Sustainability standards: health and wellbeing

Mislaid emphasis

19 April 2018

While the focus on health and wellbeing in sustainability standards is welcome, we should not lose sight of the wider environment, argues Alan Fogarty

Sustainability standards are mainly concerned with reducing environmental damage and the consumption of resources – and rightly so. They also address the internal environment and factors that affect an occupant’s health and wellbeing, such as comfort, access to natural light, biophilia and air quality.

The so-called 2nd wave of sustainability, including the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel certification schemes, unashamedly focuses on health and wellbeing, with the occupant placed at the centre of all considerations.

This approach goes well beyond the design concerns of more traditional sustainability standards, as it assesses issues such as fitness and mind, and how these are affected by corporate policies, aesthetics and, more recently, local communities. Another important differentiation between WELL and its predecessors is the emphasis it places on testing building performance in use.

Ongoing monitoring

In-use testing means compliance with the standards set is checked on site at completion and every 3 years afterwards, helping ensure the standards’ objectives are upheld over time.

This ongoing monitoring prevents the WELL standard from being a box-ticking, paper-chasing exercise, as was often the case with traditional standards. Previously, when a building’s sustainability credentials were certified it was deemed compliant and no future assessments were necessary, but in many cases this meant a failure to perform as expected.

Yet, while the new standards are an improvement, we should remain cautious. It’s rather a paradox that the enthusiasm for health and wellbeing that defines this 2nd wave of sustainability standards is being undermined by the single-minded approach that makes them so desirable.

The attention on regulating health and wellbeing in the workplace has meant that what happens outside this lacks the same close scrutiny. Instead, wider environmental concerns have been left to the remit of traditional standards, and they are often not fit for the purpose.

If the latter fail to achieve their objectives then the new standards also fail, as the long-term health and wellbeing of occupants cannot be ensured without a healthy external environment. In its simplest terms, air quality outside affects air quality inside. Yet in 2017, 2 years after the Paris Agreement on climate change was made, world annual carbon emissions have depressingly increased by 2% rather than stabilising or reducing, and time is running out.

Measurable improvements?

The greater emphasis on health and wellbeing in the WELL standard has had a noticeably positive effect on occupants in the buildings it regulates.

Environmental concerns have been left to the remit of traditional standards

Yet in every case the results can be hit and miss. Where the new standards all potentially fall down is that they refer to other standards as a benchmark, but do not verify whether the criteria of those standards are fulfilled – or even that they are up to the task.

The regulations around thermal comfort serve as a useful case in point as they offer a “one size fits all” approach and remain largely subjective. But there are many objective aspects that also affect an occupant’s thermal comfort, including levels of clothing, metabolism, age, state of mind and so on.

This makes designing a space comfortable for everyone a near-impossible task. Certainly, allowing occupants flexibility in terms of dress code and where they sit can alleviate many of the problems. Giving individuals personal agency, even just the provision of windows they are allowed to open, makes them feel more in control and tolerant of any remaining discomfort.

But while thermal comfort standards may be achieved on day one when everything is checked, there are many things that can still result in increased levels of discomfort over time.

Temperature settings being changed on the basis of who shouts the loudest are such an issue, and the general lack of maintenance in some buildings is another significant contributor. The time of year when the test is carried out can also have a notable impact on results.

In conclusion, while standards that test conditions in the building every 3 years are an improvement on systems that provided lasting certification after an initial assessment, they still do not go far enough. We need a radical rethink of how we monitor these new standards.

Moreover, while the introduction of standards for health and wellbeing is a good step in terms of placing occupants at the centre of the design process, it should not take our focus off the wider aspects of sustainability. It is nonsense to suggest that we can have healthy interiors independently of a healthy planet, and the 1st wave of sustainability standards which seek to achieve this must not be forgotten.

Alan Fogarty is Sustainability Partner at Cundall

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