wellness-driven building design

Wellness-Driven Building Design: A Path to Healthy Living

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Sometimes, the design community becomes so obsessed with building architecturally stunning buildings or creating luxurious interiors that they forget the most important design consideration of all: healthy living.

I often ask designers about their definition of healthy living, and many stumble for an answer of any true authority. So, in this video, we delve into this intriguing question with Jack Norton, Vice President of the International Well Building Institute.

It’s incredible to think that we now spend, on average, 90% of our time indoors. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get outdoors and in fact, resented the idea of going indoors. But times change, so our designs have to as well.

Jack, with his background in building science and sustainability, guides us through the importance of considering wellness in our building designs. He introduces us to the WELL Building Standard, a tool that goes beyond defining what a healthy building is; it verifies it through performance testing. He passionately advocates for the right to access healthy buildings and discusses how buildings themselves can become a form of preventative healthcare.

This video also touches on the financial benefits of healthy buildings, the importance of social sustainability, and how buildings can simultaneously cater to environmental sustainability and human health. Jack insists on the need for equality in healthy buildings, emphasizing the significance of incorporating wellness-driven designs in affordable housing, educational institutions, and healthcare projects.

Now, over to our host, Jack, and Wood Solutions Australia.

Wellness-Driven Building Design: A Path to Healthy Living

Video Transcript

Thanks Adam, thanks for having me on today.

So my name’s Jack Norton, I am the Vice President of the International Well Building Institute. I lead the operations across Asia Pacific. My background – so I actually studied as a scientist. I realized that I couldn’t quite spend the rest of my life looking down a microscope, so I went back to uni and did a Master of Business.

I then became a building scientist, and I guess a building consultant, where I kind of worked for a consultancy for about six or seven years. That’s where I kind of fell in love with this idea of sustainability. I fell in love with this idea of green buildings, and then moved on to Sustainability Victoria.

After a couple of years at Sustainability Victoria, where I was managing climate change programs where I think you and I first met, I then took the jump across and started working for IWBI. Yeah, fantastic!

Yeah, it’s been a privilege I guess since I’ve first met you and see your career journey to join. Well, today this question might be a bit obvious for you and intuitive – in what ways do our buildings influence our health, and what opportunities are there to improve our health through buildings?

Yeah, it’s a really good question. So the first thing that you know, I continually remind people is that we spend a lot of our time indoors. I probably don’t need to remind people of that fact right now. You know, you and I are both based in Melbourne right now. We’re in a stage four lockdown, but on average, you know, we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors.

I think that’s a really overused statistic, but to put in a different way – the average Australian will live to 84 years. 74 years of that average Australian’s life will be spent indoors. About five years of that average Australian’s life we spent outdoors, and somewhat depressingly, about five years of that average Australian’s life we spend in transit, so in cars or trains or buses or all that kind of thing.

So we spend a stack of time indoors. What we do know from all the research is it’s actually the physical and social environment that is the number one determinant of our health. That was something that was quite surprising to me because, as I mentioned, when I started, when I started kind of my studies, I actually started to become a geneticist and I always thought that the genes that you got were basically they’re the cards that you’re dealt for life, right? And that was that, that was kind of what you had to deal with.

But the reality is is that the physical and social environment is the number one determinant of your health, and it has more of an impact on your health than your access to medical care or the genes that you’ve got.

So if you’re spending so much time indoors, if the physical and social environment is the number one determinant of your health, it’s really important to acknowledge that the buildings that we work in, that we live in, that we spend time in have a fundamental impact on their health and well-being. And that’s what we’re, I guess what we’re what we’re talking about.

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Absolutely. So this is what the WELL rating tool is looking to address and kind of incentivize building owners to I guess get certified with the WELL, if that’s how you say it? Yeah, WELL Certified. Yeah, that’s correct. You’re WELL Certified. Yeah, so how does WELL kind of map onto those goals and those health goals you were talking about?

Yeah, so it’s one of those things that I often get asked about a lot, and one thing to kind of emphasize is that even though we’re a certification organization, to be honest with you, know we’re not really in the business of of handing out plaques or certifications or all that kind of thing. What we’re really trying to do is what we’re in the business of is really transforming the market and this idea of market transformation.

