Designing Spaces for Health and Well-Being: An Interview with the VP of Research at WELL

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We envision a future where health and well-being are available to everyone simply through the spaces where we live, work, and play.
Angela Loder, PhD, Vice President of Research, International WELL Building Institute

The way we interact in the world has a direct impact on our health and well-being. Paying thought to that notion, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI or WELL) aims to “transform our buildings and communities in ways that help people thrive.”

WELL was launched in 2014 after six years of research and development that culminated in the creation of the WELL Building Standard. Used to evaluate buildings, interior spaces and communities, the Standard is a performance-based system that measures, certifies, and monitors the features that impact human health and wellness.

Chairman and CEO Rick Fedrizzi commented in Business Wire that WELL’s performance testing requirement is what sets the company apart: “We evaluate more than 60 performance indicators, requiring over 20 tests and using more than 10 pieces of equipment to actually verify the performance of your space. Leaders don’t want to guess—they need to know,” Federizzi shared.

The WELL Building Standard was developed through the integration of current literature and scientific and medical research; areas studied include health outcomes, demographic risk factors, behavior, and environmental health. Research findings were combined with innovative practices in design, construction, and management and evaluated by a three-phase, peer-review process, including scientific, practitioner, and medical reviews.

Named one of the world’s most innovative companies in 2019 by Fast Company, the International WELL Building Institute continues to “bring healthier living to the forefront of design.”

What It Means To Be “WELL” At School, Work, And Play

WELL is to human sustainability what LEED is to environmental sustainability. The two certifications complement one another and while they focus on different areas, there is some overlap.

WELL Building Standard certification categories include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mind, and innovation. LEED Rating System categories examine energy and atmosphere, water efficiency, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, location and transportation, sustainability sites, innovation, and in some cases, regional priorities.

WELL is now piloting the second iteration of the Standard. This new version of the WELL Building Standard (WELL v2) improves upon the first in that it is applicable to all project types and a diversity of spaces, geographies, and public health issues. WELL v2 includes six of the same categories as the first iteration (air, water, nourishment, light, mind, and innovation), with the addition of sound, materials, thermal comfort, and community. In v2, the fitness category has become “movement”.

Taking a closer look into what it means to be WELL-certified, here’s how the impact of Light is described in WELL v2.

This category is intended to “create lighting environments that are optimal for visual, mental and biological health.” Examples of building features for the category of Light include:

  • Light exposure and education
  • Visual lighting design
  • Circadian lighting design
  • Glare control
  • Enhanced daylight access
  • Visual balance
  • Electric light quality
  • Occupant control of lighting environments

Taking an even closer look, WELL’s overview of the Circadian Lighting Design feature, emphasizes the importance of the circadian system, “which starts in the brain and regulates physiological rhythms throughout the body’s tissues and organs, affecting hormone levels and the sleep-wake cycle.”

To measure the biological effects of light on human beings, the Equivalent Melanopic Lux (EML) can be used, and WELL buildings must demonstrate that in all regularly occupied spaces, “Electric lighting is used to achieve … [a specified amount of EML] as measured on the vertical plane at the eye level of the occupant … between the hours of 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.”

How’s that for quality control?

Meet the Expert: Angela Loder, Vice President of Research at the International WELL Building Institute

Angela Loder

Angela Loder, PhD is the current vice president of research for the International WELL Building Institute and a member of the WELL faculty. In addition to her work at WELL, Dr. Loder is the director of Greening the City, a Denver-based organization focused on issues related to health, nature, and the urban-built environment. She is also an adjunct faculty member of the University of Denver, where she teaches globalization and geography, environmental management, and sustainable transportation at the graduate level.

A core member of the NIH Health in Buildings Roundtable (HiRB), Dr. Loder is leading health and building policy research. She highlighted the three main areas of study in the field (materials and ventilation, daylighting, and access to nature) in “Healthy buildings: why workers are demanding sustainable offices,” which appeared in The Guardian.

An Eye Towards the Future: Expert Interview

How is WELL embracing its mission one building at a time?

Vice President of Research Angela Loder shared her thoughts on how the company’s innovation has revolutionized the industry and plans to continue as the leader of “the global movement to transform our buildings and communities in ways that help people thrive.”

Which scientific and medical research findings were most integral to the development of the WELL Building Standard? What new findings informed the creation of WELL v2?

