CPD: A certification that's a breath of fresh air

12 January 2017

Dr Joe Croft, head of environmental and sustainability at fit-out specialist Overbury, discusses how a new wellness standard for office environments will have a significant effect on workplace refurbishments and employee wellbeing.

The combination of an ageing workforce, absenteeism through illness, staffing costs and more demanding employees has pushed wellbeing much higher up the list of priorities for businesses. Wearable technology and smartphone apps which measure environmental pollutants have also empowered employees to challenge bosses on how “healthy” their workspaces really are.

Now, for the first time, businesses can earn a rubber stamp of approval for how their offices meet wellness benchmarks. The US WELL Building Standard made its way to the UK towards the end of 2015 and has been welcomed by those procuring and completing office fit-outs.

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The benefits are significant, not only for employers, but for staff too. Acoustics, air quality and thermal comfort all play a crucial role in making a workplace a healthy space to inhabit, while less sedentary working habits, better nutrition and combating stress go a long way in promoting workplace wellness.

Research suggests productivity improvement of up to 11% is not uncommon as a result of better air quality alone. Similarly, in 2011, a lab test carrying out a range of tasks in an office environment found that increasing ventilation improved performance by up to 8%.

While architects and designers have long stressed the important link between the office environment and the health of staff, only recently has this understanding filtered down to occupiers and clients – which is where we as fit-out contractors take our cue.

What is WELL?

Administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and certified by Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), which also oversees LEED, WELL is the only building assessment standard is entirely focused on the occupants of a space (though more are on the horizon). It measures the characteristics of buildings that impact occupant wellness by focusing on seven “concepts”: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

In the UK, we haven’t yet established something that is as concentrated on wellness. Our adoption of mainstream environmental assessment frameworks, like BREEAM, SKA or LEED, do have wellbeing elements, but are more focused on environmental issues such as sustainable materials, improving water and energy efficiency, and reducing environmental impact.

Although offices that meet these standards contain wellbeing elements, they aren’t certifications that are solely focused on assessing the quality of a space from a physical and mental health perspective. 

However, this may change with the recently announced partnership between the BRE and WELL. It sounds as though the relationship may extend over time, but the initial agreement that certain BREEAM credits and WELL features will be deemed equivalent by both schemes will enable easier design and evidencing for a variety of wellbeing issues.

As WELL is all about wellbeing, it does not touch the environmental requirements of BREEAM, SKA and LEED. This means that its thresholds for areas such as lighting, ventilation and thermal comfort are focused on occupant benefit, rather than energy efficiency.

For example, WELL features include:

As a result, we’re going to need a new way of approaching these elements of an office’s fit-out to ensure we can even meet such requirements.

Where projects are pursuing both WELL and an environmental certification, there may be some issues that have contradictory approaches. For example, the demand for higher air circulation with WELL goes against the need to reduce energy consumption with BREEAM.

Our hope is that the BRE and WELL partnership addresses this. Of course, the detail will be critical, but we feel this will encourage greater take up of WELL as it will simplify the design, evidencing and verification process. An “equivalency” exercise is being undertaken by the two bodies to establish which credits/features can be deemed equal. The outcome of this is expected early this year.

Achieving and maintaining WELL

At the lowest level of WELL, contractors must already adhere to a high number of pre-conditions. If the target is any higher, the challenge becomes far greater with a number of additional “optimisations” to meet; 40% for Gold and 80% for Platinum. For example, in the nourishment section, food labelling and hand washing would be a prerequisite, whereas providing food alternatives for special diets would be considered an optimisation.

Ensuring the fit-out’s “performance” in the long term is important too. After meeting specified criteria during the design and construction phases, a project targeting a BREEAM, SKA or LEED rating will receive its certificate and staff will move into the space.

After receiving its rating, that same space won’t need recertification or reassessment, even to the factors that impact employee wellbeing. This means that occupants won’t necessarily benefit from ongoing improvements or seasonal adjustments to make sure the environment is just right.

On the other hand, a major component of earning and keeping a WELL certificate is in post-occupation testing and monitoring, from light levels to water purity. Unlike BREEAM and SKA, the work doesn’t end when the project does. With many of the WELL manual’s “features” needing to be done post-occupation, there is a much bigger role to be played by the facilities management teams who will be responsible for ensuring that it’s carried out appropriately.

