When people enter the lobby of Delos Living’s corporate headquarters in New York City, they see a 6- by 12-foot digital display listing the inside temperature, humidity level and air quality. The information comes from 51 sensors spread throughout the 19,000-square-foot office that track how healthful the area is for the 70 employees.
For decades, developers and architects worked to ensure that their buildings were kind to the planet. Now, their focus is on the effect that buildings have on the people who work in them.
Studies show that healthy workers tend to be more productive, a concept that is behind a growing trend to create offices with measurable wellness benefits. One frequently cited Harvard University study showed that improving air quality caused mental cognition to soar.
New certification programs have sprung up to guide the way.
One of them is the Well Building Standard, introduced by development company Delos in 2014 and based on medical research that shows how our surroundings affect our health.
The system has criteria in seven categories that promote the health of a building’s occupants, including nourishment — which explains the almond butter, whole-grain bread and organic apples in the Delos cafe. The other categories are air, comfort, fitness, light, mind and water.
“If we can engineer the box we spend 90 percent of our lives in to deliver health care automatically, that’s a very big impact,” said Paul Scialla, Delos’ chief executive.
Triple-filtered air was whooshing in from floor vents, while ceiling ducts sucked out carbon dioxide-filled air. Circadian lighting changes throughout the day, keeping pace with the brightening and dimming of sunlight. Standing desks are everywhere, and a wide oak staircase stretches between the lower and upper floors, encouraging staff to walk up and down rather than take the elevator.
“I definitely find myself sitting less,” Scialla said.
Wellness certification, which is outlined in a 282-page manual, is done by Green Business Certification — which also certifies Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, projects — and involves in-office auditing and laboratory analysis of water and air samples.
According to Delos, 954 projects in 35 countries are registered for certification, 327 of them in the United States.
CDC offers guidelines
Other standards have been created for health and wellness. One of them is Fitwel, which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fitwel is based primarily on public health data and promotes strategies shown to have the greatest effect on health.
Started last year, Fitwel is essentially a do-it-yourself web-based checklist and scoring system. A building owner or manager enters information about a facility and submits photographic evidence.
“It was designed to be so simple that you can walk around a building with a tablet and check on a checklist and take photos with the tablet and upload them,” said Liz York, the CDC’s chief sustainability officer.
Reviewers process the information and give the user a score as well as a to-do list to improve office conditions.
The Well program costs $1,800 to $4,200 to register, depending on square footage, and $7,500 to $131,250 to certify. This does not account for the financial outlay to apply the features required to achieve certification. Furthermore, recertification every three years is recommended to ensure that offices continue to be healthful places.
Fitwel charges $500 to register and $6,000 to certify (again, not counting the costs of changes that might be made). Periodic recertification is not required, but building managers can work to increase scores by making additional investments as their budgets allow.
Investment pays off
The expected improvements in employee wellness from either program can result in productivity gains, including lower health care costs, lower rates of absenteeism and increased revenue from better employee performance.
The American Society of Interior Designers said it had achieved a 16 percent productivity gain after moving into its Well-certified headquarters two years ago. The organization, which spent about $2 million outfitting the space, tracked the impact of the design and found increased engagement and reduced absenteeism, Chief Executive Randy Fiser said, adding that the organization added nearly $700,000 to its bottom line in its first year from the productivity increase.
In addition to economics, the desire to attract staff seems to be driving many companies to turn to programs that help them develop healthy offices, according to architects and designers who work with clients on such projects.
“In today’s economy, people can change jobs,” said Paula McEvoy, an architect and co-director of sustainable design for Perkins & Will, which last year completed two Well-certified projects and five Fitwel certifications. “They can choose their workplace.”