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Facilities That Promote Health

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 School Business Affairs magazine and may be reprinted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.

 

 

by Jody Andres, AIA, LEED AP, and Henry Hundt

The next movement in the design, planning, and construction industry is integrating the principles of WELL buildings. This new emphasis concentrates on the well-being of occupants, which in our context means students, teachers, staff, and visitors.

The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is fully focused on transforming health and well-being with a people-first approach to buildings, organizations, and communities. The IWBI provides an evidence-based road map for improving the health of occupants across organizations through the design of their built environment.

 

 

"As you contemplate your next construction project, increase the level of focus and intentionality on physical and mental health."

Jody Andres

K-12 Market Leader

Design professionals are great partners in helping school district leader understand the recommendations and how they can create a healthier environment in their facilities.

Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health–with a spotlight on school buildings and student success–chronicles that by the time a student graduates from high school, he or she will have spent more than 15,000 hours inside school facilities. Teachers and administrators have likely spent even more time in these environments if they have worked for more than 13 years.

It is incumbent on us to be certain we are setting the stage for great learning and solid mental and physical health for all those who spend time in our schools. We must focus on reducing or eliminating mold, air pollution, ambient noise, radon, asbestos, and poor lighting.

WELL Building Standard

The IWBI introduced the WELL Building Standard, a tool for advancing health and well-being in buildings, communities, and organizations. The WELL Building Standard, version 2, encourages us to be more thoughtful and intentional about constructing and using spaces that improve human health and well-being.

The creation of the standard drew on the expertise of a diverse and robust community of WELL users, building experts, practitioners, and public health professionals throughout the world. The standard brings to the table a mix of design solutions, operational strategies, and policies, all backed by the latest research aimed at enhancing our health.

WELL Building Concepts

Let’s look further at the standards and practices integrated in WELL buildings:

Light. This attribute encourages exposure to light and lit environments that promote visual, biological, and mental health. The focus is on enhancing visual comfort, daylight exposure, and outdoor views, reducing glare caused by electric lights, and occupant lighting control.

Air. The WELL air concept aims to achieve prominent levels of indoor air quality across a building’s lifetime through diverse strategies that include eliminating or reducing pollutants and more. Tangible steps in this area include concentration on air quality, ventilation design, construction pollution management, operable windows, and mold and microbe control.

Nourishment. This WELL concept promotes the establishment of environments where the healthiest choice is the easiest choice. Examples include helping people (1) make informed food choices, (2) avoid highly processed ingredients, and (3) consume healthier portion sizes.

Water. This idea involves aspects of the quality , distribution, and control of water in a facility. It includes features that focus on the accessibility and contaminant thresholds for drinking water and targets the management of water delivery systems to prevent negative effects on building materials and the indoor environment. Water quality indicators, management of moisture, hygiene support, and water conservation are included in the standards.

Sound. The WELL sound initiative intends to bolster occupant health and well-being by identifying and mitigating acoustical issues that have a negative effect on occupant experiences. The detailed guidelines address sound mapping (preventing acoustic disturbances), sound barriers, reverberation time, sound-reducing surfaces, hearing-health conservation, and enhanced audio devices.

Thermal comfort. This initiative promotes human productivity and provides a maximum level of thermal comfort for all building users through improved HVAC system design and control and by meeting individual thermal preferences. Thermal comfort is one of the greatest factors influencing human satisfaction in buildings. Aim to have an acceptable comfort level for more than 80% of occupants by incorporating radiant heat and cooling systems, humidity control, and enhanced operable windows.

Materials. Here, the focus is on (1) reducing human exposure to chemicals that may negatively affect health during the construction, remodeling, furnishing, and operation of buildings; (2) improving understanding of materials by promoting ingredient disclosure; and (3) promoting the assessment and optimization of product composition to diminish adverse impacts on human and environmental health. The use of low-hazard cleaning products and practices to reduce effects on indoor air quality and on the health of those performing cleaning duties are encouraged.

