By Sam Pruitt, AIA, WELL AP

I have written in this blog several times about the importance of biophilic design. This is especially true in healthcare environments, where lack of access to daylight, natural materials, and outdoor areas can increase stress and disrupt circadian rhythms, thus inhibiting the healing process.

I have been lucky enough to work with clients in the healthcare industry who understand these concepts and how to apply them to the benefit of their staff and patients. But just understanding the importance of incorporating nature in the healthcare environment may not be enough to acquire the funding to enact these changes, as quantifying the benefits to secure the money can be difficult. This is where the WELL Building Standards come in.

You may have seen the commercials for WELL, featuring Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lopez, and Lady Gaga encouraging you to look for the WELL seal on buildings. But what does that mean? WELL goes a bit further than other building standards when looking at what we need to do in the built environment to better support the people who are residing and working in these spaces. The WELL concepts address the various individual needs of the people within a built environment while also setting forth a common foundation for measuring physical and mental wellness.

WELL complements sustainable building standards and is “a vehicle for buildings and organizations to deliver more thoughtful and intentional spaces that enhance human health and well-being” and encompasses seven categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The first three categories – air, water, and nourishment – are focused on occupants’ physical health and well-being.

  • The air concept establishes requirements that promote clean air and reduce sources of indoor air pollution.
  • The water standards ensure building occupants have access to safe and clean water through proper filtration techniques and regular testing. This concept covers access to potable water and hand-washing standards, including signage that encourages people to maintain healthy practices.
  • Nourishment is crucial to health maintenance and chronic disease prevention. This concept has standards that not only encourage nutrition among occupants but also ensure proper food storage.

Source: International WELL Building Institute

We must provide clean air, fresh water, and nourishment to keep a building’s occupants healthy, but there is an unbreakable connection between our physical and our mental well-being. As a designer, what’s interesting about WELL is that it also addresses mental well-being because the body’s physiological response to stress can be very similar to its physiological response to physical trauma. This is what the other four WELL concepts address.

  • The light concept provides guidelines that minimize disruption to the body’s circadian system, enhance productivity, support good sleep quality and provide appropriate visual acuity.
  • Fitness promotes the integration of physical activity into everyday life by providing opportunities for an active lifestyle and discouraging sedentary behaviors while at the same time preventing injury.
  • Comfort addresses accessible design, ergonomic design, dampening noise pollution, and thermal comfort.
  • Mind recognizes how the built environment can affect mental well-being and identifies workplace policies that can be implemented to enable overall occupant health and well-being. This concept encourages biophilic design, which recognizes that people are inherently drawn to nature and seek out balance with natural cycles and rhythms and therefore integrates access to nature within design.

The WELL accreditation gives me and others who have passed the exam access to resources that can help quantify the benefits of designing with the health and well-being of people in mind. As a designer, I now have valuable statistics and datapoints to use in our client presentations and to inform our design thinking.

We at FreemanWhite have been integrating WELL concepts into designs even before I received my accreditation. For example, the Baptist Health’s Jacksonville Entry Building/Wolfson Children’s Critical Care Tower, currently under construction, integrates WELL standards and recognizes the value of design and its effects on the end users.

One consideration to keep in mind is that following WELL Building Standards can come with higher costs. At a time when health systems are struggling to stay within tighter budgets, it can be hard to justify the added design expense when the benefits are difficult to quantify. For example, a facility may need a larger footprint that would allow greater access to natural light and views, which comes with a higher cost. However, those features play a critical role in promoting patient recovery and families’ mental stability while also helping staff avoid burnout.

Every project has a balance with what we want to do and what we can afford to do, but I wanted to be armed with the information that will facilitate the conversation with our clients, some of whom already know intuitively that they want to do better from a design standpoint for their people – the patient, the family, and the staff.

Some of our clients may be less aware of some of these strategies or have more challenging budgets that will make it more difficult to institute the features. That will be where we must use our best creative problem-solving powers to work within tighter budgets to make some of these things possible. Being able to reference concrete statistics to quantify the benefits of using the features will help advance those conversations.