In the U.S., human health is largely determined by five key factors: social/economic environment, physical environment, behavior, genetics and access to healthcare. Although access to healthcare is often considered one of the smallest health determinants, a disproportionate 86% of our national health spending is directed toward treating chronic diseases that are generally preventable.

Architects affect health

New efforts to re-prioritize healthcare spending focus on changes in our environment and behavior. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention states, “Approaches that change the environment reach more people, are more cost-efficient and are more likely to have a lasting effect on population health.” For example, heart disease (the leading cause of death in the United States) may be prevented through physical activity, which can be supported by active furnishings (such as treadmill desks) and interior/exterior design that promotes walking and stair use (such as aesthetically pleasing staircases).

In short, architects play a critical role in the future of public health. The key question is: are architects prepared for this responsibility?

Designing for health

The building industry is by no means blind to the rapidly growing need and desire for healthy design. Deloitte’s 2017 “Innovations Report” highlights occupant health and well-being as one of the top five emerging themes in commercial real estate. Demand for building professionals with the knowledge and expertise to design for health is likely to grow rapidly over the next decade.

New resources and certifications are emerging to help building professionals learn more about the intersection of health and building design. For instance, over 2,100 people in more than 50 countries have earned the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL Accredited Professional (AP) credential. This credential signifies knowledge in human health and well-being and the built environment, as well as a specialization in the WELL Building Standard.

The efficacy of healthy design will likely depend on how well architects prepare for, and how well they collaborate and strategize with, those helping to facilitate everyday design performance.

Mara Baum from HOK found that gaining the WELL AP credential has been crucial for distinguishing her as a leader in this emerging field. “I’ve been engaged in design for health and well-being for many years, but until the advent of the WELL AP credential, there was no clear and easy way to convey this focus. The WELL AP sends the message to my clients and colleagues that I am trained to implement WELL on our projects.”

Human Resources is key

Architects have long been aware that their knowledge and ability to design well are not always sufficient to reach peak building performance. Most building elements are contingent upon a host of variables that change over time, which require an integrated approach to design and operations. Even the best designed office gyms, for example, may lie dormant without campaigns to promote active engagement of the management and the workforce.

Just as facility managers emerged as crucial players in maintaining building energy efficiency goals, it is becoming apparent that a new professional must champion long-term maintenance of healthy building goals.

In commercial and industrial buildings, HR professionals are emerging as key allies for architects to work with in healthy design. The Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark’s 2016 “Health and Well-Being” survey found that 40% of the companies who have delegated health responsibility to someone other than their sustainability manager have chosen someone from HR, indicating a potential new emphasis for HR professionals.  

The efficacy of healthy design will likely depend on how well architects prepare for, and how well they collaborate and strategize with, those helping to facilitate everyday design performance. Lida Lewis, Director of Well-Being Design for HKS, agrees, saying, “The WELL system moves beyond build-out to forging a stronger, longer-term relationship with our clients into operations. We’re very interested in having HR at the design table, and they will find strong allies for their own goals and new tools to help achieve them with those who hold a WELL AP credential.”