And I must admit I often cringe when I hear the term “market transformation” because a lot of folks might think that it’s kind of like a, you know, one of those business, you know, David Brent from The Office type of words.

But essentially what we’re really trying to do is we want a future where every single building is a healthy building, and it’s a building that puts the needs and considerations of the people that are within it at the center of its design, the center of its operations, the center of its construction. And we want to, I guess, improve health and well-being outcomes across our communities.

So we basically do this with the WELL Building Standard, which is the standard that we that we have created and administer. And this standard provides, I guess, a framework in terms of defining what exactly is a healthy building. And beyond that kind of framework in terms of design consideration, it basically independently verifies what a healthy building is by actually performance testing the space.

So you can’t just have, you can design a healthy building, but is the intent of that design actually being met? And that’s one of the things the WELL Building Standard looks at. It’s basically performance testing that space as well.

And I think one thing to keep in mind is I think all of us probably agree that access to healthcare is a human right. What we want to really do at the International WELL Building Institute is really to go further and say that access to a healthy building is a human right. And it’s a form of preventative healthcare. And I think that that’s one thing that we often forget.

The statistics that I mentioned earlier, the fact that we spent so much time in indoors, you know, being in a healthy building is a form of preventative healthcare. And the fact is that the Australian, you know, Australian health spending, about 67.92 percent of Australian health spending is is given towards preventative healthcare.

The remainder is often given to treatment, right? And if we actually acknowledge that our buildings can be a form of preventative healthcare, I think it opens up a huge number of opportunities for for all of us across the building and construction industry.

Yeah, and is there any, do you have any numbers on the business case for investing in health? Obviously it’s from just a ethical point of view, there’s huge value in doing it, and maybe that’s enough alone. But if is there any way to put a dollar figure to, uh, investing in buildings to be healthy for its occupants?

So I think there’s a couple of, a couple of things in the whole idea of of investing for health. So first thing that I would say is that I think that this conversation has fundamentally shifted as a result of the global pandemic.

So while previously, I would receive lots and lots of questions around the return on investment and the business case around healthy building interventions, to be perfectly honest, I think a lot of the market and a lot of the community is now considering it in terms of what’s the cost of not doing it, rather than the cost of doing it.

And that’s not a way to kind of get out of the question. I’ll answer your question more definitely in a sec, but I just wanted to kind of put that on the agenda that, you know, human health has never been so in focus as what it is right now. And I often, I often remind a lot of my colleagues in the US, we’re obviously an organization that’s headquartered in New York City,

But I often remind a lot of my colleagues in in the US and Europe in particular that not only has Australia gone through a global pandemic in 2020, but we’ve also gone through a pretty horrific bushfire season as well. So people have never been so interested in the effect that their building can have on their health.

So I would say that it’s now quite quickly becoming an expectation of tenants, of employees, that their buildings are healthy buildings. To go back to your original question, what we’re definitely seeing is that a building level, a healthy building will have better leasing rates, they’ll have stickier tenants, they’ll improve their building value as well. There’s a really great report from an organization called Stok, S-T-O-K, in late 2018 which was “The Financial Case for Better Performing Buildings” which really focused on healthy building interventions.

At an organizational level, the war for talent is is is really strong even in a kind of post-pandemic type of universe that we’re that we’re living in. You know, organizations want to attract and retain the best talent. There are considerations of productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism – all of these metrics are really important when you consider a healthy building as well.

So I think that there is there is also this appreciation that from organizations, that an investment in people and in people’s health even outside of the office has an impact on their performance in the office as well. So I think that you know, there are there are very clear financial benefits associated with implementing these healthy building practices.

And I mean, this isn’t just being seen at a building level. It’s not just being seen, you know, in terms of case studies and there are lots of case studies that show X percent improvement in productivity as a result of healthy building practices, or X improvement in job satisfaction or engagement.

But we’re actually seeing this play out in the investor community as well.  So you and your listeners probably would be aware of like this redefinition of what we thinka bout sustainability. And this move to ESG framework.  So this idea that sustainability is broadert han just environmental sustainability that encapsulates things like environmental sustainability, socials ustainability and governance. 

