May 10, 2018

Mislaid Emphasis

First published in RICS Building Control Journal.

By Alan Fogarty

Sustainability standards are primarily focused on reducing environmental damage and the consumption of resources, and rightly so. They also address the internal environment and factors which impact on an occupant’s health and wellbeing such as comfort, access to natural daylight, biophilia and air quality.

The so-called second wave of sustainability, including the WELL Building Standard® and Fit Well, unashamedly focus entirely on health and wellbeing, with the occupant placed squarely at the centre of all considerations. This approach goes well beyond the design concerns of more traditional sustainability standards as it considers issues such as fitness and mind, and how these are impacted by corporate policies, aesthetics and, more recently, local communities. Another important differentiation between WELL and its predecessors is the emphasis it places on Performance-In-Use testing. This means that the standards it aims for, are checked while still on site and every three years subsequently, which helps ensure that the objectives of the standard are upheld over time. This ongoing monitoring prevents the WELL Standard from becoming merely a box-ticking, paper-chasing exercise as was often the case with traditional standards. Previously, once a building’s sustainability credentials were certified, then it was deemed compliant with no future assessments necessary which, in many cases, resulted in a failure to deliver.

Yet, while the new standards are an improvement, a note of caution remains. In something of a paradox, the enthusiastic focus on health and wellbeing which defines this second wave of sustainability standards is being undermined by the very single-minded approach that makes them so desirable. The attention on regulating health and wellbeing within the workplace has left what happens outside the workplace lacking the same close scrutiny. Instead, wider environmental concerns have been left to the remit of traditional standards, which are often not fit for purpose. If the latter fail to deliver, then the new standards also fail as long-term occupant health and wellbeing cannot be delivered without a healthy external environment. In its simplest terms, air quality outside impacts on air quality inside. In 2017, two years after the Paris Agreement, the world’s annual carbon emissions have depressingly increased by 3% rather than stabilising or reducing and time is running out.

Do these standards deliver measurable improvements?

It is important to recognise that the greater focus on health and wellbeing which underpins the WELL standard has resulted in a noticeable positive impact on occupants in buildings regulated by it. Yet in all cases the results can be hit and miss. Where the new standards all potentially fall down, is where they reference other standards as a bench-mark without verifying whether the criteria of these standards are delivered – or if they are even up to task.

The regulations around thermal comfort serve as a useful case in point. The problem with thermal comfort standards is that they offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach and remain largely subjective. Yet there are many objective aspects that impact on an occupant’s thermal comfort including levels of clothing, metabolism, age, state of mind etc… These make designing a space comfortable for all a near impossible task. Certainly allowing occupants flexibility in terms of dress code and where they sit can alleviate many of the problems – and providing an individual with forms of personal agency, even through the provision of open-able windows which make occupants feel more in control and more tolerant of discomfort.

Yet even if the thermal comfort standards are achieved on day-one, when everything is checked, there are many things that can result in increased levels of discomfort over time. Set-points being changed based on who shouts the loudest is one issue and the general lack of maintenance in some buildings is a significant contributor. So, the time of year when the test is carried out can have a notable impact on the results.

In conclusion, while testing the results every three years is an improvement on previous systems that provided a lasting certification after one initial assessment, it still does not go far enough. We need to radically rethink how we monitor these new standards. Moreover, while the introduction of standards for health and wellbeing is a good step forward 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 independent of a healthy planet and the first wave of sustainability must not be forgotten.

To find out more about Cundall’s health and wellbeing team and the WELL Building Standard® please click here.  

Image: Cundall Birmingham © Quintin Lake Photography

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Alan Fogarty, Health and Wellbeing, Sustainable Design

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