The WELL standard differentiates itself by future-proofing its certification with the building undergoing assessments throughout its lifetime. Every three years, an office needs to be recertified and this is based on the submission of annual year performance tests, monitoring and evaluation.

This is when thinking about the “life” of the building really proves its importance. How will it need to change over the years to accommodate its occupants? What will need to change if the company sees rapid growth?

As WELL offers a much more detailed approach, it represents a significant challenge to the industry and it is vital that we’re able to educate both clients and supply chain. Through having trained WELL Accredited Professionals (APs) – we have two of the UK’s current 11 in-house – we’re able to provide that directly, rather than outsource and add another layer to meeting the standard.

Adapting to this standard is not without its challenges and this is to be expected. This isn’t helped by the scarcity of WELL assessors, which is attributed to a much more difficult set of exams and lack of UK training available. With BREEAM and SKA, assessors take their exams with an open book, whereas WELL does not allow for this. This approach may slow down the uptake as the industry could be put off by the level of work needed.

How we can make the most of WELL?

To make the most of the opportunity that WELL brings, collaboration and communication are crucial. We have recently launched a quarterly forum where we invite a number of WELL APs and consultants working on WELL projects to get together. We delve into the complexities of specific WELL features, share advice and find solutions.

As best practice becomes a global priority, there are lessons we can learn from joining up with our international counterparts to achieve even better ways of working. We’ve partnered with US contractor HITT on the use of another US sustainability standard, LEED. We have put a lot of work into LEED training for subcontractors stemming from this relationship, which has provided invaluable guidance and support. We intend to do the same with WELL.

As contractors, we’re also responsible for communicating the benefits, as well as the risks, not just to our clients, but down through our supply chain. At tender stage, it’s our job to promote the value of such standards, especially if they’re being requested by the client, but we must manage expectations and let them know exactly what will be required.

What's next for WELL in the UK?

A number of clients have already taken an interest in the standard so we need to make sure that we can advise and help them reach their ambitions. We also expect these types of projects to become more frequent as wellbeing positions itself at the forefront of clients’ minds.

It’s important to remember that the notion of wellbeing and WELL are not the same thing. It’s clear to me that clients’ ambitions for wellbeing will become commonplace over the next few years. However, it’s not yet clear whether WELL, or perhaps another scheme, will become the most prevalent in the UK.

Until a few projects are completed and the WELL/BRE partnership is more established, it will be hard to gauge to what extent WELL will become a mainstream tool for the UK fit-out market. Cundall has now received its WELL certificate, it is the first verified office in the UK and an important milestone in WELL’s increased presence in the market (see below).

A number of large corporate clients and property portfolios are also now looking at the WELL scheme both in terms of applying it directly or just ensuring that their spaces are WELL ready so that tenants have the capability to apply it if they choose.

The challenge and opportunity with WELL is that it doesn’t just impact the welfare of staff within their workplaces, it encourages a more holistic approach to healthier lifestyles and decision-making. This will mean that businesses must be willing to educate their staff for such big changes to be valuable, and a lack of engagement will only hinder progress. It’s important that the day-to-day users of the building understand how best to adapt to the new space to absorb the benefits.

It’s also important that we aren’t intimidated by the size of WELL. While it may seem daunting at first, it has the potential to drive significant change and improvements in health and wellbeing. Feasibility is also considered beforehand, so businesses are not tasked with meeting difficult or potentially expensive features.

Our market is evolving and engagement is key to progress. By having more interest and input from across the industry, we are broadening the understanding of factors that impact wellness in the workplace. There’s no question in my mind that wellbeing will become an increasingly important driver for clients, what remains to be seen is how open the built environment sector is to change.

Overbury aims for a double

Deloitte’s UK headquarters in the City of London (pictured above) is one of the first in the UK to simultaneously target WELL Building Standard certification and a BREEAM Refurbishment & Fit Out (RFO) 2014 rating.

Overbury has begun enabling work on the 24,620 sq m fit-out, which includes the basement, lower ground floor, finishes to the main reception, several client floors, and the workplace and amenities floors at One New Street Square, which the global financial advisory firm has taken on a 20-year prelet.