The WELL Building Standard is based upon the best available evidence that links design, policy, and built environment strategies to human health and well-being outcomes. The evidence supporting each feature is substantiated by a combination of peer-reviewed scientific literature and academic research, existing design standards, laws or codes, and best practice as identified by researchers, industry experts, and public health and other relevant professionals.

Each feature is based on the latest evidence and has been chosen based on its potential impact on human health and well-being, as well as its feasibility for implementation given current market and technology conditions. All features in WELL v2 have been piloted and undergone third party input through an extensive public comment process, subject-matter experts in concept-specific advisories, and/or WELL projects themselves [that] submit ongoing, regular feedback on the WELL certification process and outcomes.

WELL v2 has also undergone a review of how it adapts to infectious respiratory diseases as a result of the IWBI “Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections: Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery.” Results from post-occupancy surveys and indoor environmental testing, as well as regular addenda updates, may also help to contribute to further understanding about particular features and how they may be adapted for a global market.

The combination of best available research, and design and policy best practices, along with continual testing and feedback, enables the International WELL Building Institute to continuously improve and update the WELL features based on current, cutting-edge research and practice to support human health and well-being.

Of the more than 100 features used to evaluate spaces, which are most commonly found to compromise the health and well-being of users?

WELL is a holistic system that looks at policy, design, and operations factors that have evidence that supports their impact on health. Because all of these factors can interact with each other and can vary between different buildings and indoor spaces, as well as the impact on different people, it is difficult to state which factors in all situations will compromise the health and well-being of users.

That said, common potential risks to health include the negative impact of poor indoor air quality on health and cognition, the compromising of indoor air quality from material selection (such as materials that include VOCs), a lack of access to daylight which can compromise the circadian rhythm, and poor ergonomics.

To fully understand health outcomes, however, you also need to look at policies and the workplace culture that can impact stress and the ability to make healthy choices, such as workplace policies that discourage short restorative breaks or encourage long hours, or building design or location that make eating healthy or being physically active difficult.

What defines the internal culture of innovation to which Rick Fedrizzi attributed WELL’s success (Business Wire 2019)?

Our team is made up of tri-athletes, chemists, urban cycling enthusiasts, backyard gardeners, non-toxic product aficionadas, and globetrotters, with backgrounds ranging from research and sustainability to public health and education, to technology, law, and marketing.

Wellness means something different to each and every one of us, and we bring our diverse expertise and personal experiences to work each day and work hard to integrate those perspectives into new solutions to collectively advance the global wellness movement.

What does WELL’s advocacy work entail? What health and wellness policies are currently at the center of WELL’s advocacy efforts?

WELL is a public benefit corporation, which means we support our mission by constantly looking for ways to ensure that everyone has equitable access to places in which they can thrive. We do this through a variety of means and keep an open, flexible approach that can adapt as circumstances change or opportunities arise.

For example, IWBI resources, including the WELL Building Standard, are made available to the public and we provide our community with the tools needed to educate others on how we can enhance human health through the spaces where we spend our time.

We partnered with Enterprise Community Partners, which manages and funds affordable housing, to align their Green Communities Criteria with WELL to allow projects to strive to be both healthy and affordable.

We signed on to the United Nations Global Compact and identified how each of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are supported by WELL’s work.

We have an annual staff matching donation policy for charitable donations and also support volunteer work.

More recently, we have created a working group to engage on issues of equity and inclusion to help find ways that we can both be more inclusive and supportive of diversity in our own company, as well as in our work with our communities.

For health and wellness policies, we have a dedicated wellness staff member; generous health benefits, including office wellness room with nursing accommodations for new mothers; reimbursement for wearables and meditation apps; the potential for flexible work arrangements, including piloting a remote work program over the last two summers to allow staff to work remotely to be able to recharge and spend time with family; and we work hard to create an honest, adaptive culture of wellness that addresses the mental and physical well-being of staff. This has become particularly important during COVID-19 when everyone is working remotely.

What is WELL’s vision for the future? What does IWBI hope to achieve?

We envision a future where health and well-being are available to everyone simply through the spaces where we live, work, and play. We hope to continue celebrating the power of this movement and elevating important conversations by convening our community, launching new innovations, and evolving programs to fit today’s most pressing public health challenges. And we measure our success by the rapid uptake of WELL across the globe.

Cevia Yellin
Cevia Yellin
Writer

Cevia Yellin is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. She studied English and French literature as an undergraduate. After serving two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, she earned her master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cevia's travels and experiences working with students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have contributed to her interest in the forces that shape identity. She grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, where her mom still lives in her childhood home.

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