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Wellness: Focus of New Green Standard

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2015

By Robert J. Kobet, AIA


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One indication of the health and stability of the modern green building movement is the way in which an increasing number of diverse, yet related, disciplines and interests inspire and support one another.

Today’s green building industry is buoyed by a number of green building standards, green building code initiatives, allied private sector businesses, nonprofit organizations, and federal and state agencies, all of which are working toward the common goal of better communities and buildings. 

Green building
©iStock.com / grapestock

A building standard that aims to recognize and embrace human ecology as a design determinant is now in the pilot phase.

One example is how the International Green Construction Code has evolved through the cooperation of the International Construction Code Committee (ICCC), ASHRAE, AIA, ASTM and the USGBC, among others. Several of these organizations are woven, in whole or in part, into today’s best-known green building rating systems. Chief among these are:

  • Energy Star for Buildings Program;
  • Home Energy Rating System;
  • Green Globes;
  • LEED;
  • Living Building Challenge;
  • National Green Building Standard;
  • Net Zero Energy Building; and
  • Passive House.

A Lesson in Human Architecture

But as someone who has been trained by physicians in the art and science of allergy free, nontoxic design, I am keenly interested in the potential of a new, first-of-its kind building standard that aims to recognize and embrace human ecology as a design determinant.

Let me explain why: I entered the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning in 1968. The research I did to apply led me to believe it was an excellent school–which it was–but I didn’t know it was one of the country’s first environmental design programs. What was obvious was the fact I was about to benefit from a group of world-class professors who were equally dedicated to, and passionate about, architecture and architectural education. 

mind body
©iStock.com / Dangubic

Yet, as important as optimizing building design has become, we have not come close to the human body as the quintessential example of integrative design.

Their gift for educating was manifest in their ability to break down complex topics in ways that were simple to understand, and in how they used metaphors and analogies to familiarize us with what architecture is and isn’t. For instance:

  • We are simply inefficient heat engines. We consume fuel to keep warm and keep our bodily systems functioning. The more “tuned up” and unaffected by faltering systems we are, the better we are physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • We run on electricity. Our neurological system, synapse, and overall functioning depend on our distribution of nerves and the messages they carry. Our brains control both our voluntary and involuntary responses. This closely mimics a building’s electrical distribution system and the role building energy management play in how buildings function.
  • Muscular-skeletal systems provide our framework for form and movement. Structural systems do the same for buildings.
  • Gastrointestinal systems distribute food and water and eliminate waste. Building plumbing systems do similar work.
  • Cardiovascular systems also distribute food and oxygen, help control temperature, and eliminate waste. HVAC systems do the same.

As a species we have learned to augment these systems in the following ways.

  • We modify the microclimate immediately around our bodies with clothing and shelter to remain comfortable. This is the first order of interaction with the built environment.
  • We use furniture to extend the ability of our muscular-skeletal structure to maintain positions that otherwise would be difficult. Try maintaining an upright-seated position for even a few minutes without the use of a chair.
  • Computers are an extension of our brain. As miraculous as our brains are, until we can understand and utilize them more completely, a computer can perform certain functions at speed our brains cannot. The field of artificial intelligence is based in part on bringing those two realities together.

Yet, as important as optimizing building design has become, we have not come close to the human body as the quintessential example of integrative design. The spinal column that enables us to stand upright also routes and protects some of the most critical nerves we have. The integration of dexterity, strength, touch, and utility inherent in the human hand is unmatched anywhere in the built environment. 

I still smile at the mention of “intelligent buildings” knowing in the true sense of the word, there is no such thing. Like all good art, buildings may, indeed, evoke emotion, but a building will never make love, write a song or raise a child.

Welcome to WELL

That being said…I am excited to see the WELL Building Standard. Currently in its pilot phase, the standard focuses on the health and wellness impacts that the built environment has on occupants. It is a welcome throwback to how I was taught to think about architecture. 

Like the Living Building Challenge, which uses plant leafs as building categories, the WELL Building Standard uses human anatomy and body systems as its reference for informing building design. It resonates well with concepts put forth by Janine Benyus’ in "Biomimicry," wherein she chronicles how nature can inspire the design of products and processes that can enrich the green building movement and other industries.

Well Triangle

There are seven areas of concentration in the WELL Building Standard.

The standard is based on seven areas of concentration, or “concepts,”—air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.

The standard lays out optimal conditions for each in an effort to encourage a holistic, integrated approach to sustainability. In addition to the concepts, target health areas that the standard intends to address have been identified as: focus, energy, form, sleep, stress, longevity, development, beauty, vitality, resilience, and alignment. Overall, the WELL Building Standard promotes awareness of, and puts emphasis on, the importance of our physical and emotional well-being and how we interact with the built environment. 

WELL certification is awarded at one of three levels: blue, silver, or gold. Certification requires a building meet all preconditions for the seven concepts. Buildings must also undergo on-site air and water testing and other post-occupancy assessments. Like LEED for Existing Buildings, that has a five-year or less recertification period, the WELL Building Standard requires reassessment every three years in order to maintain certification.

The standard can be applied to a variety of building types, including commercial tenant spaces, existing commercial buildings, hospitality, sports facilities, restaurants, and residential buildings.

It is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), and certified through the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). The rating system is designed to work in conjunction with other green building rating systems, including  LEED and the Living Building Challenge.

A Refreshing Look

I believe this new system will resonate well with anyone prone to multiple chemical sensitivities or other maladies that make them susceptible to physical insults or causal agents in the built environment. This awareness is the essence of the “healthy house movement,” and the basis for much of our response over the last three decades to eliminating sick building illnesses.

As someone who has devoted much of his career to designing allergy free, nontoxic environments for clients with multiple chemical sensitivities, I find the core principles and tenets of design put forth by the WELL Building Standard to be timely, refreshing and instructive in the best sense of what environmental stewardship should be. I look forward to seeing how their philosophy and process enriches the green building movement.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet, AIA, LEED Faculty, has worked with clients on five continents for more than 35 years to create innovative places to live, work and learn. As an educator, speaker, former chair of LEED for Schools, primary author of LEED for General Contractors and Construction Managers, and president and CEO of The Kobet Collaborative, Bob is working to make his vision for a green building era a reality. Leaning Green explores that reality. Contact Bob.

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Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architecture; Building design; Design; Eco-efficiency; Energy codes; Energy Star; Environmental Protection; Environmentally friendly; Green building; Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI); Green chemistry; Green design; Green Globes; LEED; Living Building Challenge; Passive house; Sustainability

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