In French, “mise en place” is a culinary term referring to having ingredients prepped and cooking tools accessible that can take chefs to a place of cognitive calm before preparing a meal. Similarly, when a building is intentionally designed, elements of a building can have a positive effect on the mental health and well-being of the occupants, according to research  conducted by the International WELL Building Institute. The research is especially relevant as employers give new emphasis to employee mental health and well-being in stressful times amid a hoped-for return to normal indoor work and recreation (see p. 16).

The collective effect of a building’s performance on occupants is referred to as indoor environmental quality (IEQ). WELL scores a building’s IEQ health according to its WELL Building Standard by measuring a total of 10 benchmarks—including air, water, nourishment, light, movement, total comfort, material, community and mind.

The standard uses the term building health “but we define it as all parameters in a building performance,” says Gayathri Unnikrishnan, who serves as the New York City-based institute’s concept lead for light. “So not just the air quality,” she explains, which is wrongly seen as the sole cause of “sick building syndrome.” 

“We consider a healthy building to be an agent of change for public health. And we know, through decades of research, that thoughtful and intentional strategies in design and operations make a healthy building,” says Unnikrishnan, “and healthy buildings help people strive.” 

Most importantly, healthy buildings are people-centered spaces. “This means that the health and well-being of the people inside the building stays at the center of decision-making at all points,” says Unnikrishnan.

Connecting people and nature within a built environment via biophilic design can ease stress and reduce anxiety, according to WELL.

But a building’s operations are just as important as design in keeping spaces healthy, says Unnikrishnan.

Air quality is one example. “Good air purification features in a building can treat air to meet standards that have been set. But if these features don’t undergo regular maintenance, the building can actually impair people’s health,” she explains. “Operational policies are absolutely essential and are required to support mental and physical health.” 

The healthiest buildings are intentional from the earliest stages of design, says Ihab Elzeyadi, professor of architecture and the director of the High Performance Environments lab (HiPE) at the University of Oregon’s architecture department. 

“There are many things that go into the design that need to be incorporated early on,” he says. “For example natural ventilation. The idea, if you are going to have operable windows or shafts, have major implications to the form of the building."

At Elzeyadi’s HiPE lab, proposed new standards to increase IEQ performance are tested and then results are published for broader review— and to  influence client owners to adopt and implement improved and updated standards in their future building projects.

The standard development journey at HiPE lab is far from finished.

“We are testing these standards constantly, and we are also coming up with other things that the standards might have overlooked,” says Elzeyadi. While the standards so far have been mostly about comfort and some physiological impacts like heart rate and sick leave and similar concerns, cognitive performance and stress hasn’t been incorporated.

But cognitive performance, stress reduction and everything related to stress recovery are, in Elzeyadi’s view, just as important to well-being in buildings. A better approach is to think about these issues at the beginning of the standard-writing process, including “what the current research findings are, what are the guidelines and what are the trends and evidence that need to be incorporated.”

And that, he concludes, “I think is the major gap,” between applying research to standard writing in construction.