South Africa is heading into the next phase of the risk-based staged approach to lifting the lockdown from 1 June 2020, where many areas will achieve Alert Level 3 (and possibly lower in due course, based on the regional risk profiles) with the aims of opening up the economy, many more citizens are expected to return to the office or their place of work. The viability of this move is still largely being debated in the market and, while the main focus undoubtedly must remain to safeguard the lives of people through all efforts to contain and combat the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), with growing uncertainty due to fluxes in international markets and economic strain locally – not to mention immense stress being felt across all tiers of society - there is also a deep seated understanding that we cannot afford to halt progress in the country. 

An important question then is, how do we sustainably support the containment of COVID-19 in the workplace?

The Government gazetted protocols for the workplace are certainly all important and in an urgent sense. However, as the impacts – and risk of infection/reinfection - of COVID-19 are projected to linger for some time (some analysts suggesting at least until a successful vaccine can be mass produced and rolled-out, which reasonably could still take 18-24 months), the workplace as we have known it will have to adapt to better support containment and promote the health of employees.

What is interesting to note is that in recent years creating healthier buildings - aimed at improving occupant health and well-being - has been cited as one of the most important triggers driving green or sustainable building activity. Amidst the impact of COVID-19 and as more organisations look to adapt to the changing context of the ‘new normal’ we expect that promoting healthier buildings will become the leading trigger for adopting green and sustainable building interventions. 

However, the renewed approach will go deeper than driving water and energy efficiency, for example, as designing for WELL-performance supports infection control now, but also resilience to future epidemics. 

WELL certification is a data-driven approach to verifying building performance and is focused specifically on the influence that the interior design – from air quality, to water quality, lighting and acoustic, etc. - of a building has on the health of the occupants. The aim of WELL certification is to deepen the understanding that building sustainably promotes a healthier environment and therefore bodes numerous benefits to the personal health and productivity of occupants.

WELL certification has not yet entered the South African market. However, WSP Global is one of the world’s first companies to be approved as a WELL Performance Testing Organisation – and through our global network of expertise we are able to offer WELL performance testing services to clients in the local market. This means we are authorised to provide independent, third-party verification for building projects pursuing WELL certification in support of promoting human health, productivity, well-being and comfort.

With this in mind, one of our global experts, Meike Borchers, Head of Sustainability and WELL AP, WSP in Germany, was recently asked if doing building wellness standards address infection control, and Meike shared her views and takeaways as follows:

At the onset of the pandemic, the International Well Building Institute went into action quite quickly to review the WELL standard, examining how it affects the spread of infection and whether it can help to prevent it. 

WELL is organised around 10 themes, ranging from air and water quality to other concepts that have relevance for infection control, such as fitness and mental health. It does contain a lot of guidance to promote hygiene: it starts with very simple things, such as using signs to encourage people to wash their hands, but it also has very detailed policies for designers and facilities management staff. It looks at the types of surface that are specified – are they easily cleaned; do they harbour contaminants? 

On an operational level, it addresses aspects such as staff training, cleaning products and protocols. So, with handwashing, for example, soap dispensers should be touch-free so that we can clean our hands without picking up pathogens, and we should be able to dry our hands using tissues or touch-free devices.

We don’t need “chemical bombs” – we can still use environmentally friendly and healthy products.

When you look at the chemicals that will kill the Coronavirus, scientists have found that some very basic products, mainly containing alcohol and other standard ingredients, are the best way to deal with it. Using the right products is not just about containing viruses, but also ensuring that we don’t compromise air quality and health more broadly.

The air quality criteria of WELL make a huge difference.

The WELL air concept aims to ensure high levels of indoor air quality across a building’s lifetime, and if you are carefully controlling the airflow and the supply of fresh air, you can reduce the risk of cross-infection. For mechanically ventilated buildings, it’s absolutely crucial, for example, that the right filters are installed and regularly cleaned or exchanged to ensure that no bacteria or viruses are brought into the space. WELL contains strict requirements both on equipment specifications and maintenance regimes.

Perhaps now other areas of wellness standards will come to the fore.

A key aspect of WELL is that organisations have to prepare an emergency management plan, to deal with risks such as fires and earthquakes as well as infections. So, in the case of a pandemic, they need to have measures in place for informing staff of the risk, providing alternative ways of working, implementing strategies for at-risk groups and so on. All of this was already in the standard, therefore buildings with a WELL strategy in place might be a bit better prepared for the current situation.

Buildings that promote use of stairs over lifts will fare better post-COVID.

Giving people access to stairs and making them a prominent feature of the building is a key aspect of WELL, because it encourages occupants to move about, socialise and stay fit. It will be easier to socially distance in a building with a well-dimensioned feature stair that provides enough space to allow people to go up and down at the same time, rather than a narrow fire escape stair or a small elevator.

Clearly, the WELL standard needs to work in parallel with other guidance.

A standard such as WELL is both guidance and – through certification – an assessment of conditions and intentions at a certain point in time. Organisations will still need to assess and adapt to how their particular space works for their staff and the activities they need to do. I am also curious to see how the current trend of increased working from home and its inevitable impact on workplace design will shape future versions of WELL.

The crisis has illuminated a wider point about wellness and why we need to keep people healthier.

It’s important to remember that there is more to reducing risk than good hygiene and social distancing. Aside from age, the groups that seem to be most vulnerable to COVID-19, are those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, heart disease, obesity or type 2 diabetes. Quite often this is linked to an unhealthy lifestyle or poor living and working conditions. Taking one example, poor air quality is thought to be responsible for 400,000 premature deaths every year in Europe alone. A well-designed “healthy” building can contribute to physical and mental wellbeing – then if people do become infected with a virus, they have a better chance of a speedy and full recovery.