Health and Healthcare Systems

The built environment has a huge role to play in improving health and wellbeing

Image: Aniket Deole on Unsplash

Rachel Gutter
President, International WELL Building Institute
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This article is part of: Centre for Energy and Materials
  • The built environment has a huge role to play in building a healthier, more sustainable world.
  • This is becoming even more apparent thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Harmonizing health, energy efficiency and resilience will deliver stronger organizations and healthier communities as well as better buildings.

Twenty-five years ago, the advent of green building created a brand new market. Today, this industry is worth a trillion dollars worldwide.

The stipulations about energy and water efficiency, waste and greenhouse gas reduction that underpin every building certification have been widely accepted as best practice across the globe. Now, more than ever, we have a profound opportunity to communicate to the entire world the importance of place in keeping our families healthy and safe, our businesses growing and our communities thriving. Health and wellbeing must be integrated into a broader systems change approach towards buildings and cities, alongside net-zero carbon and energy efficiency targets, if we are to accelerate the transition to a healthy and sustainable future.

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As we look towards wellbeing in the built environment, I’m confident that we can do the same work on human health that we did for planetary health, in about half the time. Building on an existing market infrastructure and an advanced sustainability movement, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) strongly advocates that there’s no choice to be made between planetary health and human health – at scale, the two are inextricable.

Our physical and social environments have a greater impact on our state of health than our lifestyle and behaviours, our access to healthcare or even our genetics. Given that we spend more than 90% of our time indoors, those environments have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing.

That’s why we advise taking an evidence-based approach. Improved air quality in particular has been shown to “increase the cognitive function performance of workers”. Emergent data also indicates that communities with poor air quality and higher levels of PM 2.5 pollutants – often poor neighbourhoods and communities of colour – have increased rates of mortality from COVID-19. Our buildings, our businesses and our communities can be a part of this fight if we deploy them wisely.

This makes it all the more clear that climate change is a human health issue in many ways - from the human costs of the natural disasters that are becoming more severe, to changes in agricultural output and the related water crisis, and in the way a warming planet contributes to disease emergence. The 'second wave of sustainability' we are seeing now focuses on human performance, and must build on top of the first wave that focused primarily on building performance.

Our physical and social environments play a huge role in our levels of health and wellbeing
Our physical and social environments play a huge role in our levels of health and wellbeing Image: IWBI, CDC

The WELL Building Standard (WELL) is now repositioning sustainability through a more human-focused lens to advance human health on a global scale. A holistic rating system for buildings, interior spaces and communities, WELL integrates design features with improvements to operational and policy protocols to help organizations instill a culture of health. Ten overarching concepts represent the ways that our physical environment can impact our health, wellbeing, our productivity and our performance. Strategies address performance metrics such as air and water quality, lighting and thermal comfort, as well as how an environment can promote healthy eating, physical activity and emotional and cognitive health. Our aim is to collaborate with leading green building certification systems such as LEED, BREEAM and Green Star to enable projects to easily pursue dual certifications for sustainability and health while addressing local opportunities and imperatives.

Amidst this global pandemic, our buildings play an even greater role in promoting public health. We believe that buildings and those who tend to them – owners and developers, facilities managers and HR professionals – can be frontline caregivers, being able to function in and of themselves as agents of health. IWBI’s Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections aims to focus on this immediate challenge and collect and apply the expertise and insight of hundreds of leaders from their respective fields, then freely deliver what we’ve learned in a set of guidelines on prevention and preparedness, resilience and recovery.

Organizations, too, are recognizing that people are their greatest asset - and that buildings both new and existing, and as diverse as offices, schools, multifamily homes, healthcare and government-owned buildings, can and must be designed and operated to support the wellbeing of the people inside. In the war to attract and retain the best talent, and to ensure people’s health and safety in the face of crisis, companies increasingly understand how design, construction and operation decisions, complemented by policies, programmes and protocols, can positively contribute to their employees’ health, happiness, satisfaction and productivity.

Prologis, one of the largest industrial and logistics companies in the world, pursued WELL’s comprehensive health and wellbeing strategies alongside LEED for their facilities in Washington DC and Tilburg, Netherlands. By taking a portfolio-wide approach, they have reduced operating costs for their company and customers, while promoting employee wellness and productivity. For its headquarters building and workplace in Amsterdam, EDGE Technologies reached the highest levels of achievement across net zero, health and wellbeing and circularity metrics – proving that an integrated approach is both attainable and cost effective. Enel is the first utility company to commit offices to WELL Portfolio, further demonstrating their commitment to ESG progress toward both employees and the communities they serve. And in some of the hardest hit areas, entire communities like Fosun Wuhan Bund Financial Centre in Wuhan, China and Porta Nuova in Milan, Italy are rededicating their focus to build healthier and more sustainable communities into the future.

Solutions for health, for energy efficiency, for resilience and for equity need not be mutually exclusive. By harmonizing these approaches, we can deliver better buildings, stronger organizations and more vibrant communities.

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Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsSustainable Development
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