Transforming the built environment to support wellness

The pandemic has pushed new thinking on health and wellness to the forefront of design. Consumers, office workers and patients are focusing more on healthy buildings, in part due to an increased focus on advanced cleaning protocols and air handling systems to counter COVID-19. But patients are also more aware of the importance of environments that provide lots of access to daylight and views, use low-VOCs, and foster contact with nature and the outdoors. These changes are pressuring the design, development and construction industries to deliver buildings that help people feel safe indoors. Clients also expect designers to help understand the measurable impacts of design decisions, including indoor air quality, building performance, and outdoor accessibility.

Current accreditation and certification programs such as WELL and Fitwel provide specific standards for healthy building delivery and include post-completion monitoring. For example, all WELL projects are verified with our on-site building performance test. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) also recently adopted the Design Excellence Framework, a toolkit to help achieve greater building performance that links its design programs to verifiable metrics. It is a major shift from an emphasis on aesthetics to building performance, human well-being and social responsibility. Factors such as the use of low-VOC materials and the increase in usable daylight are some of the defining principles of good design in the 21st century. Whether designers are pursuing awards or not, these parameters provide an industry reference point for understanding building features that boost health, conserve resources, reduce emissions, and support communities.

As part of the Duda Focus | Paine Architects On designing wellness, we’ve identified some primary areas of focus:

Air qualityMechanical systems, especially heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, are receiving new attention as mechanisms to keep patients, staff and visitors safe from viruses and other diseases that are transmitted through the air and the surface. Sustainable features that once seemed destined for engineering value trash, such as improved central air filtration, improved filters, zoned systems, increased outdoor air levels in HVAC systems, and even operable windows. These features improve indoor air quality and meet ventilation and filtration standards with levels that reduce the movement of viral and bacterial particles. Additionally, germicidal ultraviolet and ionization can be added to air systems to clean the air in usually congested places.

Verifiable performanceA: The investment in new technologies must be accompanied by rigorous design, construction quality assurance and performance verification. The scope of post-occupancy assessments can vary widely, but all fundamentally question whether the building is performing as intended.

For example, the Duke University Student Health Center in Durham, North Carolina, wanted to move from a more clinical model of student care to an open and welcoming student facility that provides a comfortable environment while encouraging healthy behaviors. The two storey open entry suite, strategically located on the main circulation road, is designed as a large multi-storey living room with sunlight, views, privacy screens, natural stone and wood materials. Data collected in the year after the opening of the Duke Student Wellness Center shows that The Oasis meditation space, which has been specifically designed to be adaptive to students’ needs, was used by 10-15 students daily. Attendance at health programs increased by 40 per cent and appointments of care increased by 6 per cent, while no-attendance decreased by 10 per cent.

Empirical strategiesThe company has long advocated the inclusion of outdoor spaces, raised gardens, and indoor green spaces across a variety of markets, from office towers to university campuses to wellness buildings, to benefit users. A growing body of research supports the success of bio-design in improving occupant well-being, including increased productivity, reduced stress and lower rates of illness. What is a measurable place to start? In temperate climates, such as the southeast, a percentage of the building area is allocated to courtyards, rooftop terraces, and indoor gardens. Another consideration is the use of exterior folding doors, which are already being used in hospital and cancer center waiting areas, to transform interior space with direct access to sunlight and fresh air.

As occupants continue to be educated about personal health and safety issues in the built environment, standards and certification systems will become the standard for facilities providing health and wellness services to their patients.

Geoffrey Payne, FAIA, is a founding director at Duda | Paine Architects (Durham, NC). It can be reached at [email protected].


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