FEATURE REPORT: The WELL Building Standard global rating system for healthy buildings has exploded in Australia in the last two years, with about 10 per cent of the total occupied office footprint now registered or certified.
So what makes Australia such a hot spot for happy and healthy buildings?
International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) president Rachel Gutter and IWBI vice president Australia and New Zealand Jack Noonan told The Fifth Estate that the notion of wellness-as-service has taken off in Australia more than anywhere else in the world.
Gutter says we are in the “amenities generation,” where employees expect package delivery services, yoga rooms and other services.
Millennials are putting pressure on traditional companies to provide more than just a pay cheque. A certain level of amenity is now expected if these companies want to attract and retain talent.
Gutter says what’s “really fascinating, and happening here more than anywhere else, is that Australian developers and property managers are re-envisioning what their role is and relationship to tenants, not so much as a manager of the property but as a partner in recurring and retaining talent.”
It makes sense that Australian property companies have taken this tack because the depth and breadth of an Australian fitout is so much greater than the shell inherited in most other places.
“In Australia it seems increasingly you are showing up to a class A office building with just your laptop on the first day of work.”
Some government agencies are also driving WELL uptake by committing to certifying their own offices.
Noonan imagines WELL could benefit from the same government intervention that has driven uptake of environmental tools such as NABERS and Green Star.
He also says one of the key drivers for WELL certification has been poor progress towards social sustainability from an ESG perspective.
“We’re reporting well on environmental sustainability, reporting well on governance, but falling down on social sustainability.”
He says that the tool can help plug that gap.
Australia is now ranked first in the world for WELL market saturation, with the product transitioning from just the top end of town and now filtering into the broader market.
Now time to scale
Gutter says these characteristics make Australia well-placed to leverage the organisation’s new WELL Portfolio program.
The program is designed for organisations that want to scale up the penetration of WELL ratings across their portfolios, and want to be rewarded for incremental achievements in their assets over time.
With the portfolio program, members get an annual score that’s published on a series of leader boards by sector. Organisations will get an aggregated score across all of their assets.
“You can imagine it taking off in a market like Australia, which can be referred to co-competitive where all of the developers are really pretty competitive and want to know what each other are doing, but all go to have a beer together afterwards,” Gutter says.
“In a place like this, comparison and competition are huge motivators.”
It’s already off to a good start with developers like Lendlease, Charter Hall and Investa having already committed to the program.
The Portfolio program is expected to help get executive level buy-in to implement WELL across the entire portfolio.
It will also help rise above the wellness gimmicks kickstarted by Silicon Valley.
“Portfolio is an opportunity to put an evidence based lens on top of that desire for amenities, to start offering amenities that really matter for health, wellbeing and productivity.”
How WELL has changed in version two
WELL is now up to version two, which includes new modules on diversity, inclusion, affordable housing, gender equity, gender neutral bathrooms.
The second version of WELL is more of a choose-your-own adventure style where organisations are able to select applicable modules.
According to Gutter, this is because “from culture to culture, these topics can be politicised and mean totally different things in different places.”
In some Asian countries, for example, it’s almost impossible to get paternity leave so it can be left off the scorecard and replaced with a different WELL credit.
Gutter says acoustics is a challenging component of the certification that is not commonly well executed. She says poor acoustics have been linked to health issues such as health disease, poor sleep and learning difficulties.
“People in the design community are wildly uneducated about acoustics.
“And we know that acoustics ranks among the top concerns for office workers when it comes to productivity and comfort.”
It doesn’t help that acoustic engineers are often value-engineered out of projects.
Mould is another challenge. It’s covered extensively by the tool.
Gutter says the beauty of performance testing though WELL is that it illuminates mould issues and other hard to spot problems.
The tool also addresses air pollutants from perfumes and other scents. Gutter says burnt toast and some colognes and perfumes are enough to fail air quality tests.
“These are the types of things that WELL brings to light. Not that all perfumes are bad – flower scents are not bad. It’s about drawing attention to the types of scents that aren’t good, which are mainly volatile organic compounds.”
In Australia specifically, Noonan says that circadian lighting has traditionally been a “controversial topic” but thanks to better research, more people are wrapping their heads around the idea of lighting that mimics natural daylight patterns.
“In Australia we do have quite a long way to go on lighting design, and circadian lighting is just one part of that.”
On the positive side, Australian developers are now cognisant of air quality issues and air filtration systems have become commonplace in commercial buildings.
WELL is not just for offices
The first version of the tool was built for offices but it now covers various building types, including hospitals, universities, retail, community centres, and most recently the first residential project in Australia, Mirvac’s Green Square.
Although WELL for residential is yet to take off in Australia, it’s already common in other part of the world such as China due to air quality concerns.
Gutter says that consumer awareness of air quality is so much higher in China. “What every parent wants is a healthy place for their children to rest their heads.”
She says that in a place where air quality is becoming a “luxury good”, it’s now an expectation that offices provide improved indoor air quality. It’s now standard to see air quality monitors in nearly all office buildings in China.
The region is also ahead of the rest of the world on continuous monitoring of air quality and other environmental conditions, rather than doing an audit every few years.
Noonan says that although Australia is blessed with good quality air, the horrifyingly early start to the bushfire season could be the catalyst that raises greater public awareness of air quality issues.
He says even without the bushfires, the air quality in Melbourne and Sydney is changing.
Busting the WELL versus environmental rating myth
There’s still lingering concern from some that achieving a good WELL outcome can come at the expense of a good environmental rating score.
Noonan says there are a number of projects in Australia that perform well on both WELL and environmental rating systems such as Green Star and NABERS, and that it all comes down to good design.
For example, Worksafe Victoria offices in Geelong have both WELL Platinum Core & Shell and 6 Star Green Star ratings.
He says it’s a misconception that these schemes are fighting against each other.
For Gutter, human health and environmental health are interrelated. “What buildings exhale we inhale, what our cars exhaust we breathe in. you can’t create separation between these two.”
She says some design decisions will require balancing the needs of one with the other, but thanks to technology it’s feasible to design a building that’s both healthy and environmentally sound.
She also says that many people are actually just fatigued by the idea of yet another rating tool, which is why the organisation has worked hard to develop crosswalks between the tool and green building programs.
Another point to consider is that wellness is targeting financial savings though boosted productivity and staff retention, while environmental tools are targeting savings through efficiencies.
The organisation has also teamed up with US company Enterprise Community Partners on a sustainable and healthy affordable housing project.
“We know that low income communities suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and a variety of health concerns.”
The plan is to bring a similar initiative to Australia.
Update: A previous version of this story said that Australia is in a strong positioned to leverage the WELL Portfolio program because developers like Lendlease, Charter Hall, Investa and Brookfield have already committed to certifying their whole portfolios. This is inaccurate and has been amended to state that Lendlease, Charter Hall and Investa have committed to the WELL Portfolio program already.