The game-changer, Mlade believes, has been the introduction of wellness standards, in particular WELL and Fitwel. “You can design with the wellness of occupants at the heart of what you do, but it’s hard to sell that without frameworks to inform the design process — a handle to grab onto, something to show the client. WELL and Fitwel do that, and it’s made all the difference.”
WELL certification is offered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) a private corporation launched in 2013. It is rigorous and relatively expensive, costing perhaps US$40,000 per year for a 100,000ft2 building and involving continuing assessments by an independent WELL assessor.
In addition to monitoring the qualities of light, noise, air and water in a building, the assessor will also look into areas less obviously within the purview of building designers — canteen menus and paternity policies, for example, or wearable tech that monitors occupants’ activity and sleep. Certain standards are prerequisites for certification while others are optional and enable buildings to achieve the higher levels of certification, graded silver, gold and platinum. In contrast, US-based Fitwel is a collaboration between federal government agencies and private designers. It has no prerequisites and is more subjective, relying on feedback from occupants. It also costs much less — perhaps US$5,000 for a 100,000ft2 building. “It is not as in-depth as WELL, but is much more accessible,” says Mlade. “Not everyone can afford WELL, which I think will succeed mainly among higher-spec office buildings.”
WELL certainly seems to be taking off. In spring 2016, 107 buildings totalling 22 million ft2 were under certification. By autumn 2017, 530 buildings and more than 100 million ft2 were going through the process. But while such schemes do provide a framework for conversations about occupant wellness, they don’t in themselves explain why this is now becoming a priority for so many building owners and employers.
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. People are very aware, for example, of pollution levels here in London. In China, where it is an even more pressing issue, people pay a lot of money for places with cleaner or filtered air.”
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 indoor working environment.”
Borchers says that this is having a big impact on the competitive markets for both corporate occupiers and company employees: “The top-down driver is that for building owners, wellness has become a way of attracting big tenants. And for the tenants, occupying a building designed for wellness has become a way of attracting and retaining the best staff.”
Trends in office development bear this out. High-ceilinged, naturally ventilated office space is becoming more popular — for example, London developer Derwent justified the added investment in its recently completed White Collar Factory, which has floor-to-ceiling heights of 3.5m, on the grounds that such buildings let quicker and rent for more.
Wellness can also be a powerful point of differentiation in vibrant but less established property markets. Polish developer HB Reavis has just achieved Europe’s first WELL core-and-shell precertification for the Varso Place tower in Warsaw. It is designed by Foster + Partners and set to be Poland’s tallest building when it completes in 2020, but the developer has chosen to pursue the WELL standard to further set it apart from the crowd. “We know that almost anyone running a business these days, of any size, is highly concerned about recruiting and retaining talent and about productivity,” says
HB Reavis chief executive Pavel Trenka. “So we believe that creating workspaces that keep people healthy, happy and energized is a critical service we should offer clients. We’re seeing a huge amount of interest from enlightened clients who understand the impact that a thoughtfully designed working environment has on the bottom line.”