will remember the power of place and start turning to even more holistic strategies that enable people to thrive within our buildings and communities.” 

Fast-tracking a new well-being standard during a pandemic

IWBI convened some 600 public health experts, virologists, government officials, academics, business leaders, architects, designers, building scientists and real estate professionals around the world to create the new program. That’s no easy feat amid a pandemic, but the support was overwhelming as people recognized the urgency, Stodola said. 

“When we set out to recruit task force members, we were blown away by the number of people who signed on to help provide suggestions,” he told 3p. To manage the amount of feedback from hundreds of people all connecting remotely, IWBI produced a digital forum where users could review the draft of the second version of the WELL Building Standard before it graduated from the pilot phase and respond to each other’s comments. They also held several virtual town hall presentations and discussion events.

“One challenge was being able to dissect all the information provided and organize it into usable criteria for our rating systems,” Stodola explained. “This was a main focus for us because it’s what enables our clients to take action on health- and safety-promoting strategies.”

Tailoring the standard to meet new requirements

“One thing we discovered is that many of the strategies WELL has promoted for years are useful both in and out of pandemic times,” Cooper explained. "For example, increased ventilation rates, emergency preparedness plans, and mental health awareness were already part of the WELL Building Standard and were now more relevant than ever.” Feedback from the task force did lead to the expansion of some of these topics: IWBI expanded on the subject of emergency management to add features with requirements on business continuity plans, emergency resilience, and building re-entry protocols. 

In other ways, learnings from the pandemic and discussions from the task force informed ways WELL requirements should be adjusted.  For instance, previously the WELL standard had rewarded projects that filtered particulate matter from outdoor air (to combat pollution from traffic or forest fires) and volatile organic compounds from recirculated indoor air (to combat off-gassing from furniture and furnishings). As a result of the task force, this feature was adjusted to reward projects that treated their recirculated air in ways that could reduce infectious particles. 

The ongoing interest in working toward healthier and safer building environments supports a long-term investment for organizations, Cooper expects.

“The shift we have seen is in large part a direct response to the increased value organizations are now placing on the health and well-being of their staff, customers and other stakeholders,” she said. “As organizations navigate the pandemic, the ROI of investing in human and social capital has become even more clear. The WELL movement can add value to everyone from employers looking to improve productivity to investors looking for a framework for evaluating ESG (environmental, social and governance) performance and benchmarking socially-focused companies. Businesses are now investing in health and prioritizing people-first places.”

Learn more about the WELL Health-Safety Rating.

This article series is sponsored by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image credit: Stocksy via IWBI

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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