Are You Comfortable and Healthy? Or Are You Just WELL?

In my ongoing attempt to tie building science to a healthier life for building occupants, imagine my joy when I signed up for a brief introduction to the new WELL Building Standard. Finally! I thought, a new sustainable building standard that is going to tie energy efficiency to being healthier.

I sat through the casual presentation where the two presenters talked about worthy and lofty goals of making office buildings a place where the good mental and physical health of the professionals is a priority. I was introduced to terms like “reverberation time” (a “metric which describes the length of time taken for a sound to decay by 60 dB from its original level”); and “circadian rhythms” (“physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism's environment.”) 

The presentation was very high-level and just went over the broad category goals (found here). It didn’t go into the nuts and bolts of the standard which follows a points program for those of us in optional building certifications are used to where a design team picks categories for points that lead to varying levels of awards - bronze, silver, gold – in certifications.

There is a “comfort” category so I waited patiently for the Q&A to ask what types of building efficiencies the standard covered. Would it be adopting a mandatory efficiency rating – like an ENERGY STAR certification? Or go even further and push Passive House design concepts?

 

Imagine my surprise when the answer was “none of the above.” Exactly no thermal properties are mandated into the construction of the building outside of MEP. It is intended that another certification like LEED be added to the design scope which will cover the efficiency of the building. WELL addresses items like low-glare lighting and noise control instead.

But who really wants to pursue TWO voluntary building certifications? It’s hard enough getting the design team to produce the paperwork on one - especially when it comes to the yawn-inducing minutia of things like building cavity insulation grading and construction durability checklists. Who wants to pursue those things when you can be choosing color design and indoor water features?

Among building science professionals, it is well (no pun intended) known that a tight, insulated, correctly conditioned and ventilated building envelope results in healthier occupants. The field is rife with anecdotes about mold-inducing wall construction on one hand; and the positive impact on asthma patients by correct duct sealing on the other.

But there are no huge sources of information and data collecting yet on these impacts. In September of last year, the Green and Healthy Home Initiative issued a report on the positive impact home weatherization projects had on occupant health, but its proof is mostly anecdotal and the report lacks hard data to link causality.

I would maintain that a “comfort” category for an optional sustainable building certification called “WELL” should be addressing thermal well-being in the most basic way which is making sure the building is constructed to be durable and comfortable. Until the thought-leaders in the broad construction industry recognize this fact, energy efficiency will continue to be pushed to the side lines in favor of glare control and wall acoustics.