Deloitte already occupies numerous buildings at the New Street Square campus so the works will also include the installation of two link bridges to connect One New Street Square with the adjacent building, Two New Street Square.

WELL measures occupant wellness by focusing air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind, awarding certification to those that meet its stringent benchmarks. 

Completion of the Overbury fit out is anticipated in December 2017, with Deloitte aiming to occupy its expanded headquarters from the beginning of 2018.

One Carter Lane: All's well that ends WELL

Alan Fogarty, sustainability partner at Cundall, describes how the firm's office gained WELL accreditation.

Since it was founded in 1976, Cundall has put sound ethical principles at the heart of its business, including becoming the first consultancy in the world to be endorsed as a One Planet company and adopting the initiative’s 10 sustainable principles. As two of these concern health and wellbeing and sustainable materials, pursuing the WELL Building Standard in its London office fit-out seemed a natural progression.

So with architect Studio Ben Allen, Cundall began the first class (CAT-A) fit-out for its 1,430 sq m One Carter Lane office near St Paul’s Cathedral, ultimately creating a healthy, efficient and future-proof space that is kind to the environment while putting the well-being of the occupants at its heart.

WELL considers features that affect the people in a building: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Cundall addressed each, from the initial space layout through the choice of flooring and desks to workplace initiatives such as subsidised gym and free fresh fruit and vegetables.

Air quality became the starting point for a variety of interlocking actions and systems. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have an exceptionally negative impact on the human body. So the designers specified low or zero VOC paint, adhesives, chipboard, and sustainable Bolon floor covering, as well as taking low VOC criteria through into daily cleaning and maintenance supplies.

Air quality was also affected by toxic chemicals given off by furnishings and furniture. Cundall used solid oak cupboard doors and desk edging, solid Douglas fir, and anti-microbial metal fittings such as a stunning brass cafe counter.

We fitted a demand-controlled ventilation system, but also used less standard methods of improving the air quality by installing an active green wall. Fans in the plenum behind the planting pull air from the office space through the plants’ roots to filter and clean the air. The roots clean the air not the leaves, with microbes breaking down particulates.

Cundall has applied its research on “biophilia”, the instinctive bond between humans and nature that boosts positive feelings and reduces negative ones. As well as individual plants positioned throughout the workspace and the green walls, we have installed a planted trestle structure to divide the “Town Hall” area from the reception area.

Measurement is a key element in WELL, so we designed a bespoke monitoring system to ease the process. Small measuring devices, IEQubes, link via a Mesh Sensor Network to provide real-time information on local air quality, including VOCs, CO2 and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) as well as temperature, humidity and lux levels.

Noise distraction was the second biggest complaint in the pre-fit-out survey of Cundall staff. Minimising it became one of the hardest outcomes to achieve in the large open plan office. Acoustic comfort started with space planning, creating noisy and quiet zones to allow for different types of work and individual modes of working. Perforated ceiling tiles with acoustic backing were supplemented with acoustic baffles integrated within the tall shelving units, strategically placed, to reduce the impact of noise “bouncing” across the floorplate. Baux acoustically absorbent, wood-wool panels were arranged in a decorative artwork behind reception.

However, it was not the level of noise that was the difficulty, but the automatic human instinct to “listen in” to an intelligible conversation. In areas of concentrated noise, such as the Town Hall, Cundall has started trialling a sound masking system from Sound Directions. In the office proper, extra areas for quiet working or quiet conversations are planned, using specialist acoustic seating.

We’ve created a living, working example of how the WELL Building Standard can be applied without breaking the bank. Figures show a total uplift in the project costs of £200 per head. But WELL should not be seen in isolation. By taking an integrated approach to using sustainability standards and tools, we’ve been able to create a practical, healthy workspace that, in addition to WELL, has achieved BREEAM Excellent and SKA Gold ratings, as well as being BCO compliant.

Overbury specialises in fit-out and refurbishment nationally and is part of Morgan Sindall


How can we apply WELL to improve existing office buildings? The assessment regime for WELL needs to be reassessed so that the competency is less rigorous to attain by interested assessors...

oma Megbele, 24 August 2017

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