Olga Turner Baker describes the WELL Building Standard and explains how the principles can be applied to improve health and well-being on individual projects.
Interview with Olga Turner Baker
Olga is a chartered surveyor by training. She first came across the WELL Building Standard back in 2016, and was surprised to find it wasn't being adopted more widely in the UK. She quickly became passionate about it and started her own business, Ekkist, to specialise in design-led buildings, with a specific focus on health and well-being within.
The WELL Building Standard is based on medical research
Launching in the United States in 2014, the WELL Building Standard took all the medical research that had taken place around the world that looked at how buildings impact our health, collated it over a seven year period and turned it into a building code.
Olga explains it as being a review of all the best practice and best guidance, of all the different components of building design. It covers the best guidance on air quality, water filtration, the safe use of building materials, and even through to management of buildings and how to operate them. It also touches on things like mental health and sense of community.
While there are criteria that must be met in order to achieve the minimum certification, there are also optimisations which are points that can be earned to get to a higher level.
Olga describes it as a very technical standard, where you submit documentation and are also tested in practice through performance verification testing. It is a robust procedure which assesses the building in use as well as in design.
There are ten core areas of buildings that the standard covers:
This looks at air filtration and ventilation, keeping the worst of the chemicals and particulate matter and dust out of the buildings, so as not to exacerbate things like allergens or asthma.
In much the same way as air filtration, this is to keep out anything that could be harmful, such as coliforms, public water additives, agricultural contaminants, and by-products of disinfectants. It's about ensuring that the water has been filtered to a high quality, which can be through a carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis.
Probably more relevant to buildings that have an operator providing food on site, but also adaptable to our own homes, this looks at the kind of food that is provided within a building. It considers portion sizes, allergen labelling, and reduction of added and refined sugars and any kinds of additives. It encourages healthy food messaging by promoting ethical sourcing of products and eating as much fruit and vegetables as possible.
Ensuring we have the right light in buildings helps keep the circadian rhythm and body clock functioning as well as possible. The standard has guidance on sufficient distances from windows, making sure rooms aren't too deep for the windows provided, and that the right colour quality is being used in relation to the time of day or night.
This thinks about how we encourage activity in the building to improve health. It can be about connection with the outdoors to make it easy for children to play, or in larger buildings it may be about ways of encouraging staircase use rather than lifts.
Outside of the WELL Standard, but another idea that Olga suggests, is making outdoor space that is usable throughout the seasons, which will naturally encourage more outdoor activity for longer periods of the year.
Keeping buildings within comfortable thermal parameters is important for not aggravating conditions like asthma, eczema and stress, and making sure that our skin, eyes and organs function properly. Achieving this might be through shading and natural ventilation or mechanical cooling and ventilation systems.
Although not a mandatory part of the WELL Standard, acoustics make up an optimisation which far exceed UK building regulations.
It looks at both transference of noise between rooms and also transference within a room. Olga says there are plenty of products on the market which can help absorb noise, and materials she particularly likes using for this are cork and clay plaster.
Firstly this looks to avoid materials that we know to be toxic, such as asbestos, mercury, lead and PCBs. In the optimisations of the standard it also considers VOCs and how they can be released from furniture, varnishes, paints and glues. When you're designing a home you should be trying to reduce these levels by looking at natural sealants and products like sheep's wool as a furnishing fabric and natural oils.
As well as reading the specifications on the products, Olga suggests looking for external accreditation that any product you are using has been tested for a health component. Examples of these include Cradle to Cradle and Oeko-Tex.
This looks at how buildings impact our mental health, and what can be done to encourage better mental health through building design.
Much of this can be down to access to nature, whether that be views across to green spaces or incorporating greenery in and around your rooms.
And even using wood and other natural materials has been found to have calming effects.
The WELL Standard looks at access to community services, community programmes, and how you're incorporating the wider community as part of your building and initiative.
Olga also recommends looking at the new NHS Social Prescribing Guidelines, which emphasise how our personal health can really gain from spending time with others, whether that be in group activities, gardening, etc.
Olga describes innovation as being the most fun part of the WELL Standard. It is where you can be awarded points for coming up with new ideas that help increase health and wellbeing within buildings, that aren't already covered by the standard. This could be anything like different lighting or having pets on site, as long as there is medical research to support the benefits.
WELL Standard principles can be applied to individual projects
While it is not possible to certify a single building, (there must be a minimum of five units and they have to have a common structural element) the principles and good design practice can be applied to individual projects.
While some designers might be doing these things intuitively anyway as good design practice, for others the standard can just push them a bit further and support them with the scientific research.
Ori House applies the principles
Ekkist have worked on a conceptual standalone dwelling, Ori House, where they have applied the principles and taken on the parts that really resonate to homeowners, such as the daylight, air quality, water filtration, and using space better for social interaction but also to encourage privacy within the home.
“We’ve tried to really think about that and create our own version of what it means to be a community but on an individual building level.”
Ekkist are currently looking for sites to build this on, and are also working on an urban version, which Olga sees as being important as cities become ever more urbanised.
“We want the quality and the health benefits of a rural home delivered in an urban environment. That’s our next big goal.”
Find out more
Visit the website of Ekkist
Follow Ekkist on Twitter
Find out more about the WELL Building Standard
Check out our episode with Elinor Elisa about how she created a healthy home for her family.
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