This much is intuitive: how we feel affects our ability to work. If we are tired or have a headache, it’s probably not going to be our most productive day. If we have debilitating back pain, we may not show up at the office at all.
Buildings and their contents can be responsible for adverse workplace conditions and illnesses; since the 1990s, we’ve wrestled with questions around “sick building syndrome,” while research shows that lighting, ergonomics, and physical activity can enhance workplace productivity. If buildings and interiors are designed with our physical well-being in mind, could our workplaces improve how much we contribute to the enterprise?
This is a question that Lewis C. Horne, the president of CBRE Group in Los Angeles, has given a lot of thought to, and in 2013, the global real estate services company—with 44,000 employees in 67 countries—sought to create the prototypical healthful workplace as it built out its own flagship office. As it did so, the company decided to pursue a newly launched building standard that has quickly gained traction all across the globe.
LOCATION Los Angeles Program Consolidation of two offices
Size 48,000 ft2
Completion 2013 Certification LEED Gold (CI) and WELL Gold
Client CBRE Group
INVESTING IN HEALTH
Onno Zwaneveld, an executive vice president with CBRE, became acquainted with the WELL Building Standard through a founding member of the Clinton Global Initiative, which is involved with the construction of an orphanage registered for WELL certification in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The standard prioritizes building occupants’ health within the broader context of sustainability by focusing on performance requirements across seven main categories: air, comfort, fitness, light, mind, nourishment, and water. Administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation, or B Corp, that was launched by real estate company Delos in 2013, the rating is third-party certified through the Green Building Certification Institute, the same organization that provides LEED certification. It is the culmination of seven years of rigorous research and collaboration with leading physicians, scientists, and industry professionals.
Specific standards were reviewed and refined during a transparent peer-review process that included three phases—a scientific, practitioner, and medical review—and was led by top building, wellness, and medical experts from institutions that included Cleveland Clinic, the US Green Building Council, the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, and Dr. Deepak Chopra.
“The WELL Building Standard is about the people in the building, who account for about 90 percent of the investment that companies make in offices,” says Paul Scialla, the founder of both IWBI and Delos. “Productivity, ‘presentee-ism,’ and corporate health benefits have tremendous potential payback.”
For perspective, CBRE’s Horne points out that an office’s energy costs per year are around $3 per square foot, while human capital costs are more like $300 per square foot. “Achieving WELL added less than two percent to overall costs,” Horne says. “If we can lower employee health costs, there could be a very strong business case for this.”
THE WELLNESS TENETS
CBRE’s new global headquarters was the world’s first completed office space to achieve WELL certification under the pilot program. “We followed virtually all of the recommendations, from lighting to flooring to everything else,” Horne says, emphasizing that WELL is a complement, not a competitor, to LEED certification because some employees don’t necessarily perceive environmental sustainability as a direct benefit to them. “LEED is good, but when we showed our employees that this improves their air and water quality and their posture, they were elated.”
Arguably one of the most impactful features of the space is how lighting is designed to accommodate natural circadian rhythms. Humans evolved to use natural light as a cue to biological processes, but artificial light disrupts these processes in ways that affect sleep quality, levels of alertness, and emotions. The WELL Building Standard advocates for maximum natural daylighting, as well as controls that adjust the light spectrum and intensities across the course of the day. Lighting is also designed to improve visual acuity and reduce eyestrain while providing ultraviolet rays to enable natural vitamin D generation without damaging eyes or skin.
Another tenet of WELL is illustrated by the CBRE office’s visually arresting center staircase, which encourages physical activity. A nearby room dedicated to stretching piggybacks on this, providing a physical and mental escape from workday stress. Spread throughout the office are filtered-water hydration stations, nutritious food choices, and indoor plants, each of which support greater health of mind and body.
Though it is not required under WELL, the office layout is structured around “free-addressing,” meaning that no one has a dedicated office. Wireless technologies and a collaborative ethos allow all workers to float between workspaces as needed, and the entire workplace is virtually paperless, with each employee allotted a single file drawer.
Employees can use ergonomic furniture like standing desks or even those equipped with treadmills. Those standing do so on “forgiving floors” that offer additional orthopedic benefits.
Other early projects incorporating WELL features include Stay Well rooms at MGM Grand Hotels in Las Vegas and a luxury condominium project in New York’s Greenwich Village. Another project registered to pursue WELL certification is a block-size, 1.8 million-square-foot mixed-use renovation in downtown Los Angeles developed by The Ratkovich Company, and the standard has been implemented in several LYFE Kitchen restaurants, including locations in Chicago and Tarzana, California. “The possibilities are endless,” Scialla says.
But does it really work? A CBRE employee survey taken one year after the move-in is encouraging: “Ninety-two percent of employees report a positive effect on their health and well-being,” Zwaneveld says. “These are powerful results.” Delos is continuing to collaborate with the Mayo Clinic to test the efficacy of human health-oriented building features.
Meanwhile, CBRE has had no fewer than 10,000 visitors in its first year, and more than 7.7 million square feet worth of commercial, institutional, and multifamily living space on four continents has registered for or been certified through WELL. That’s a lot fewer headaches and backaches.