Next-Level Workspaces Are Measured in “Healthfulness”

Light, air, movement, nourishment, connectedness, and mindfulness are transforming the modern workplace into a space that bolsters cognitive and emotional health, thanks to the WELL Building Institute.


In all likelihood, the office space you occupy doesn’t quite measure up—in any way, shape, or form—to the Washington, DC, headquarters of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). After all, modern buildings routinely expose us to conditions that may compromise our well-being, sabotage our mood, squelch our creativity, and even keep our focus squarely on Friday at 5:00. By contrast, every high- and low-tech detail of ASID’s workplace has been reimagined and retrofitted to promote physical and/or mental health, the goal being to positively affect both the well-being and productivity of everyone working there. And the results of this nearly-three-year-old experiment, which may one day serve as a model for a vast assortment of cubicled wastelands, have been so striking that it’s not hard to imagine the staff of 30 collectively uttering the unthinkable: Thank goodness it’s Monday.

Among the many hallmarks of this 7,500-square-foot office is the attention paid to the quality of light. The space purposefully faces northwest, so it’s bathed in a soft ambient shimmer throughout the entire day. The interior lighting is synced to parallel the human body’s circadian rhythm, so the bright, white bulbs that supplement the morning sun gradually give way to warmer, yellow hues that help prepare for the brain’s nightly surge of melatonin, the hormone that aids in the control of daily sleep–wake cycles. Sensors affixed to window mullions calculate glare and, if necessary, automatically raise or lower the shades to regulate its intensity. 

Equally notable is the attention to biophilia—the human affinity for the natural world, which creates a positive, healing atmosphere. For example, the office is filled with desktop terrariums, window-ledge greenery, and architectural patterns that mimic the natural world—everything from curved, cloudlike ceiling details to a conference room’s rich blue carpeting, fashioned from recycled fishing nets, whose randomized purplish swirls create the sensation of gazing across a not-quite-still pond. What’s more, a prominently displayed flat-panel monitor serves as a digital canary-in-the-coal-mine, offering a real-time snapshot of ozone, carbon dioxide, and other air-quality levels aggregated from sensors scattered about the office. When any of those readings exceed acceptable levels, the HVAC system flushes the space with fresh, filtered air.

Similar attention is paid to the social interaction and self-care the space fosters. There is no assigned seating, for instance, leaving the organization’s employees—including its CEO—to decide each day which workstation, office, or conference table best suits their individual whims or collaborative needs. Sit-stand desks are purposefully angled to provide those facing each other with visual privacy (as a bonus, those angles add another biophilic element). The customer-service area, where workers field some 4,000 monthly phone calls, are designed with thicker walls and acoustic dampening to mitigate the distracting din of the classic office. A consultant analyzed the organization’s demographics to calculate the optimal room temperature—a setting that corporate America has historically configured to accommodate men. A café stocked weekly with organic fruits and vegetables awaits those in need of a healthy snack, while a comfortable out-of-the-way break room is reserved for breastfeeding, meditation, or an afternoon snooze. 

Just as significant, however, this “living laboratory” at ASID showcases the intersection of mindfulness and the modern building, which offers the promise of dramatically transforming the structures in which we live and play, study, heal, and even spend the waning days of our lives. It’s part of a growing global movement to create spaces that contribute to healthier minds and bodies—an effort spearheaded by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a New York-based public-benefit corporation founded in 2013. By tapping an exhaustive body of evidence-based scientific and medical research, IWBI devised an elaborate template for measuring, certifying, and then monitoring a wide array of elements that may impact the physical and mental healthfulness of a building’s occupants.

The WELL Building Standard operates much like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (known familiarly by its acronym LEED), the global green-building rating system that awards points for such practices as collecting recyclables and designating parking spaces for the use of electric and hybrid vehicles. Although LEED also rewards projects for addressing the health of a building’s occupants, WELL has made that its sole focus. 

Those seeking the WELL stamp of approval are graded on their ability to comply with the requirements spelled out in dozens of features of health and comfort grouped in 10 broad categories, or “concepts.” Among those in the Nourishment concept, for instance, is the creation of spaces to encourage mindful eating; the features that comprise the Mind concept, including designating areas exclusively for meditation or contemplation, are intended to bolster cognitive and emotional health.

“A building can do more than ‘no harm,’ that it can actually enhance the way that we live.”

—Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute

ASID is the first organization anywhere to achieve the highest level (platinum) of both the LEED certification and the newer WELL certification, and a growing number of like-minded businesses and institutions are striving to follow suit. “Increasingly we have the understanding that we can do so much better—that a building can do more than ‘no harm,’ that it can actually enhance the way that we live,” says Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute. “And so this is, I think, the shift to more mindful spaces—being intentional about our design and asking ourselves, How can our buildings be caretakers of the people within?” 

