On average, we spend 90 percent of our time indoors—much of that at work—and what we’re exposed to impacts our health in ways we might not even be aware of. Lighting can cause sleep problems, air pollutants can cause headaches and respiratory issues, and noise can raise heart rates and increase stress hormone levels. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Architects, designers, and engineers are becoming more attuned to wellness in the workplace, and the WELL Building Standard, a global rating system that provides guidelines for creating healthier indoor spaces, is at the heart of the movement. Since 2014, there have been nearly 3,850 WELL registered or certified projects in 58 countries.
WELL is gaining traction as more companies and organizations seek ways to improve productivity while reducing stress. “Our early adopters have become leaders within their communities, helping bring best practices in building design to their clients and partners,” says Rick Fedrizzi, chairman and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which administers WELL. “Their leadership is marked by their ability to recognize the opportunity we have to make a difference—for healthier people, a more resilient planet, and stronger economies.”
Milliken & Company, a global industrial manufacturer, is a keystone member of IWBI and a participant in the WELL portfolio program. “By creating healthier spaces where people can thrive, we clear the path to sparking innovation and building a sustainable world,” says President and CEO Halsey Cook. “Ensuring wellness in the workplace supports our commitment to integrity—not only in what we do but in how we do it.”
WELL focuses on 11 concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, innovation, mind, and community.We’ll explore three.
A third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, and electric light might be a culprit. It disrupts our natural circadian rhythm, as it’s too dim for daylight and too bright for night. Sleep deprivation increases risk of health problems including impaired memory and concentration, stroke, heart disease, and mood swings.
“We’re living in a constant state of twilight,” says Kay Sargent, director of the WorkPlace practice at architectural firm HOK. She points to circadian lighting as an innovative and effective solution. It’s designed to mimic the daily color temperature cycle of natural daylight to make us more awake in the daytime and allow us to wind down in the evening. “There absolutely is a science to it,” she says.
The architectural firm Arup put circadian lighting to the test in their WELL Certified Gold Boston office. The color of light inside changes based on the time of day and also the time of year. In the morning, the light has a warmer glow that slowly transitions to a cooler light temperature until the afternoon, when it begins transitioning back to a warm color.
The impact can be felt immediately. When the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) created a similar system in their WELL Certified Platinum Washington, D.C. office, they found that 25 percent of employees attributed better sleep quality to circadian lighting.
Natural daylight is still the truest form of circadian light, so designers strive to enhance it whenever possible. Mirvac’s WELL Certified Gold headquarters in Sydney, Australia, has beautiful wooden shades that automatically adjust with the sun’s position in the sky. When there’s a glare reflecting off Sydney Harbor, the shades move to block it while allowing a golden glow to filter inside.
Milliken’s WELL Certified Platinum Chicago showroom has semi-transparent blinds that block glare without reducing natural light, and workstations are placed near the windows to maximize daylight and views of the Chicago River. The space also has a circadian lighting system, and each employee has their own task lamp that can be adjusted for brightness and color temperature for a personalized touch.
Loud spaces tend to impact concentration and productivity, but long-term exposure to even low-level background noise can raise stress hormone levels, leading to health problems such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and tension headaches.
“Acoustics is one of the most challenging parameters that go into creating a healthy workspace,” says Jessica Cooper, chief commercial officer at IWBI. Aside from the considerable amount of noise that people generate, designers have to contend with noise coming from outside—construction work or traffic, for instance—and from the building’s mechanical systems.
Sargent says that while noise is a problem, too much quiet can also be an issue. “With quieter keyboards, more texting, and fewer people communicating via phone, there is no background noise, or hum, that muffles general office sounds,” she says. That can make communication just as uncomfortable. Ideally, one shouldn’t have to shout or whisper.
Designers might explore creating distinct quiet spaces and collaborative spaces, installing phone booths where people can have private conversations, using white noise machines to provide an underlying hum, and integrating sound-absorbent materials. “Carpet is a great way to help absorb the general noise of the space,” says Sargent.
Padmakumar Puthillath, a senior research engineer at Milliken, says that flooring is often overlooked as a solution to noise problems. “Flooring can influence acoustics in two different ways,” he says. “You can quiet the noise and reduce the transfer of noise.” In other words, carpet can act like a sponge for ambient sound, and it can also prevent movement across the floor from creating excessive noise. In spaces with multiple floors, carpet also helps prevent the transmission of noise to the room below.
But not all carpet is equal. Milliken has developed an open-cell cushion backing made with high-density polyurethane foam. Product tests show that their cushion-backed carpet absorbs up to 60 percent more ambient noise than hardback carpet. It also allows for 25 percent less noise generated by movement than hardback carpet, and 90 percent less than hard surfaces.
Puthillath explains that Milliken engineers the cushioned carpet for ideal decibel levels that allow employees to have “intelligent conversation” without straining their voices or distracting others.
Mental and emotional health is essential to employees’ wellbeing. Depression and anxiety are on the rise, and neurodiversity is also a growing consideration.
Biophilic design—that is, design that connects people with nature—is an innovative way to reduce stress and enhance creativity, clarity of thought, and happiness.
“What we focus on is not just putting plants into a space, but designing a space with nature in mind,” says Sargent. “To balance today’s high-tech world, designers are introducing biophilic elements that evoke a feeling of nature and are calming, refreshing, and relaxing. Biophilic design strategies can improve well-being and expedite healing for all.”
Sometimes that means connecting people to the outdoors. At the Cookfox WELL Certified Gold design studio in New York, outdoor terraces were transformed into sanctuaries. One contains garden beds, hydroponic towers, and beehives. Another features an outdoor conference room. The adjacent “harvest kitchen” provides a social gathering space.
When beekeeping at work isn’t an option, designers bring elements of nature indoors. “One of the best examples I’ve seen is within the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh,” says Cooper. The WELL Certified Platinum building complements its native landscapes, lagoon, and atrium with a sound installation that brings the natural world inside. Composed by a local artist, the nature sounds change depending on the weather, time of year, and time of day.
CBRE’s WELL Certified Gold office in Madrid was inspired by a cabin in the woods and includes a green wall, furniture crafted in fluid shapes, and grass-like carpeting. Since implementing these changes, the company has seen a significant increase in overall health and wellness awareness, and employees say they feel more creative.
At the JLL WELL Certified Platinum headquarters in Shanghai, polished wood furniture evokes the peaceful feeling of walking in a forest. Milliken’s cartography-inspired carpet patterns contribute to the topography, creating an aesthetic balance and separating spaces. The office centerpiece is a fish tank with 360 degree views, where the smart design makes the fish appear to fly freely in the air.
At Milliken’s WELL Certified Platinum Chicago showroom, nature-inspired carpet patterns represent a woodland forest or meandering stream. The space is anchored by furniture with organic shapes and natural materials such as tables made of reclaimed tree stumps. For a breath of fresh air, employees can take a stroll along the Riverwalk or head up to the rooftop garden to watch the boats go by.
WELL collects case studies like these in a common repository for others to draw from. “Because we work with projects all around the globe, we can learn from innovative ideas and reflect those in future versions of the standard,” says Cooper.
As WELL expands globally, it has the potential to reach beyond office workspaces to transform schools, hospitals, manufacturing floors, and more into healthier spaces. “We are no longer simply designing the environment,” says Sargent. “We are designing the experience.”