Building workplace wellness in the Bay Area | Crain's Silicon Valley

Building workplace wellness in the Bay Area

Following the wave of LEED certification for green and sustainably sourced buildings comes the Well Building Standard to achieve a healthy lifestyle in the workplace and beyond. Rachel Gutter, chief product officer at the International Well Building Institute, spoke recently with Crain's about an emerging standard in the healthy-buildings movement. 

Headquartered in New York City and launched in 2013, IWBI not long ago hosted a San Francisco roundtable discussion with some of the group's first Well-certified partners in the health-conscious Bay Area.

Q: How does Well differ from the better-known LEED certification for buildings?

A: Well is pretty similar, in many ways, to LEED certification and actually was inspired by it. But where LEED [an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] focuses mainly on planetary health, Well focuses on human health.

Q: Can you explain the Well Building Standard?

A: The Well Building Standard is a holistic building- and community-certification tool. Within the standard, more than 100 features stretch across seven core themes. We call them concepts of building performance, and they are air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

Q: Can you break down Well’s concepts?

A: Where LEED might look at water efficiency, Well focuses on water quality. We’re particularly focused on drinking water and filtration systems. Within the air concept, by and large, we’re looking at air quality.

And a number of topics are unique to Well — for instance, the nourishment and fitness concepts. In nourishment, we’re looking at how the built environment can impact the choices people make in how, when and where they eat. We focus on things like transparency in ingredients. In the fitness concept, they say that sitting is the new smoking. If you’re sitting more than three hours a day, studies have shown that in all likelihood you’re reducing your lifespan. So we focus on different ways to keep people moving throughout the day, both within the Well building and outside of it. We emphasize the importance of things like standing or treadmill desks. In the mind concept, we’re looking at everything from meditation rooms to biophilia, which includes bringing nature into buildings.

The light concept is one of the most popular in Well. In addition to focusing on daylight, we’ve introduced features around circadian lighting because we now understand that light levels and the warmth or coolness of light we’re exposed to during the day can have a substantial impact on the way we sleep at night. Also, our comfort concept addresses thermal issues, ergonomics and acoustics. These things have a significant impact on our happiness.

Q: What types of buildings typically aim for the Well standard, and where do you see the largest concentration of projects?

A: The largest uptake we’ve seen is in commercial office spaces, which is what Well was initially designed for. But after that, it’s in multifamily residential housing. Just here in California, we have 13 certified projects. Ten of those are offices, two are retail and one is residential. More projects are working with the Well standard in this region than in any other part of the country. Outside of California, warehouses, grocery stores and food chains are on a path to achieving the Well standard.

Q: How exactly does the Bay Area fit into the Well Building Standard and the wellness trend in general?

A: We’ve definitely seen Silicon Valley out in front on this. Google, Facebook — these types of companies have been responsible for driving the demand for Well certification. Increasingly, the millennial generation entering the workforce has a different set of expectations of a workplace; they [are looking for] a space they want to come to.

To recruit the best talent, especially in Silicon Valley, you have to offer the kinds of amenities, programs and benefits that go above and beyond just a great job with a great salary. And what we’ve tried to do is ground all of that in science and research and say, “Let’s focus on the things that have been shown to generate real outcomes.”

Q: What have you been up to in Silicon Valley lately?

A: As the head of standard development, I’m leading the effort to bring the next version of Well to life. We call it Well Version 2, and it’s expected to hit the market sometime in 2018. For us, that spirit of co-creation is critically important. So we are hosting a series of roundtables all over the world, like the one in San Francisco recently, where we’re inviting our key partners, customers and power-users to the table and seeking their feedback and input.

California, and particularly the Bay Area, has long been a leader around concepts of sustainability and green buildings. Our CEO has referred to Well as the second wave of sustainability and the healthy-buildings movement. At our Bay Area roundtable, less than 48 hours after we had sent out the invitation, it was oversubscribed, with a waitlist. I think that speaks to the tremendous level of interest and engagement from this specific market.

Q: What do your numbers look like outside of California and around the world?

A: We have more than 670 projects in 31 countries, which together represent more than 120 million square feet. There are 267 projects in the U.S., with the highest numbers seen in California, New York and Illinois, respectively. We’ve got the most projects in the U.S. but the most square-footage in China, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that in China air quality is of such tremendous concern. Whereas Well looks perhaps like a vitamin in the United States, it’s more like an aspirin in China.

Q: Do you think Well will eventually become a mainstream standard, like LEED?

A: I certainly hope so. We track the metrics closely. I think all signs point to the notion that IWBI and Well will have exactly that kind of mainstream impact. But we have a lot of work ahead to get there.

Our aspirations are market transformation, so we always have to be asking ourselves what the market can do today and where we want it to go.

I think Well resonates deeply with folks in the highest tiers of leadership because it so directly ties to businesses’ bottom lines. It presents opportunities for them to create a more desirable environment for their employees.

January 16, 2018 - 4:09pm