A Picture of Health and Happiness 

Although we may be genetically predisposed to venture from our caves and connect with the natural world, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, on average, Americans spend about 90% of their time behind closed doors, whether in their homes, offices, and cars, or in theaters, restaurants, and malls.

Certification requires generous policies related to promoting healthy sleep, granting ample time away from the office

For many, that means being cooped up for half of their waking hours in a workplace whose computer screens may cause headaches and eyestrain. Whose cleaning products may give rise to nausea and dizziness. Whose mold-encrusted wall interiors may provoke sleep disorders or cognitive impairment. Whose drinking fountains may dispense water tinged with unhealthy levels of lead, copper, or mercury. Whose carpeting and pressed-wood furniture may leach cancer-causing volatile organic compounds. Whose cramped, windowless cubicles may foster isolation and despair. Whose culture of presumed around-the-clock dedication to the cause may be a recipe for heart disease, divorce, and depression.

The WELL Building Standard, released publicly in October 2014 and updated in early 2018, offers solutions specifically designed to address these and other causes of ill health, particularly in the workplace. From the get-go, this person-oriented rating system was a natural—if late-in-coming—complement to the more environmentally focused LEED, unveiled in 2000 by the US Green Building Council.

“We’ve known for a long time—literally decades—that office environments can impact human health and productivity,” says Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz, which has been at the forefront of chronicling the intersection of business and sustainability. “And we’ve known about the solutions, from increased air flow and daylighting to increased worker control over her work space and work style. But it’s taken this long for employers to catch on to the business benefits of healthy, or well, buildings.”

When employers finally do undergo that WELL certification process, specially trained third-party experts score their ability to meet dozens of specific, often technical, benchmarks in each of the 10 concepts of building design and performance, as well as occupant health (the maiden version of WELL included fewer such requirements across only seven major categories). These 10 concepts include good indoor air quality; policies that encourage fitness, proper nutrition, and the consumption of clean drinking water; lighting that doesn’t disrupt natural body rhythms; thermal comfort and strategies to cut down on noise; and the use of products and materials that don’t pollute or contaminate a building’s interior.

In addition, WELL Version 2 added a focus on community—a set of features that prioritizes volunteerism and other forms of civic engagement, along with organization-wide access to the likes of generous support for new parents and family caregivers.

But the greatest changes to the revamped WELL standard are found in the Mind concept, which lays out a detailed set of design and policy strategies to positively influence the cognitive and emotional well-being of those occupying a space.

For example, there is a feature that mandates training for stress management and work–life balance as a means of heading off burnout. Other features address mental health support along with affordable treatments for substance abuse and addiction. In addition, certification requires generous policies related to promoting healthy sleep, granting ample time away from the office, and integrating nature and natural elements into the office. Finally, this section of the WELL Building Standard calls for providing free or low-cost programs of mindful movement, such as yoga or tai chi classes, or devising strategies to encourage mindfulness meditation: offering an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for instance, or furnishing access to a quiet, calm space where a building’s occupants might join a guided meditation program.

“There’s great research behind mindfulness training and the impact it can have on stress levels and well-being and sleep,” says Emily Winer, IWBI’s mind concept lead. “It has a spillover effect—you feel a little better after you meditate, you relax and it informs your whole day. Then that continues to inform your whole life and how you interact with people. I felt strongly it should be a part of WELL Version 2. There are ways you can design a space to help people get to that frame of mind. It may help create a sense of calmness, allowing you to be more present with your mindfulness practice.”

Doing Good by Doing WELL 

The TD Bank in Bethesda, Maryland, a mile from the District of Columbia line, had its ribbon-cutting in May 2016, and two years later earned the distinction of being the world’s first retail bank location to be granted both LEED and WELL certification. Although the building doesn’t have the bowl-you-over optics of the ASID headquarters, it nevertheless offers a telling look at how structures of any sort may one day be designed to benefit both the surrounding environment and those occupying the space, be it for an eight-hour shift or just a few random minutes.

The exterior, for example, boasts a two-lane drive-through topped with solar panels that, according to the store manager, provide about 90% of the building’s electricity. Atop the bank is a living green roof of maturing sedum plants, which helps oxygenate the neighborhood. Two adjacent metal grids affixed to an exterior wall support a towering web of flowering ivy each spring and summer, which effectively releases stormwater from the roof and, as a bonus, adds an appealing counterpoint to a suburban panorama otherwise dominated by 12 stories of red and tan brick.

The drinking water is purified, the air is free of noxious building materials or cleaning supplies, the tall windows and circadian lighting systems help boost and maintain concentration.

