The science of being well

The science of being well

Have you ever wondered why certain spaces can make you feel more productive, happier or even healthier? Kirsten Keane (who has studied this exact thing) is helping us break down the science of great design.

In August of 2017, I earned my WELL AP accreditation—a little more alphabet soup to add to the end of my email signature. I studied for months, made about 500 handwritten flashcards, and passed my exam. But what the HELL is WELL, you ask?

First I’ll take it back a step to tell you that I went to grad school for Interior Architecture, but my undergrad degree was psychology—for years I had a deep interest in positive psychology. Definitions for this term vary slightly between organizations, but one that I ascribe to defines positive psychology as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive,” (Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania). While this is often applied through practices like mindfulness, affirmations, community involvement, and more, I had a feeling that one of those “strengths” was our environment!

Many of us can identify with spending 40-hour (or more) workweeks in cubicles with no windows in sight. Perhaps you tacked up a poster of some clouds, or put up a picture of a landscape. Why did you do that? To pretend you have a view? That you have fresh air? That you have more control over your environment?

The WELL Building Certification, created by the International WELL Building Institute in 2014, was originally intended to prescribe methods for designing healthier workplaces and to certify workplaces that met a percentage of the requirements. It has since grown to include any type of space, large or small—even full communities can achieve WELL Certification.

After reading what's about to come, you may be thinking “Kirsten, how in the WELL do you expect me to do all this?!” Fret not! While some of the requirements are difficult to achieve without the help of a knowledgeable designer or even a human resources professional, there are a few ways to incorporate these concepts into your everyday life. Come back to the Standard Wax blog over the next few weeks to learn more about how you can begin to incorporate wellness into your own environments!

the concepts of well being

WELL is made up of 10 “concepts” under which there are both requirements and additional recommendations towards designing and maintaining a healthy space. These include:

Air – This concept is about bringing fresh, clean air indoors, creating smoke-free environments, properly ventilating spaces to allow stale air to escape, and more.

Water – The Water concept includes ensuring drinking water access throughout a space (such as installing a water dispenser/bottle filler every 100 feet), getting sediment and contaminants out of the water that comes into our buildings, and even supporting regular hand washing by providing sufficient facilities.

Nourishment – Increases the availability of fruits and vegetables, as well as nutritional transparency, to create environments where the healthiest choice is actually the easiest choice. If your office or co-working space has a cafeteria or provides food, this is one area that can make a very noticeable impact on staff health and morale. This credit ensures that fruits and veggies are readily available as options, that nutrition info (including refined ingredients, allergens, food sourcing, etc.) is visible so people can make informed choices, and that mindful eating is practiced by providing designated eating spaces away from desks and by dishware sizes that help regulate portion sizes.

well building certificationPictured: Jones Studio in Tempe, AZ

Light – Aims to create lighting environments that are optimal for visual, mental and biological health. No window-less cubicles! The Light concept ensures all regular working spaces receive actual daylight, that lighting levels (for both daylight and artificial lighting) are appropriate for the task at hand, and even addresses aligning the color temperature of artificial lights to match that of nature throughout the day so as not to disrupt our circadian rhythms!

Movement – The Movement concept focuses on providing desk options for those who want sit-stand control, designing “aesthetic circulation networks” or, more plainly, hallways and staircases that aren’t dank, dark spaces where you might expect paranormal encounters; offering incentives to employees to get up and move regularly, whether through subsidizing bike share or gym memberships, offering wellness challenges and activities in the office (goat yoga, anyone?); and supporting active commutes with bicycle storage and showers to clean up at work.

Thermal Comfort – I don’t know about you, but almost my entire professional life I’ve needed a space heater, a heating pad and a jacket at my desk at all times of the year—and I live in Phoenix! I’ve been told by many men (just calling it like it is) that I’m crazy, but you know what’s actually crazy? Being wildly uncomfortable for more than 40 hours each week! With WELL, Thermal Comfort means that the HVAC system is actually maintained and working as it should (no drafty areas), that ideal indoor temperature is actually determined by anonymous voting, that the space offers variation in thermal “zones” so you can actually choose what area of the office is more suitable to your thermal comfort, and more. Game changer.

Sound – Aims to bolster health and well-being through acoustical comfort. Managing background noise levels and acoustical privacy through the use of absorptive building materials and separation of spaces—so your desk would never be located right next to a 60-person conference room, you wouldn’t hear the phone conversations of your office neighbor, and there may even be a white noise machine to mask sound levels from areas like open offices and cafeterias to enclosed offices and wellness rooms.

Materials – Aims to reduce human exposure to hazardous building material ingredients.  This concept includes designing without the use of building materials and furnishings that contain hazardous materials—you might think that we’ve already done a lot to abate asbestos, or that you use no-VOC paint at home, but that’s not the end of it. Those VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are in all kinds of building materials, including insulation, paints, coatings, adhesives, furniture and furnishings, composite wood products and flooring materials. Eek! While this is improving rapidly, many carpets have been known to off-gas chemicals for up to 30 years. I’ll say that again for those in the back…30 years!

well building certification

Pictured: Jones Studio in Tempe, AZ

Mind – Promotes mental health through policy and design strategies to address the diverse factors that influence cognitive and emotional well-being. The Mind concept requires that building occupants have access to nature through views, plants, water (like fountains), and light. It addresses sleep support through the encouragement of occasional daytime naps and restorative programs like guided meditation. Perhaps most importantly, it encourages mental health support, tobacco and substance use prevention programs, and more.

Community – Establishes an inclusive, integrated community through social equity, civic engagement, and accessible design. This concept is a way for companies to acknowledge that neither are we nor can we, go through life alone. The Community concept considers access to health services, protection and promotion of health and equitable spaces and employment conditions, as well as support systems for caregivers—such as adequate paid parental leave, breastfeeding support and policies to support eldercare, and beyond.

well building certification

Pictured: Jones Studio in Tempe, AZ

Innovations – Paves the way for projects to develop unique strategies for creating healthy environments. This is where the IWBI says “hey, we don’t yet know everything and we know y’all have great ideas when it comes to impacting the health of your environments” (or so I imagine) and allows companies and designers to go above and beyond what’s required or recommended in the ten previous concepts.

Yes, I know I said at the beginning there were only 10 concepts and this is kind of an 11th. While you’re yelling, I’ll go hide in my wellness room and take a nap—don’t worry, I won’t hear you over the white noise machine!


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