Building for Wellness

Summer 2016
The cafe at Burlington Stores’ headquarters embodies many of the principles of designing for wellness. It provides healthy food offerings, is awash with natural light and spills out to an exterior eating area studded with bright umbrellas. Photo courtesy of KSS Architects

Workplaces that enhance employee health and well-being also enhance productivity — and employers’ financial bottom lines.

COMPANIES THROUGHOUT North America are handing out fitness trackers, stocking their workplaces with nap pods and providing stipends for employees to relocate near the office, reducing their carbon footprint as well as their commute time. In other words, these companies are overwhelmingly demonstrating how much they value wellness in the workplace, by directly investing in programs to support employee well-being.

Employers are spending more on wellness-based initiatives than ever. The National Business Group on Health estimates that large companies spend almost $700 per employee on wellness-based incentives annually, up from $430 per year in 2010. Often, this money is spent on items like gift cards and complimentary health assessments that sometimes go unused.

But there’s another approach, one that unilaterally improves the productivity and happiness of all employees: designing and building for wellness.

The Value in Designing For Wellness

Many designers and developers believe that the “wellness” concept today is where “sustainability” was 15 years ago. Bill Fisher, AIA, LEED AP, a senior project manager at Liberty Property Trust, says that bigger corporations are ahead of the curve. “Fortune 100 companies, they get it. They’re investing in their employees. Even Fortune 500 companies are starting to invest in this. But many of the small businesses that are the primary employers in the United States are not there yet.”

Fisher compares the trajectory of wellness as a design investment to that of sustainability. “The majority of tenants coming to us still don’t understand sustainability. They still don’t understand that saving on energy and making first-cost investments is going to help them immensely in the long term,” by saving them money and helping them retain employees.

exterior eating area

W.W. Grainger’s Northeast Distribution Center in Bordentown Township, New Jersey, is not only on track to be certified LEED Gold; it will also incorporate multitiered work areas in spaces with extensive daylighting. An outdoor cafe with natural environments will contribute to employee wellness.
Rendering courtesy of KSS Architects

But Fisher offers a developer’s argument that can help companies understand the relative value in improving the design of buildings from the ground up. “What companies do understand is employee expenditures. For most companies, employee expenditures are roughly $300 per square foot per year. This represents a huge chunk of the pie in terms of cost; utility costs run about $2.50 per square foot, and operating expenses are about $10 per square foot.

“What we’ve been focusing on in the first 15 years of LEED is energy savings — getting savings of 25 to 30 percent on that $2.50 per square foot. And that’s great. But if you can produce even a 1 to 2 percent savings on the $300 per square foot of the employee expenses, that’s the holy grail.”

Basically, as technology gets better and better, the amount of cost savings that can be generated by fine-tuning utilities is reaching a plateau. But cost savings and increased employee productivity are an entirely different matter. Fisher says, “Anything you can do to make those employees happy, make them feel committed and engaged, and make them healthier is a good thing. We are long-time owners. We must strive to build for wellness at no greater rental cost. When prospective tenants compare a light-filled building with flexible work environments and pro-health amenities to a cubicle-based office building of the 1990s, there’s just no comparison.”

Another interesting aspect of the value proposition for wellness is that today’s paradigm of value itself is shifting. As Jack Hughes, founder of the online technology community TopCoder, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “The value of products and services today is based more and more on creativity — the innovative ways that they take advantage of new materials, technologies, and processes.”

interior office space

CBRE Group Inc.’s WELL Certified Global Corporate Headquarters in Los Angeles features plenty of daylight and plantings as well as a variety of open, airy places where employees can congregate to work or socialize.

Companies are realizing that today, more than ever, value is an aggregate of human, social and manufactured capital. Just as sustainability is valued on a variety of scales, from individual to society, wellness can also be understood as something that generates shared value — for individuals, for companies and for society.

How to Design For Wellness   

As designers, developers and employers begin to recognize that health centers, hospitals, and fitness centers aren’t the only places that need to be designed with wellness in mind, designers can begin to outline strategies for making places like offices, schools and even industrial centers places where people can thrive.

One of the pioneers in developing such strategies is Delos, creator of the WELL Building Standard, which takes a holistic approach to health in the built environment, addressing behavior, operations and design. The WELL Building Standards focus on seven concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. The ways they can be applied and combined are virtually endless. For more on the standards, see “The WELL Building Standard” at right.

Using the WELL Building Standard, Jennifer Taranto, LEED AP, Provisional WELL AP, director of sustainability at construction services provider Structure Tone, explains that WELL Standards are free and available online; anyone can download the WELL Standards and learn about their applications at “One of the ways to understand the differences between LEED and WELL,” says Taranto, “is to recognize that LEED is [predominantly] about the health of the planet and the environment, whereas WELL is about the health of people.”

For example, WELL often takes the next step in automating system changes. “In ‘air,’ one of the conditions WELL covers is ventilation,” Taranto notes. “We’re talking about demand control ventilation, where CO2 sensors do more than just sound an alarm.  They actually open up ventilation systems to supply fresh air. That’s ‘one step beyond’ most existing systems, where an engineer has to go into the system and make that change. With demand control ventilation, it’s built in.”

One example of a water-related building feature is drinking water promotion and access. Taranto says, “Designing so that people can access water fountains without walking across large floor plates is very important.” The WELL Standard metric calls for at least one water dispenser located within 100 feet of all regularly occupied floor space.

“’Nourishment’ is one of my favorite concepts,” adds Taranto. “It’s often overlooked by designers and developers of green building projects, and it deals with food sold or distributed on-site. People often ask me, ‘Can we still have Pizza Friday?’ The answer is ‘yes. But you can also improve your nourishment options by providing fruit at check-out lines, offering greater opportunities for people to make healthy decisions.’”

lobby area

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh is the world’s first WELL Building Platinum (pilot) project. The education, research and administration facility’s operable windows provide fresh air and views of nature, while plant species that are adept at removing pollutants help occupants breathe easier.
Denmarsh Photography, Inc.