Like the ASID space, the bank’s interior is long on elements tailored for employee well-being: The drinking water is purified, the air is free of noxious building materials or cleaning supplies, the tall windows and circadian lighting systems help boost and maintain concentration throughout the workday. In addition, vivid waist-to-ceiling murals of drooping leaf-covered tree branches splash across two adjoining walls, a welcoming nod to the physical, mental, and behavioral benefits that may be realized by contact simply with images of nature.

Plaques scattered throughout the bank provide customers with tips about optimum thermal comfort and proper hydration (a water-bottle filling station is near the teller counter); an intimate café space includes a Wellness Resources Library with background about the WELL certification process and healthy lifestyle changes. Free coffee is provided, but non-dairy creamers, typically laden with hydrogenated vegetable-based fats, have been banned from the premises. (Highly processed foods are frowned on in a feature of the WELL Nourishment concept.)

Unlike the aging TD location I usually patronize, which was acquired in a late-2007 merger, the design, details, and employee energy of this new WELL-certified operation create a noticeably more positive and welcoming experience. Interestingly, the signage, the literature, and the prominently displayed certification awards in the new bank serve as catalysts for the staff to engage customers about this undertaking to create a healthier environment—in the process raising awareness about how the community may benefit and, if history is any guide, possibly spurring others to follow suit.  

Jacquelynn Henke, Vice President of Sustainability & Innovation for TD Bank, says that that’s precisely what happened when one of TD’s locations in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, became the nation’s first net-zero energy bank—i.e., the building’s 400 solar panels generated more kilowatt-hours over a year than it used, allowing the company to feed this surplus energy into the local power grid. “Within two or three years, probably four blocks away, another bank opened a net-zero energy store,” Henke says. “So sometimes all it takes is being first in that community, or very close to the first, to help set that leadership path and get others thinking about it and raising the awareness.”

At the moment, TD Bank has just one other store—in Princeton, New Jersey—that also earned its WELL stripes, meaning that some 1,300 of its locations across the eastern United States haven’t scored the certification plaque, and in many cases likely never will. But Henke says the bank is taking lessons learned from the Bethesda and Princeton stores and applying them elsewhere, so the WELL program benefits will nevertheless be spread far and wide as the building-renovations cycle unfolds over the coming years.

The WELL program’s Rachel Hodgdon says that’s precisely the sort of ripple effect that this certification process can create throughout an entire workforce. “You can’t offer paternity leave and better travel to your employees one building at a time,” she says. “From an equity standpoint, you have to offer them to all your employees. So while an organization might pilot WELL in one building, if they choose to adhere to those commitments over the long haul, they’re going to have to roll them out on an organization-wide scale.”

“We’re not in the business of selling registrations and certifications,” she adds. “We’re in the business of transforming the market. The beautiful thing is that when you do transform the market, everybody comes along.”

There’s No Time Like the Present

Before moving to its current headquarters, ASID partnered with Cornell University and two research firms in hopes of gauging how those WELL-certified digs would affect, among other things, the health, performance, and job satisfaction of its employees. Not surprisingly, the pre- and post-occupancy surveys revealed that the staff appreciated everything from the better air quality and acoustics of the new office (sound levels were cut in half) to the physical comfort of the ergonomically engineered workstations and the emphasis on access to nature. Moreover, the unassigned seating and open-office layout sparked more interactions and collaboration, while one-quarter of the staff attributed the office’s circadian lighting to them getting a better night’s sleep.

For its part, ASID management realized a jump in productivity and collaboration, reduced its energy bills by thousands of dollars, and anticipates dramatic cost savings going forward due to lower employee turnover. Ultimately, the organization expects to recoup its investment in this “office of the future” in the first half of its 10-year lease agreement. And as CEO Randy Fiser notes, this move to create a healthy workspace is also paying the sort of intangible dividends not quantifiable by surveys or bottom-line computations: “My position as CEO requires me to travel 70% of the time, including internationally,” he says. “After a trip, I make a point to be back in the office to reap the benefits of the circadian lighting. It helps regulate my rhythms and gets me back on the proper time zone quickly.”

These many benefits realized by those occupying WELL-certified buildings aren’t surprising, as workplace programs to promote employee health and well-being—whether via mindfulness training, the incorporation of biophilia, or technologies like those that grace ASID headquarters—have been shown to cut absenteeism, sick leave, and the costs associated with health care and disability. 

“Healthy buildings finally pencil out: They make sense financially, and in some sectors and markets may be seen as a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining employees,” says Joel Makower, of GreenBiz. (Full disclosure: He has been a friend and colleague since publication of his 1981 book, Office Hazards: How Your Job Can Make You Sick.) “It’s no longer a nice thing to do, or even just a way to lower operating costs. It’s rapidly becoming a de facto standard for landlords and companies.”

