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Well, Well, Well! Creating a Healthier School

by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP and Kurt Peeters AIA WELL AP

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a certification program for environmentally friendly construction, is a significant focus for the construction industry and many school districts. As districts plan for future construction or renovation, a new emphasis concentrates on the well-being of occupants — students, staff, and visitors. This article introduces districts to the next movement: focusing on WELL Buildings.

The International WELL Building Institute is devoted to transforming health and well-being with a people-first approach to buildings, organizations, and communities. It provides an evidence-based roadmap for scaling health across organizations. District design professionals will be great partners in helping leadership understand how the facility recommendations create a healthier environment.

"Districts must set the stage for great learning and solid mental and physical health for all those that frequent their school buildings."

Kurt Peeters

Senior Project Architect

Importance of student and teacher health
A report from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health notes that by the time a student graduates from high school, they will have spent more than 15,000 hours inside a school facility. It’s likely that teachers and administrators will spend even more time in these settings if they work more than 13 years.

Districts must set the stage for great learning and solid mental and physical health for all those that frequent their school buildings. Minimizing or eliminating air pollution, mold, ambient noise, radon, asbestos, and poor lighting must be central concerns.

The WELL building roadmap
The International WELL Building Institute introduced the WELL Building Standard, the leading tool for advancing health and well-being in buildings, communities, and organizations. The WELL Building StandardTM version 2 is a tool to help districts be thoughtful about constructing and using spaces that enhance human health and well-being. WELL v2 includes a set of strategies, supported by recent scientific research, that aim to further human health through design interventions, operational protocols, and policies. The creation of the standards draws on the expertise of a diverse community of WELL users, practitioners, public health professionals, and building experts throughout the world.

The 11 concepts that guide WELL buildings are:
1. AIR: The WELL air concept aims to achieve high levels of indoor air quality across a building’s lifetime through diverse strategies that include elimination or reduction of pollutants, active and passive building design and operation strategies, and human behavior interventions. Tangible steps in this area include attention to air quality, ventilation design, smoke-free environment, construction pollution management, operable windows, and microbe and mold control.

2.WATER: This idea encompasses aspects of the quality, distribution and control of water in a facility. It comprises features that focus on the availability and containment thresholds of drinking water and targets the management of water delivery systems to prevent negative impacts on building materials and the indoor environment. Water quality indicators, moisture management, hygiene support, and water conservation are topics included in the guidelines.

3. NOURISHMENT: The WELL nourishment concept requires the availability of vegetables and fruits along with nutritional transparency. It encourages the establishment of environments where the healthiest choice is the easiest choice. Examples of this include helping people make informed food choices, consume fruits and vegetables, avoid highly processed ingredients, access quality food messaging, and consume proper portion sizes.

4. LIGHT: This aspect encourages exposure to light and seeks to create lit environments that promote visual, mental, and biological health. Examples include enhancing visual comfort, providing daylight exposure and outdoor views, reducing glare caused by electric lights, and giving occupants lighting control.

5. MOVEMENT: The WELL movement concept fosters physical activity in routine life through environmental designs, programs and policies to make certain that movement is integrated into the fabric of districts’ culture, buildings, and communities. Society’s comprehension of the relationship between physical activity and health continues to develop. Many people now grasp that all movement matters for health, and that physical activity can be aggregated throughout the day for a healthy lifestyle. Examples in this section include encouraging ergonomic workstations, using stairs, cycling to school, increasing walk-ability, providing no-cost physical activity opportunities, and discouraging prolonged sitting.

6. THERMAL COMFORT: The focus on WELL thermal comfort promotes human productivity and providing a maximum level of thermal comfort with all building users through improved HVAC system design and control, and by meeting individual thermal preferences. Thermal comfort significantly influences the school experience and is one of the uppermost contributing factors influencing satisfaction in buildings. The indoor thermal environment also impacts a building’s energy use, as cooling and heating accounts for nearly half of a building’s energy consumption. Examples include ensuring that greater than 80% of occupants perceive their environment to be thermally acceptable, incorporating radiant heat and cooling systems, controlling humidity, and enhancing operable windows.

7. SOUND: The WELL sound initiative aims to bolster occupant health and well-being by identifying and mitigating acoustical issues that harm occupant experiences. The guidelines provide detail regarding sound mapping (preventing acoustic disturbances), sound barriers, reverberation time, sound reducing surfaces, hearing health conservation, and enhanced audio devices.

8. MATERIALS: This concept targets the reduction of human exposure to chemicals that may negatively impact health as buildings are constructed, remodeled, furnished, and under operation. The emphasis on WELL materials supports two strategies for selecting building supplies and products. One element is to expand literacy on materials by promoting ingredient disclosure, while the second is to promote the assessment and optimization of product composition in order to diminish impacts to human and environmental health. Both strategies seek to bridge data gaps in the supply chain, supporting innovation in sustainable chemistry and expanding market transformation toward healthier, sustainable products. The concept encourages the use of low-hazard cleaning products and practices that reduce impacts on indoor air quality and on the health of those performing cleaning duties.

