Imagine if your office made you healthier
One of Australia's first wellness-certified buildings is Macquarie Bank's new office in Sydney.
SUPPLIED: SCHINDLER LIFTS
The notion that a building can be "sick" has been around for decades.
The World Health Organisation first warned of the negative effects of indoor air quality in 1984, and from the start of this century, environmentalists and "building biologists" have been talking about "sick building syndrome".
The idea is that buildings can make their occupants unwell through the sheer number of toxic chemicals in building materials, from compound board to synthetic carpets to cleaning solvents.
Recently Australian governments have tightened restrictions on the construction industry's use of products known to cause health problems, from asbestos to formaldehyde.
But there are those who believe it's time to go further: that the buildings we create shouldn't just be health-neutral, their design and construction should actively improve human health and wellbeing.
Rating for wellness
Three years ago, an American public benefit corporation called the International WELL Building Institute launched a set of best practice standards for the construction of healthier buildings.
Listen to the program
Move aside green star ratings, the new trend is toward rating buildings for wellness.
The institute's ratings system involves judging a built environment against seven distinct "concepts":
nourishment (the sort of food available in a staff canteen, for instance);
fitness (for example, how well the building's design works to promote exercise);
Certification is then determined according to a project's ability to meet those criteria, with recertification required every three years.
"We spend 90 per cent of our lives indoors," says Rick Fedrizzi, the institute's chief executive.
"The way that the building respects us as human beings, to give us superior air quality, give us the right amount of light, making sure that the materials around us are non-toxic, that we have good encouragement to eat better and exercise — ultimately all that drives better sleep and drives us into the next day of a higher level of performance.
"People don't intentionally try to design or build a bad building or a building that makes people sick. What happens is there's not enough good information out there that really allows people to make better decisions."
'Green' doesn't always equal comfortable
Matthew Francis, a research industry fellow at RMIT, says the emergence of the building wellness movement reflects a failure of established green-rating systems to move beyond energy efficiency and sustainability.
What WELL offers, Dr Francis says, is a more human-centric focus.
"A building that is 'green' is ideally a building that has sought to use the least number of resources in its construction, but also in its ongoing operation," he says.
"It's trying to be as energy efficient as possible."
Wellness in the workplace
Wellness initiatives are becoming more common in Australian offies. But do they really improve our health or make us more productive?
But that, he points out, doesn't necessarily equate to a building that will be pleasant to work in.
"You can think of your own home. You can imagine when you turn things off it's the most energy-efficient it can be," he says.
"But when dealing with large numbers of people in one place, i.e. an office, you then need to cater for different people's needs such as their thermal comfort, their need for fresh air, their need for light in order to do the work."
It's a point not lost on Mr Fedrizzi, who previously ran the US Green Building Council.
"If a person or a human being is not in the building, all the building becomes is sculpture," he says.
"When the human is introduced, everything that surrounds you, the kind of materials inside and outside, how much light and water affect us, all of those things are driven by the human beings that are inside."
Future trend or fancy fad?
The Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes sits in a large section of parkland in central Pittsburgh. Its shiny new buildings are both impressive and in tune with the surrounding environment.
Phipps has been awarded the highest WELL rating: platinum.
Executive director Richard Piacentini acknowledges that his organisation was already ideologically aligned with the values espoused by the WELL Institute, but he rejects the suggestion that such a system is only for organisations that are well-resourced.
Reducing pollution with plants
Find out how indoor plants can reduce the level of pollutants in your home or your office.
"When you create buildings that are good places for people to be, you are crazy not to do it," he says. "It's in your best interest that buildings are places that people are going to be happy in and they're going to be healthy in, because it's going to help you meet all the goals that you want to achieve."
But constructing to WELL Building Standards is not without cost, says Matthew Francis.
"I think there are aspects of it that require significant investment," he says, "Particularly if the building is already existing.
"There are additional costs associated with filtering air as an example, filtering water, making sure that people have access to all of these aspects of a well-rated system.
A movement gaining momentum
Tellingly, one of the first Australian buildings set to gain WELL certification is a refurbished, neo-classical building in Sydney's Martin Place owned by Macquarie Bank — a company often referred to in media and financial circles as the "millionaires' factory".
Dr Francis believes the building wellness movement is gaining real momentum.
PHOTO A healthy office: The Phipps Centre in Pittsburgh has a "platinum" wellness rating.
SUPPLIED: DENMARSH PHOTOGRAPHY INC
"Three years ago, if you'd asked me, I would have said it was perhaps too early to tell. I think the industry is considering these as ways of value-adding to their new developments," he says.
"Is it for the larger multinationals who have lots of money to spend on their environments? Of course.
"But it's just a matter of time before they break new ground, give us examples, give us experiences that other companies might take advantage of."
That's not to say he doesn't see room for employee scepticism.
No matter how people-centric your office space becomes, says Dr Francis, keeping a healthy psychological and psychosocial focus is going to be difficult for any employee in a growing environment of casualisation and temporary employment. And the statistics confirming that trend are already well documented.