And the investor community has really rallied around this ESG framework. Environmental sustainability has been relatively easy to quantify for a long period of time. How much carbon are you’re abating? What’s how much energy are you using? You know, what’s your energy efficiency like? You know, what’s your water efficiency like?

What type of biodiversity kind of action plans and stuff like that do you have in place? Governance once again, relatively straightforward you have risk management practices in place? Do you have diversity across your board and across your decision-making?

Social sustainability has really been seen as a bit of a black box, and social sustainability incorporates things like health and well-being. What we’re finding is that the investor community is really rallying around this idea of social sustainability to actually say that, you know, the health and well-being of the employees within an organization is fundamentally linked to the financial performance of that organization. I think that’s something that is just going to continue to emerge over the next couple of years.

Yeah, you mentioned how sustainability can be much broader than what we originally think. How does the WELL rating tool collaborate and sit with, say, the Green Building Council of Australia? And how can they both be in the same market? What problems does each tool solve?

Yeah, I think that’s a really common question, and we’re so grateful for the partnership of the Green Building Council of Australia. They were really fundamental in helping the WELL Building Standard get traction here in Australia, but also in terms of helping the market move along the journey.

One thing that we recognize, and one thing that my good friend and mentor, Davina Rooney at the Green Building Council, we often talk about is this idea of rating tool fatigue. Like there’s lots of rating tools out there, and we’re all doing something slightly different. But the way that we always kind of frame it is that planetary health and human health, they’re inextricably linked.

The Green Building Council’s Green Star tool is really important to address planetary health, and it’s something that I’m extremely passionate about. You and I, we’re both part of the Future Green Leaders program at the Green Building Council. Obviously, I come from a background working for Sustainability Victoria, but it’s inextricably linked to human health.

What the WELL Building Standard really attempts to address is this kind of occupant experience and human health. We know that we can’t have healthy people without a healthy planet, and that’s why we always try to promote the work that the Green Building Council is doing because we see it as fundamental to the health of individuals.

Another thing that I would say is that we’ve developed a number of tools with the Green Building Council to reduce that kind of burden in terms of pursuing both rating tools. There is some overlap between the tools. For example, the Green Star tool has some credits around end-of-trip facilities, and the WELL Building Standard, obviously promoting human health, has that within the standard as well.

So, what we try to do is we try to limit the burden of documentation. The way that we do that is if the Green Building Council has awarded a particular credit within their tool that we deem as equivalent to one of the features or the strategies within the WELL Building Standard, we’ll accept that as evidence. So you don’t need to go through a whole bunch of different documentation for the WELL Building Standard.

At a technical level, at a really practical level, that’s one way that we kind of collaborate. More broadly, the GBC and the International WELL Building Institute collaborate on various advocacy topics as well. For example, one thing the World Green Building Council is doing is really focusing on a campaign around planting sensors across our buildings and our communities.

This idea of getting information as it relates to indoor environment quality and air quality, and once again, that’s very aligned to the work that we’re doing at the International WELL Building Institute as well.

One of the areas of big stimulus coming, and much-needed stimulus, is in affordable housing. And traditionally, you could probably say that the health of the occupants of those buildings isn’t or hasn’t been a huge priority. Do you think that this is, or is this something that you’re really trying to put on the table now as a priority for all affordable housing in Australia that’s going to be built in the next few years?

Yeah, I think affordable housing is a real priority sector for us at the International WELL Building Institute. It’s something that we are addressing in detail within the U.S. market. What that actually looks like is that there’s an amazing affordable housing provider called Enterprise in the U.S. that is one of the largest providers of affordable housing in the U.S.

They’ve got a green community kind of rating tool, and as part of our collaboration with Enterprise, we’ve actually made it so every Enterprise affordable housing unit that comes online post-2020 will actually be WELL Certified. The considerations around WELL Certification will be embedded within that tool.

That’s something that we’re doing as a public benefit organization, and we’re not taking any certification revenue for that because we’ve essentially identified affordable housing as the key sector that we really want to focus on as part of our kind of public benefit corporation status.

