WELL Building Standards – in Practice

“We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” – Winston Churchill He may not have been an architect; but more than half a century later, the British Prime Minister and, eventual, World War I hero’s words still hold weight in the domain of architecture. At Haworth’s d3-based showroom, the same words were cited again! This time by Kate Rube, Vice President of the International WELL Building Institute, during her talk on WELL and the Building Standards in practice in the UAE. This enlightening talk involved a discussion on the state of well-being within the UAE’s general workplace culture, the current standards of our built-environments, the challenges they pose and how the WELL Building Standard plays into this scenario. For those who missed it, we’ve covered key details from the talk.

Not so WELL

Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to our general state of health, genetics contributes a smaller percentage than we think. According to Kate, our contemporary lifestyles, generally, fall into an “Eat/Sleep/Work/Repeat” cycle; and one that happens indoors 90% of the time. The only differences would be how our free time is spent. In the UAE, this percentage is probably higher, owing to the extreme weather conditions that force citizens to seek airconditioned settings at every possible activity. In the trade-off for comfort, these urban lifestyles tend to create several health-related problems.
According to a World Health Organization report, on the UAE, high rates of obesity and other related diseases should act as a wake-up call for everyone living in the country. The report states that “Due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles, some of the highest incidences of noncommunicable diseases in the world are found in the country.” The statistics speak for themselves: 66% of men and 60% of women are obese in the UAE, and 15% of the population in the UAE has diabetes. These high rates, in Middle Eastern countries, are contributing to a host of chronic diseases that are life-threatening and costly. In response to alarming issues such as these, WELL aims to protect people by improving building standards in terms of health, well-being and productivity.

WELL at Work

In 2013, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) launched a movement to address issues such as health and well-being within the built environment (issues which are somewhat overlooked by existing standards). Thus, the internationally-recognized and emerging WELL Building Standards was born. It aims to provide architects and designers with guidelines on how to make a real and measurable difference on how we function within our urban spaces. WELL is the first building standard to focus exclusively on the health and wellness of the people, in buildings. Working spaces are assessed by means of on-site performance verification; including tests of air quality, water quality, lighting, acoustics and visual inspections of other features. WELL marries the best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research, harnessing the built-environment as a vehicle to support human health and well-being. Being a holistic system that blends a human-centred approach at its core, WELL provides an inspirational model for those looking to drive valuable and long-term changes within the built environment.

The Statistics Speak for Themselves

The region’s approach to Workspace design and Workplace Culture, in general, are in need of a paradigm shift. Not surprisingly, a survey of office workers in the Middle East found that improving environmental comfort was ranked as the number one change needed to improve productivity. Survey respondents expressed a desire for more flexible and creative workspace, as well as, quieter spaces for focused work. Approximately, 42% of UAE employees described their offices as stressful and only 47% believed their company took an interest in their well-being, health and safety; compared to a global average of 54%, according to one study. Lower than the global average, but nothing to be proud of. One may be forgiven for assuming that working indoors offers immunity from air pollutants. But according to a recent survey of schools, in the UAE, researchers found levels of indoor air-pollutants, like VOCs, to be double the recommended limits. Polluted air is the number one environmental cause of premature mortality; contributing to approximately seven million or one in eight premature deaths, globally. According to a World Bank report, the UAE has the worst P.M. 2.5 criteria pollution in the world, ahead of even China or India.
Lighting and acoustics are an equally important component of a healthy space. WELL standards include guidelines for incorporating designs that balance circadian rhythms. The consequences of bad acoustics mean more distracting noise, which can contribute up to a 66% decline in performance. Unwanted or excessive noise can lead to difficulties in communication and concentration. With Dubai’s mission to make this city the happiest in the world, WELL is mirroring the government’s dedication to fuelling a city transformation to happiness. It is adopting a globally unique, science-based and methodical approach to measure impact and sustain happiness, for the whole city.

The Big Question - Is WELL relevant in our market?

A considerable number of projects and spaces have been WELL certified since it’s inception in 2014. Noteworthy mentions include the Cigna’s new office, Alpin, X-Works, DEWA, and The Happiness Ministry office as well. With numbers like these, it seems obvious for the regional design community to take WELL’s areas of assessment very seriously. But as with most new trends, doubts will always be present. Questions regarding the costs associated with the WELL-certification process popped up during the discussion. Essentially, designers wanted to know how they could prepare and encourage their clients to, at the very least, entertain the idea of incorporating the areas assessed by WELL. In our opinion, there were two critical questions that were perhaps most relevant to the current market scenario

What’s the average increase in investment to achieve a WELL certification?

As Kate pointed out, costs are hard to discuss without having specifics to work with. The current strategy is to approach the matter on a project by project basis. There are far too many conditions – existing and possible – that could shift the costs up or down. An existing wellness program or a need for collaborative settings in the new design are just a few. As WELL is a holistic approach, the many points have to assessed and listed; there’s a great price calculator of sorts on the WELL website for those interested in understanding the costs themselves.  On average, we can look at a 12 to 20% increase cost in the investment.

How does a designer convince a client to invest in a WELL certification?

The best way to convince a prospect at this stage is to involve the WELL team, with Kate being the best resource, armed with all the details and stats. While distance can prove to be an issue, the WELL institute is happy to share relevant information. Traditionally, an effective tool has been case studies, that serve as both proof and inspiration. Kate assured the designers that gaining a WELL certification could result in a dramatic increase in talent retention, attracting the best candidates to an organization. According to a Human Spaces Report, a third of global respondents stated office design affects their decision of where to work, a key stat to considering when convincing a client.

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