WELL Buildings: Improving indoor air quality

“As humans, we have always been dependent on our environments to nurture and sustain us. We rise with the sun, we eat off the land, we make shelter of stones and trees. We need water, air and light to survive.

We build structures to protect ourselves – from nature and other forces. Our buildings are designed to keep us safe, to protect us from the elements.

But many of the places where we spend our time also get in the way of our health, putting one degree of separation between us and that which has always kept us alive.

These lines from the introduction to the WELL Building standard sum up many of the changes we’re seeing in modern building design. In the UK, we’re used to protecting ourselves from cold weather. We try to seal in heat, but that means sealing out some of what we need to thrive.

Designing to the WELL Building standard means taking a more holistic approach, looking at 10 different areas that affect the wellbeing of occupants and finding a balance that helps everyone become as happy, healthy and productive as possible.

Over the course of a series of articles, 361 Degrees is looking at how these areas are defined and assessed, and how they can be used to guide decisions and make changes, whether you occupy a WELL-certified building or not.

Air quality in WELL Buildings

Air is one of the biggest parts of the standard, with 14 separate categories. Four of these are considered ‘preconditions’ - fundamental elements without which a project cannot be certified. The rest are ‘optimisations’, which contribute extra points to help a building reach higher ratings.

  • Fundamental air quality

Humans breathe more than 15,000 litres of air every day. Exposure to pollutants such as particulate matter and volatile organic compounds is a major health risk, with clear connections to respiratory problems, high blood pressure and heart disease.

WELL sets thresholds for the density of the particulates in the air, and calls for ongoing monitoring in regularly occupied spaces.

  • Smoke-free environment

The UK’s smoking ban covers the indoor environment, but the WELL standard also calls for smoking to be prohibited within 25 feet of entrances, windows and air intakes.

  • Ventilation effectiveness

    Poorly ventilated spaces are a cause of sick building syndrome, the symptoms of which include headaches, fatigue, dizziness and nausea. Quality HVAC design and regular maintenance are essential to avoiding these.

  • Construction pollution management

Of course, the building construction process itself is a source of some of the dust and compounds that can be damaging to health. These can affect people working and living nearby, as well as linger after a project is complete, so the risks must be carefully managed.

Optimising indoor air

Air quality is considered “one of the most important aspects of healthy buildings” by the standard, so there are a further 10 areas that build on these foundations. These include enhanced versions of the criteria above, as well as real-time monitoring so problems can be identified early and risks appropriately managed.

If you take away their commute, the average UK office worker spends just 37 minutes a day outside. For as many as 40%, that time drops to just 15 minutes. We are spending more and more of our time indoors, so we need to make sure that time is spent in healthy, happy, productive environments.

A holistic approach to building design, which includes an emphasis on the quality of the air occupants breathe every day, will help achieve that aim. As the introduction to the WELL Building standard puts it: “Nature has long been our caretaker. With intentional design, our buildings can be too.”

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