In Australia, what that actually looks like is, you know, we’ve been in kind of early discussions with a number of affordable housing providers. We would fundamentally address the cost of certification for these particular projects. There’s some pretty deep discounts associated with applying WELL to those affordable housing projects.

At the end of the day, we really want healthy buildings to be focused on equity as well. One thing that I often say, the term that I often use, is that this can’t be about being healthy for the wealthy. There are lots of amazing WELL projects across Australia, across the world, that are very high-end commercially driven projects, and they’re important.

They’re important in terms of this market transformation that I talk about, but we need to make sure that we’re not leaving anyone behind and we’re not leaving any sectors behind.

I think affordable housing too often is forgotten about in terms of the health and well-being of the really vulnerable people that are living within those buildings as well. Just before we kind of went live, we were talking about the impact of COVID on affordable housing towers here in Melbourne. You know, there are a lot of kind of shared services within affordable housing units, but even things, you know, fundamentally, like where Davina often talks about energy poverty as well.

These are things that we need to get right. We need to get right within affordable housing projects because it’s all well and good to have this amazing sustainable and healthy future, but it’s not going to be worth much if we’ve left people behind as part of that kind of transition.

So, when we talk about a healthy transition, when we talk about a green transition or a green recovery, we need to really ensure that we’re bringing the projects that need it the most along for that journey. That’s affordable housing, it’s schooling, it’s education projects, it’s healthcare projects, it’s work that’s being done in our Indigenous communities as well. You really need to make sure that this is an equitable transition.

Australia’s first timber building that was certified with WELL was 25 King Street, and I understand Lendlease, strong supporters. Can you tell us a little about the features of this building and how it achieved the rating, and why it achieved the most superior rating?

25 King Street in Brisbane is a WELL Certified Platinum building. It was certified in, I think, late 2019 or early 2020. It was a Lendlease development that was designed by BVN. Floth were the ESD consultants on it. They’re also one of the tenants within the building.

It’s a nine-story building. It’s actually a pretty significantly sized building as well that uses a combination of CLT and glue-laminated timber. Basically, they were able to deliver a WELL Platinum Certification, so what this meant was that not only were they able to go through and meet all the requirements of the WELL Building Standard in terms of air quality, water quality, lighting, acoustics, thermal comfort, they’re also able to demonstrate significant benefits for the facility management team and their occupants.

But one really kind of striking nature of this particular building was the engagement with nature. I don’t know if you’ve actually been to this building, Adam, but you have. One of the most amazing things is when you actually walk into the building, just this kind of feeling that you get when you walk into the building, not just from the timber structure. I think the timber structure is very striking, but you’ve got this amazing plant life throughout the building as well.

As soon as you walk into the lobby, you’ve got this amazing plant wall that’s one of Junglefy’s plant walls, and there’s this really strong focus on biophilia throughout. So this is this kind of innate connection to nature, and it just, it’s a very kind of, it’s a space that I think is very relaxing, it’s very soothing. You get that from the kind of timber structure, you get that from the plant life that’s throughout.

It’s really been focused on health and well-being from the very start. So there’s been a really strong focus on air quality, on material selection, on water quality. The other kind of thing that you notice as soon as you walk into that building is that you’ve got this amazing staircase as well. It’s front and center. Yes, there are lifts at the back of the kind of lobby.

But you know, you’re really encouraged to actually take the stairs rather than take the lifts. And i think that you know it’s a building that we’re really proud of.  It’s one of the first2 0 well certified projects in the country.  It’s also a six star green star design and as built project. And I think it’s a really good example of that idea of planetary health and human health coming together. 

Absolutely.  But yeah so Jack, thanks so much for coming on the podcast.  If people want to find out more about the Wealthtool or if they want to get their building certified, where should they go? 

Yeah, thanks for having me Adam.  Basically if you’re interested feel free to jump on to wealthcertified.com. A whole bunch of free educational resources that are available on the website.  

We do a weekly webinar series.  There’s heaps of educational articles, they’re written by experts from across the world.  The well-building standards freely available on the website as well. We’ve also got a community standard which looks at health and well-being at a precinct level. So if individuals are interested in that they can check it out.  But yeah, there’s plenty of information there so, yeah definitely check it out and thanks for having me. 

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