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WELL, LEED or Green Label: An Introduction to Designing Healthy Buildings

Posted on Dec 5, 2017, by Michael Eckert

The concept of healthy buildings has been a growing priority since awareness of sick building syndrome (SBS) emerged in the 1970s. To help you design healthy buildings, we're sharing an introduction to some of the most widely-used building standards looking at health and wellness, and identifying simple ways to improve the health of building users with your designs.

Featured image: Cisco, San Francisco, California, USA. Design firm: O + A.

The Need for Healthy Building Design

Sick building syndrome is when people experience health issues or discomfort which have no specific cause, but can be attributed to time spent in a particular building.

Given that the majority of people are now spending as much as 90% of their lives indoors, it's more important than ever to create buildings and indoor spaces that work to improve health and wellness. While many interior designers and architects have been working individually to create healthy buildings and spaces for their clients, the idea of an industry-wide push to use building design to improve health and wellness is relatively new.

As a result, there are a number of different building standards - some long-established, others much newer - that provide guidance to the construction industry, to improve the health and wellness of the people using the spaces being created.

5 Common Building Standards that Prioritize Health and Wellness

1) WELL

The WELL Building Standard is the "first standard of its kind that focuses solely on the health and wellness of building occupants". It combines design and construction best practices with proven, evidence-based strategies for improving health and wellness.

2) LEED

LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It provides a framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings. It focuses on the environmental performance of buildings, encouraging the use of sustainable materials and building practices.

3) Living Building Challenge

The Living Building Challenge is a green building certification program and sustainable design framework that visualizes the ideal for the built environment. It prioritises sustainability, looking to create buildings that produce more energy than they use, and which have a positive impact on the people that use them.

4) Declare

While the previous three standards are focused on buildings as a whole, this zooms in to put the focus on individual products used. Declare, along with the Living Building Challenge, is part of the International Living Future Institute. Declare is a labelling system for products, and sets out to answer three main questions:

  1. Where does a product come from?
  2. What is it made of?
  3. Where does it go at the end of its life?

Declare is a voluntary labelling program, which is working to improve transparency in the manufacturing process, and help architects and designers choose products free from harmful components.

5) Green Label Plus

Green Label Plus is a standard launched by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI). It's awarded to products that have been proven to emit very low levels of volatile organic compounds, as a way to help designers and architects select products that work to improve indoor air quality. Green Label Plus symbolizes the carpet industry’s commitment to a better environment for living, working, learning and healing.

Designing Healthy Buildings: Where to Start?

While there are a wealth of green and wellness-focused building standards to consult, there are a few universal principles you can follow in your interior designs, that can help to create a healthy indoor environment.

Light

Natural light is essential for health and wellness, as it affects our circadian rhythms. Getting more natural light during the day can even mean you get more sleep at night. So it's not surprising that light is a key element in several common building standards, with guidelines on lighting types and levels to aim for.

Ways to improve light:

  • Aim to position main work areas close to windows, to maximize the benefits of natural light for employees.
  • Select full-spectrum lighting, which is better at mimicking daylight than traditional lighting.

Air

Poor indoor air quality can cause respiratory problems, as well as general fatigue - which is why most standards offer guidance on improving indoor air quality. The Carpet and Rug Institute saw it as such a problem that it's the sole focal point of their Green Label Plus.

Ways to improve indoor air quality:

  • Select low- or no-emissions products such as flooring adhesives, paints and sealants.
  • Make the HVAC system a priority, and ensure it's regularly cleaned and serviced.

Sound

Managing ambient noise levels through interior design choices is an important part of improving health and wellness. High levels of ambient noise have been linked with increased stress levels, which is why acoustics are an important focus for both LEED and WELL standards.

Ways to improve indoor acoustics:

  • Include soft furnishings and plants in your design - these are better at absorbing ambient noise than hard surfaces.
  • Consider carpet instead of hard-surface flooring; cushion-backed carpet absorbs 50% more noise than hard-back carpet, and 3x more than hard flooring.

Healthy Products

While creating a healthy environment is crucial for designing healthy buildings, your choice of products is just as important. Some commercial products still contain traces of chemicals or ingredients that are harmful to human health - and some are even toxic or known carcinogens.

Ways to choose healthy products:

  • Look for products that have a Declare label.
  • Prioritise products that are Red List free - this means products have been certified as free of some of the most harmful chemicals and ingredients.

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Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert