Going Back to the WELL

November 15, 2017

The WELL Building Standard and health-conscious lighting design

I recently attended a joint meeting of the Local Cincinnati ASHRAE Chapter & IES Section. The topic was on the WELL Building Standard, introduced by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI). Phil Williams presented. Williams is a licensed Mechanical Engineer and a LEED AP, and has served 12 years as the President of Business Development at Delos (WELL founder).

Delos strives to “create spaces that actively contribute to human health, performance and well-being” by “programming, consulting, research[ing]” to support building industry members in their efforts to transform indoor environments. By researching the standards that should apply to those environments and sharing that research with the community, Delos opens new conversations and provides solid anchor points for new development. 

The WELL Building Standard features seven wellness categories, or “Concepts”:

  1. Air
  2. Water
  3. Nourishment
  4. Light
  5. Fitness
  6. Comfort
  7. Mind
  8. Innovation

These seven wellness Concepts further divide into 105 different contributing factors. Phil Williams’ presentation covered the WELL program fairly quickly, as it would be impossible to explore each category in depth during the time allotted. This presentation served more to introduce the WBS and the research currently developing to substantiate it, focusing on how the human body responds to the working environment.

WELL is for people. It’s about healthy buildings that promote a healthier working environment for the people that occupy them. Consequently, it’s also about business. Williams indicated that, of the money invested in a business’ building, roughly 1-3% is for energy, 8-10% is for real estate, and the remaining 91-87% is invested in the employees that make that business successful. If employees are happy and healthy, they are also more productive and less likely to leave the company. Turnover and illness are both extremely costly to employers.

So what aspects of indoor environments affect our health? Individual genetics and personal healthcare certainly play a role, but research has shown that the largest percentage of health issues come from the environment we live in, as well as our behavior and lifestyle. And the largest portion of those issues can be mitigated by good design practices.

In the aim of making buildings healthier, the WELL Building Standard works in conjunction with the US Green Building Council (USGBC) to apply principles developed in the LEED Building Criteria. The WELL Building Standard is available as a free download from their website.

This mission needed a system to collect evidence in order to justify the WELL Building Standard’s wide implementation. The Well Living Lab was created as a collaboration to merge three silos: Health Science, Building Science, and Business Economics. A 7,000 square foot laboratory disguised as an office space, the Well Living Lab allows researchers to obtain data by applying the WELL Concepts to different built environments. People that work in these spaces are aware that they are part of a study, but in order to keep the data clean the subjects do not know the purpose of each study. Researchers receive feedback from those working in the space and use that feedback in developing best design practices for various situations.

Where lighting comes in

Lighting is understandably a huge part of WELL building research, containing many variables and situations that impact a worker’s experience. There are other factors of course, but I’ll focus on lighting here. Phil Williams didn’t cover lighting in great detail, so I did a little research on my own into the WELL Building Standard for lighting. There are 15 pages in the lighting section of the document and 10 parts (53 thru 63) in the guidelines referencing the quality of the electric lighting and controls as well as daylighting and shading systems. According to the document,

“The WELL Building Standard® for Light provides illumination guidelines that are aimed to minimize disruption to the body’s circadian system, enhance productivity, support good sleep quality and provide appropriate visual acuity where needed.”

My focus will be on Circadian Lighting Design (Part 54). This section addresses the circadian system, which affects nearly all of the body’s functions. Other matrices to consider for electric lighting include Glare Control and Color Quality, while the remaining sections focus on natural daylighting and views.

The WELL Building Standard categorizes the circadian system as “a precondition necessary for new and existing interiors and new and existing buildings” —so it definitely plays a big role.

The circadian system has been proven to affect the body’s cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, immune, muscular and nervous systems, and that system is greatly affected by light. All of these bodily functions communicate through physiological rhythms that travel the body’s tissues and organs. This starts in the brain, specifically the visual system. Light enters the eyes and hits intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, or “ipRGCs”, the eyes’ non-image forming photoreceptors. By using signals from these ipRGCs, the body reacts to lighting intensity: in higher intensity, they encourage the body and brain to be alert and productive; when there is a deficiency of light intensity, the brain reacts by helping the body prepare for rest.

All the biological effects from light are measured in Equivalent Melanopic Lux (EML), a proposed alternate metric that focuses on the ipRGCs instead of the cones. The WELL Building Standard includes a table to help calculate that metric according to the wavelength and intensity of a given light source. By calculating EML, lighting designers can more purposefully predict how occupants will physiologically react in certain environments.

WELL Building moves us forward

I think this new standard has many “common sense” applications in today’s world where people are driving the markets to provide healthier options. We have already seen this happen in the rise of the fitness industry and with organic foods in supermarkets. It seems a logical next step for us to demand health benefits from the work environments where we spend most of our time.

The WELL Building Standard is an important part of implementing these changes. Only with informed, documented strategies can the building industries collaborate to answer everyone’s needs.

Laurie Emery is a Healthcare Specialist for Visa Lighting 


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