9. MIND: The WELL mind aspect promotes mental health through policy, program, and design strategies that address the varied factors that influence cognitive and emotional well-being. Examples include mental health promotion, incorporation of the natural environment, stress management, restorative opportunities (onsite and outside the workplace), and restorative spaces.

10. COMMUNITY: This concept supports providing access to essential healthcare, building a culture of health that accommodates diverse population needs, and establishing an inclusive, engaged occupant community. Examples include promoting an understanding of how building design, operations and policies impact health and well-being, emergency preparedness, occupant survey, new parent support, and buildings that are accessible, comfortable, and usable for people of all backgrounds and abilities.

11. INNOVATION: Innovation features pave the way for projects to develop unique strategies for creating healthier environments. Points are given in this area for projects that propose new interventions that address health and well-being in a unique way, and/or utilize previous creative ideas. Additionally, it encourages the certification process, commitment to health and well-being, and achievement of certification for green buildings.

Initiatives and focus areas that improve mental health
Some of the 11 initiatives are specifically aimed at the WELL mind. Districts can make a significant impact on mental and physical well-being by increasing opportunities for restoration through spaces that restore occupants, setting the stage for optimal sleep and programming focused on mindfulness. The benefits include less depression, pain, stress, and anxiety. Among the documented outcomes of increased contact with nature within constructed spaces included increased attentional capacity, improved recovery from illness and stress, higher pain tolerance, and enhanced psychological well-being. A variety of the above initiatives promote restorative opportunities, stress management, mental health services, physical activity, circadian lighting design, and more.

Planning and design related to proper introduction of daylight into schools plays a key role in mental and physical health. For many years, it was generally accepted that daylighting was better than artificial lighting. Several years ago, it was determined that all the windows in a classroom — many with entire walls made of glass — were a distraction for students. However, windows provide views and natural light that help improve outcomes for students, as well as improve comfort and mood. When contemplating new construction, an important strategy to maximize daylighting is positioning buildings with an east-west orientation, with windows facing south. Wise selection of window products by the design team will manage unwanted solar heat gains and losses, lighting levels, and glare.

Interior baffles and overhangs represent additional valuable considerations since they provide uniform and effectively diffused lighting. Skylights present daylight from above, often permitting diffused light into the space. Tubular devices, typically known as light tubes, are another alternative to bring natural light into the interior of the building.

Of course, schools can’t fully depend upon natural light. Choosing LED lighting and using it wisely can provide many benefits. Tuning LED lights to circadian rhythms sets the stage for ore normal sleeping and waking cycles, while also reducing energy consumption. Blue spectrum LED lighting has been shown to make children more alert in the morning compared to dim light.

Improving brain function
Another core focus of WELL buildings that is especially relevant to schools is improving air quality to reduce respiratory illnesses and increase cognitive function. By limiting volatile organic compound levels and increasing outdoor air supply, schools can improve indoor air quality, resulting in higher cognitive function and test scores, and reducing sickness and related symptoms.

Achieving high indoor air quality comes from a combination of low or no-VOC products specified for furniture, adhesives, paints, flooring systems, carpeting and furniture, and carbon dioxide monitors. Air supply systems that use a high percentage of outside air in classrooms, offices, and other areas can enhance natural ventilation and help improve indoor air quality.

Heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems are important to air quality. Wise decisions will result in improved air quality while reducing energy consumption. Districts can expect to get better air quality from a new HVAC system but maintaining that over time requires regular inspection and a maintenance plan. Changing filters consistently, draining condensation pans, and keeping unit ventilators free of books and paper will contribute to a healthier environment. Consistently cleaning return registers, outdoor air intakes, and supply diffusers are great disciplines as well.

Cleaning products have a significant impact on the health of facility occupants. Reducing exposure to harmful cleaning substances can improve student and employee productivity, and impact health and morale. A healthier environment also contributes to fewer absentee days for student and staff.

A real WELL examples
Clintonville Public School District’s recent middle school addition includes a variety of lighting-related features that improve health and well-being. The new school would meet WELL L01 and L02 (standards related to lighting) because every room that is occupied has natural light (L01) and provides appropriate illuminances on work planes for regular users, as required for the tasks performed in the space (L02). Additional examples of daylighting in the new facility include large glazing in the corridor. The tunable lighting gives occupants lighting control by allowing adjustment of color temperature in the nurse/sick room and special education rooms.

A greater level of intentionality
Districts considering their next construction project should raise their level of focus and intentionality for physical and mental health. Those that do will see a reduction in absenteeism, greater cognitive function, improved morale, and much more.