Post-COVID, Building 'Health' Matters, Too

4 min read

May 11, 2023 -- In 2017, Shangwen Kennedy, an experienced, Harvard-trained architect and urban designer, wanted to try something new: Creating spaces that would improve the health and well-being of people who use them.

She and her husband bought a small inn in Encinitas, CA, near San Diego, and conducted an extensive renovation of land and property. Shangwen had learned about a new certification program to help building developers and owners establish a toehold in the nascent well-being construction space, akin to the better-known LEEDS standard for environmentalism.

Creating beautiful spaces was no longer enough, and Shangwen saw a challenge: “How do you provide a lifegiving space. It requires a different way.”

Now, their Inn at Moonlight Beach has garnered global media attention since it became the World’s First WELL Certified hotel. With its biological enhancements, herb and vegetable gardens, state-of-the-art ventilations and water-purification systems, and relaxed, peaceful atmosphere, this five-suite inn is part of a growing movement to ensure health and well-being in shared spaces.

Buildings large and small, in all kinds of industries around the world, are being built to gain and promote WELL certification. It began before the pandemic, but COVID-19 launched concerns about safety and cleanliness in common environments, and WELL has responded to provide a range of authentication to provide standards and confidence.

To gain WELL recognitions, buildings must meet standards on topics like water, air, light, thermal comfort, and sound.

“Before COVID and after COVID is a totally different game,” said Yan Tai, senior vice president of PR and communications at the International WELL Building Institute, the world’s leading certification body for healthy buildings. “It used to be something really nice to have, but now it’s really a must-have.”

A ‘Commitment to People-First Places’

The International WELL Building Institute is based on a “commitment to people-first places,” its website says. “Organizations everywhere – from startups to Fortune 500s – use WELL to prioritize the health and safety of their people, maximize real estate value and optimize the human and social capital performance of their business.”

Its research says that investing in healthy buildings pays back with improved performance and increased financial returns. For example, employers report a 28% increase in workplace satisfaction, and a 10-point jump in median productivity scores.

WELL is working with 41,000 projects in 124 countries. Featured projects have included the National University of Singapore, the Rose Quarter Campus in Portland, OR, and Edge Technologies in Amsterdam.

Some governments are using WELL standards, including Chicago. It’s included in the Fannie Mae Healthy Design Certifications.

"More than ever before, companies are being held to a higher standard for how they care for their employees and manage the downstream impacts of their products and services,” says Matthew Trowbridge, MD, MPH, the WELL institute’s chief medical officer. “IWBI applies the science in the WELL Building Standard to help organizations meet and exceed industry performance standards to become leaders in health."

The global Standard Chartered Bank got involved with the WELL process partly to bring health and safety standardization across its locations. The bank gained the WELL Health-Safety Rating, an evidence-based rating focusing on facility operations and management. 

“At the very beginning, our aim was to have something that will help our colleagues feel comfortable to come back to the office [after the pandemic],” said Peter Simpson, head of safety and security. “We had made all steps to make our workplaces clean and safe during the pandemic, but we wanted something that we could visibly demonstrate to our employees so they can feel confident.”

The WELL program is similar to the more well-known LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council for building and promoting common spaces that are environmentally friendly. 

But the WELL focus is on the people who use the buildings.

“People spend 90% of their time inside,” said Jessica Cooper, WELL chief product officer. 

“Does the physical, built environment affect human health? The answer is a resounding yes.”

A Boost From the Pandemic

WELL founders gathered public health experts, architects, designers, and others to address ways to support human health with buildings.

“We look at things like air and water quality. We look at ways to support healthy eating through the environment, ways to promote movement and physical activity, lighting quality, thermal comfort.,” Cooper said.

WELL encourages plants being onsite, with access to nature, and policies to support parental leave, among other topics.

After COVID hit, WELL realized there was a hunger for standards that could support well-being without being as all-encompassing as its original, omnibus certification. So it created more focusedratings, “a subset of strategies from the larger WELL standard that focus on health and safety issues, primarily related to buildings, operations and management,” she said.

Applications soared during the pandemic, she said, because builders, employers, and businesses wanted a way to be recognized for their efforts, “especially in hospitality and other sectors that weren’t as ready to enroll in full certification. ... The standard got more robust as a result of the pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, most WELL clients were in commercial office or business space or in multi-family residential buildings.

“But with COVID, every sector started paying attention. So the inn in California was the first to get WELL certification,” and now multiple chains are involved.

Back at Moonlight Beach

At the Inn at Moonlight Beach in California, Kennedy was an ideal early adopter and evangelist of the WELL standards.

She proudly described the painstaking restoration of healthy soil to grow the lush gardens of lavender, bamboo, rosemary, mint, kale, and countless more varieties.

“The priority was nourishment and systems for a biodynamic environment, and the WELL standard, not about the structures so much,” she said.

The inn has received coverage in local and national media. A visit provides a full sensory experience – with the orchestra of floral and herbal scents, an ocean breeze, and an enveloping tranquility. 

“It’s not just about how beautiful things are,” Kennedy says. “It’s about how much they thrive.”