CBRE, a global real estate services provider, didn’t set out to develop the world’s first certifiably healthy office building. “This wasn’t our initial focus,” says Lew Horne, president of the firm’s Greater Los Angeles-Orange County division. “But the more we learned about designing for wellness, the more we got into it.” In late 2013, CBRE moved into a rehabbed corporate headquarters facility in downtown Los Angeles that boasts enough health-promoting features—purified air and water, germ-resistant doorknobs, lighting that adapts to circadian rhythms—to meet a new industry standard.
Called the WELL Building Standard, the new certification was developed by Delos, a real estate firm based in New York City. Using the standard “is not about making more-expensive decisions,” says Paul Scialla, founder and CEO of Delos. “It’s about making more-intelligent, more-informed decisions to build spaces that are conducive to human health, performance, and longevity.”
High-end residential properties—for example, a renovated historic building in New York City where wellness guru Deepak Chopra owns a multimillion-dollar unit—have been among the early adopters of the WELL standard. Developments that are in the pipeline for certification include the William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center in Haiti, along with several student housing and hospital projects. There’s even an entire town (Livingston, Miss.) that is developing a new commercial center that will incorporate features of the standard. “There’s a massive economic game to play if we can infuse real estate with preventive health care,” Scialla says.
The Delos team introduced the WELL standard in 2012 at the Clinton Global Initiative. Although Delos owns the standard, Scialla and his colleagues have established a B Corp—the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI)—to administer it. Under the B Corp structure, 51 percent of licensing revenues will go toward promoting “better solutions in the world,” and the rest “will be kept to grow the enterprise,” Scialla explains.
The green building movement and the appeal of LEED certification inspired Scialla to develop the new certification. “In real estate, the word ‘sustainability’ is used everywhere, but it’s only about how a building impacts the planet and energy resources,” he explains. “I wondered: Can we also look at the way a building influences human conditions? What about human sustainability?”
Answering that question took six years of research and cross-disciplinary collaboration. “We got architects, doctors, technologists, and engineers into the same room,” Scialla says. The resulting standard sets performance requirements in seven categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and “mind” (which covers features designed to reduce stress and to improve mood).
Designing for wellness involves more than just meeting a building code. “Codes set minimum standards, primarily for safety,” says Ellen Tohn, an environmental and health consultant based in Wayland, Mass., who belongs to an IWBI team that is reviewing performance benchmarks for the WELL standard. Tohn hopes that awareness of the WELL standard will “broaden conversations about the design of affordable housing,” so that architects and developers will start to consider features that enhance mental and physical health. “With slight tweaks, we could design for asthma reduction in children or injury prevention for the elderly,” she says.
For CBRE, the path to adopting the WELL standard came about almost by accident. An employee who was piloting the use of a flexible, shared workspace came down with a virus. Horne recalls thinking: “Who wants to sit there tomorrow? Who wants to touch that keyboard?” Solving the problem of how to keep communally used equipment germ-free led firm leaders to consider other ways that a work environment might affect employee well-being.
Onno Zwaneveld, a sales professional at CBRE, led the corporate wellness committee that investigated a range of options—everything from circadian lighting to electromagnetic shielding. “Some of these things can sound like snake oil at first,” he admits. But the benefits of a healthy workplace are apparent, he adds: “Creating this kind of environment is about investing in your employees.” The features and materials required for WELL certification added about 3 percent to the cost of renovating CBRE’s headquarters, according to Zwaneveld. “If that translates to lower health care costs, that could be an incredible return on investment,” he says.