And that’s really what the WELL Standard is all about — building an infrastructure where well-being is the underpinning, the default from where all design starts. Nap pods and fitness trackers can only go so far in a workplace that is a maze of cubicles. Whether a building or a workplace is designed to meet the WELL Standard or not, it should be designed with humans in mind.


One example of a wellness-focused workplace is Burlington Stores’ headquarters in Burlington, New Jersey. In 2012, the company was growing and transforming itself in the marketplace, and needed to attract new employees, young and dynamic merchant buyers who would move frequently and effortlessly between the headquarters and various locations in New York City. To do so, Burlington had to redefine its corporate space to reflect those new employees’ values: collaboration, openness and vibrancy. KSS designed the new headquarters as a place where buyers could intersect with vendors; where trend-setters could interact with merchandise.

Completed in 2014, the 225,000- square-foot Burlington Stores headquarters is both a workplace and a marketplace, a space that fulfills many needs and elevates people to achieve. A monumental open stairway wide enough for people to walk side-by-side promotes fitness and movement. A generous cafe area with ample daylighting, bright colorscapes and long, European-style tables encourages conversation. A vast ribbon wall embraces the full spectrum of the day, shining light onto what has become a transformative space for Burlington employees and the company itself. While the building is not WELL Certified, it incorporates many WELL Standards.

Another example can be found at the Thomas Jefferson University (TJU) Department of Information Services and Technology (IS&T) in Center City Philadelphia. In 2014, the university needed to set the tone for a new Electronic Health Records Team. A core strategy group had been put in place, but TJU was planning to hire dozens of new employees. KSS designed a 30,000-square-foot workspace to accommodate multiple user groups and accomplish various operational goals.

Melding input from TJU’s IS&T team and Epic Consultancy, KSS identified efficiencies and streamlined processes to craft an agile space that sets the tone for the university’s new flagship department in a field that requires constant innovation, collaboration and creativity. A combination of multidisciplinary, open team areas and quiet, more personal spaces allows for flexible work and increased comfort. Niches are carved out of a fluid, open floor plan to afford privacy. Huddle pods, a “genius bar” and a cafe all contribute to a healthy workplace, an environment where people thrive.

The Takeaway

The biggest takeaway from these and other workplaces designed with wellness in mind is that workplace designs should give people an inherent sense of belonging. They should foster community and collaboration. They should help those who inhabit them achieve fulfillment and happiness. Fortune 500 companies shouldn’t be the only ones leading this charge. Designing for wellness is good for people, and it’s good for business.

The WELL Building Standard

Health and wellness are becoming a top priority in nearly all areas of people’s lives. With a growing body of research demonstrating that the environments in which people live and work can have a direct impact on their well-being, it is becoming critical to place people at the heart of building design and construction, operations and development decisions. The WELL Building Standard (WELL) — the first building standard to focus exclusively on the health and well-being of the people in buildings — does just that.

graphic with circles and wording

Pioneered by Delos and administered by the International WELL Building Institute, WELL marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research to harness the built environment as a vehicle to support human health.
To obtain WELL Certification, developers and building owners must complete a five-step process for each project that begins with online registration and includes documentation as well as a series of on-site performance tests known as performance verification. Certification recognizes that the project has successfully documented compliance with all feature requirements and has passed performance verification. Recertification every three years will ensure that the project continues to perform to the WELL Building Standard.

WELL Certified spaces can help create a built environment that improves the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns and performance of its occupants. WELL Certified spaces also have the potential to offer meaningful return on investment to tenants and building owners alike by adding value to real estate assets, generating savings in personnel costs and enhancing occupant health, well-being, productivity and happiness.

Having helped develop the framework and establish the research behind WELL as pioneer of the Standard, Delos is in a unique position to share its knowledge and continue to support its expansion. Delos recently launched partnerships with several industry leaders to advance health and wellness in the built environment through their commitments to WELL. The first of these is with CBRE Group Inc., whose global corporate headquarters in Los Angeles became the first commercial office space in the world to achieve WELL Certification through the WELL pilot program in 2013.

CBRE has committed to pursue WELL Certification for at least 100 buildings, sites or offices managed by or associated with the company worldwide. It has also pledged to accredit at least 50 CBRE employees under the WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP) program, a credential that signifies knowledge of human health and wellness in the built environment, and specialization in the principles, practices and applications of WELL. Similarly, Arup has committed to accredit 100 staff members through the WELL AP program. Through their networks of WELL APs, these companies will be able to provide consulting services to projects pursuing WELL Certification.

Delos’ partnerships with Lendlease and Chinese real estate company Sino-Ocean Land are also instrumental in WELL’s global expansion. The collaboration with Lendlease will advance WELL Core & Shell Certification and pre-Certification programs as a pathway to WELL-ready workplaces for building tenants. Lendlease’s International Towers Sydney (ITS), Barangaroo, will be the world’s first WELL Core & Shell Certified buildings. In China, Sino-Ocean Land has pledged a long-term commitment to WELL as part of a partnership with Delos, leading efforts to elevate human health to the forefront of Chinese building practices. In December 2015, Sino-Ocean Land announced that its Guangzhou Tianjiao project is the first mixed-use complex in China registered to pursue WELL Certification.

Delos looks forward to continuing to work with best-in-class partners to transform indoor environments into spaces that help nurture, sustain and promote human health and well-being.

By Paul Scialla, founder of the International WELL Building Institute and founder and CEO of Delos