It’s not only traditional businesses, however, that are paying attention to this phenomenon. Although the first iteration of the WELL Building Standard was crafted with office buildings in mind, Version 2 is adaptable for pretty much any type of project but a single-family home, and so far interest in pursuing certification has come from warehouses, airports, resorts, restaurants, affordable-housing projects, military installations, and a YMCA. What’s more, there has been a tremendous surge in demand for WELL-inspired elder-care facilities, as aging Baby Boomers scheme to outrun the actuarial tables while simultaneously bolstering their quality of life.

Of course, complying with 112 multi-part features spread across 10 diverse concepts may require budgets beyond the means of some hoping to emulate the WELL pioneers, possibly constraining this movement’s evolution. For example, Traci Rose Rider, PhD, coordinator of North Carolina State University’s Design Initiative for Sustainability & Health, says that, by and large, public school administrators aren’t yet asking for the likes of biophilia and innovative building-related technologies. “You could say, ‘I want circadian lighting for all these kids, and we think it might work. Or we could use those funds to patch the roofs on the four buildings that need patching.’ So there is a huge funding issue, and so far the people adapting it are those that have the money and dedication to do it, often larger corporations.” Similarly, while blue-sky thinkers envision adapting WELL for such structures as prisons—which research clearly demonstrates would contribute to inmates’ psychological well-being—retrofitting a supermax to bathe cells in north-facing light and insure optimum thermal comfort is not likely on any horizon.

But in the meantime, it’s clear that a WELL-certified building can fit seamlessly into a shifting corporate culture that has begun adding to its ranks chief wellness officers and chief mindfulness officers, just as it routinely added chief sustainability officers over the past decade to monitor and improve environmental efforts.

“We believe in the triple bottom line: Shoot for the intersection of people, planet, and prosperity,” says Rachel Hodgdon. “If your employees are more present, if they’re more satisfied, if they’re more engaged and more productive, then everybody wins.” 

Force of Nature

Here’s one WELL-inspired strategy for feeling right at home.

Since the launch of WELL in late 2014, its healthy-building standards have been applied to more than 860 projects around the globe, some 300 of which are spread across the United States. Although most of these American projects encompass office space, others completed or are being prepared for the certification process include a retirement community in Colorado, an environmental charter school in Pennsylvania, and a pricey 15-story condo development in lower Manhattan’s historic Flatiron District.

At last count, WELL projects could be found in only 33 states, with one-third of them located in New York and California. As a result, while this emerging phenomenon shows promise of dynamic expansion, for the moment, at least, few stand to reap the rewards of a building certification process designed to enhance human health and well-being.

It’s still possible, however, to realize the benefits of WELL by applying its standards to your own living space, be it a wide-open manor house or a dinky studio apartment.

The WELL Mind concept, for example, identifies a wide array of features that play significant roles in our cognitive and emotional health, including one in particular that can be readily adapted in any home: biophilia, the human affinity for the natural world.

Interestingly, people benefit from direct contact with foliage, natural light, and other environmental elements, but also from exposure to images of the outdoors, and even to objects inspired by the shapes and patterns found in nature. Research has demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients not only heal faster by having plants and flowers by their bedside, but also by having a window in their room with a view of trees. Similarly, prisoners confined to maximum-security cells were found to show positive behavioral changes after being allowed to watch nature videos for 40 minutes a day.

But plopping a lone Venus Flytrap on a coffee table is unlikely to tamp down blood pressure or help throttle the heebie-jeebies. “Biophilic design is not intended to be just about a plant here or a water feature there,” says Vermont-based architect and biophilic-design consultant Elizabeth Calabrese, AIA. “It’s actually about tying nature and natural systems and processes into our lives.”

To that end, Calabrese advises that we think about our living space as a little ecosystem, whether that means filling it with a variety of greenery able to thrive in the available light; or incorporating natural materials like pottery, tile, or a wood table; or relying on dappled light filtering through trellises that fill the home with patterns that change throughout the day.

In addition, you can bring nature into your living space via views of a flower-filled window box, bird feeders, or water features, which provide the added benefit of helping to drown out the sound of traffic and other noise. A porch swing or rocking chair will connect you to the outdoors, as will sheer cotton window coverings fluttering in the springtime breeze.

Every little bit helps, Calabrese says, although overloading your home with such elements can actually sabotage the goal of crafting a healthy ecosystem. “Balance is the key,” she adds. “More isn’t necessarily better.”


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About the author

Alan Green

Alan Green is a veteran investigative reporter in Washington, D.C., whose books include Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species. His most recent piece for Mindful in August 2017 was a firsthand account of taking part in an MSBR course.