Movement. The goal is to promote physical activity in daily life and to ensure that movement is integrated into the fabric of the district culture, buildings, and communities. Examples include (1) increasing walkability, (2) installing ergonomic workstations, (3) promoting the use of stairs and cycling to school, (4) offering no-cost physical activity opportunities, and (5) deterring prolonged sitting.

Mind. The WELL mind aspect promotes mental health through strategies that address the diverse factors that influence cognitive and emotional well-being. Examples include (1) focusing on mental health, (2) incorporating the natural environment, (3) managing stress, and (4) offering restorative opportunities (on-site and outside the workplace) and restorative spaces.

Community. It’s important to build a culture of health that accommodates diverse population needs and promotes inclusion and engagement. This initiative promotes an understanding of how building design, policies, and operations affect health and well-being and consider emergency preparedness, occupant surveys, new-parent support, and buildings that are accessible, comfortable, and usable for people of all abilities and backgrounds.

Innovation. This WELL initiative encourages stakeholders to develop strategies for creating healthier environments. Points can be awarded in this area for projects that address health and well-being in a substantive way.

A WELL Example

Wisconsin’s Clintonville Public School District provides a good example. A recent middle school addition incorporates an array 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 and provide proper illuminance on work planes for regular users, as required for the duties performed in the space. Additional examples of daylighting incorporated in the new facility include clerestory lighting and large glazing in the corridor. Another examples of matching the WELL standards in this construction is the tunable lighting, which enables color and brightness control and allows adjustments in the nurse’s office and sick bay and special-education rooms. These adjustments satisfy the requirement related to occupant lighting control (WELL L09).

Focusing on Mental Health

The benefits of initiatives aimed at the WELL mind include less depression, pain, stress, and anxiety. We can affect mental and physical well-being positively by increasing opportunities for spaces that restore us, paving the way for optimal sleep and programming focused on mindfulness. Expanding contact with nature within our constructed spaces increases attention, improves recovery from illness and stress, and enhances psychological well-being.

Proper introduction of daylight into our schools plays a key role in mental and physical health. Windows in educational spaces are not just for aesthetics; windows bring in sunlight and offer views that can boost academic performance and well-being, creating a positive and comfortable atmosphere for learning. When considering new construction, positioning buildings with an east-west orientation, with windows facing south, is an important strategy to maximize daylighting. Informed selection of window products will control unwanted solar heat gains and losses, lighting levels, and glare.

Choosing LED lighting and using it wisely can provide additional benefits. Tuning LED lights to circadian rhythms facilitates more normal sleep-wake cycles while reducing energy consumption. Using blue spectrum LED lighting in the morning has been shown to make children more alert compared with those exposed to dim light.

Improving Cognitive Function

Another core focus of WELL buildings that is especially applicable to schools is improving air quality to reduce respiratory illnesses and increase cognitive function. By limiting volatile organic compound (VOC) levels and increasing outdoor air, we improve indoor air quality, resulting in higher cognitive function and test scores while reducing illness and related symptoms. Using a combination of low- or no-VOC products specified for furniture, adhesives, paints, flooring systems, carpeting, and furniture promotes improved indoor air quality. Air supply systems that use a high percentage of outside air in classrooms, offices, and other areas appreciably improve indoor air quality.

You would expect better air quality from a new HVAC system, but to maintain your system over time, it’s important to inspect all units regularly and establish a scheduled preventive maintenance plan. Changing filters consistently, draining condensation pans, and keeping unit ventilators free of books and paper will add to a healthier environment. Consistent cleaning of return registers, outdoor air intakes, and supply diffusers are great practices as well. A healthier environment contributes to fewer absentee days for students and staff members.

Increasing Intentionality

You want the absolute best for your students and staff. As you contemplate your next construction project, increase the level of focus and intentionality on physical and mental health. You’ll benefit from a reduction in absenteeism, greater cognitive function, enhanced morale, and considerably more. Take the lead in constructing a school that is continuously WELL.