Biophilia and the WELL Building Standard®


Biophilia and the WELL Building Standard®

Learn more about our biophilic design work and services by emailing us at [email protected] and reading our reports, 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design and The Economics of Biophilia. Follow the conversation on twitter: @TerrapinBG | #14Patterns.

I recently had the pleasure and privilege to participate in an item writing intensive for the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL Building Standard® beta WELL AP® exam. For two and a half days, 20 subject matter experts from around the US and Canada huddled amongst stacks of papers describing the WELL Building Standard Concepts and Features. I had the great fortune to work alongside Dr. Whitney Austin Gray, Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Delos®, Dr. Eve Edelstein, President of Innovative Design Science and longtime Fellow of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, Dr. Angela Loder, Director of Greening the City, and many others, crafting questions to challenge the next generation of aspiring health and design professionals.

WELL-biophilic desk

My desk at Terrapin.

For anyone who hasn’t had the chance to read through the 157 page standard, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not prepared to take on another standard, WELL offers designers insight to health topics – those we don’t typically address in our designs, but should. For health professionals, WELL helps identify design opportunities that address familiar and chronic health challenges often caused or exacerbated by our built environment.

The seven categories or Concepts of wellness addressed in the WELL Building Standard are Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort and Mind. WELL gives an introduction to the science on each of these concepts, and draws direct connections to the Mind and Body Systems impacted by each wellness Feature.

Biophilia is but one of many Features addressed through the WELL Building Standard. Nestled in the “Mind” concept, WELL approaches biophilia much the same way as the Living Building Challenge, but with more definitive metrics. The benefit to this correlation is twofold; designers are working within a familiar framework or language and there is opportunity to assemble a collection of comparable projects to assess and learn from – a chance to understand what aspects or strategies work best and why.

WELL Features for Biophilia

The WELL Building Standard has two features for biophilia, Feature 89 Biophilia I – Qualitative and Feature 100 Biophilia II – Quantitative. Feature 89 Biophilia I – Qualitative is a Precondition (i.e., a requirement for WELL certification) that looks at the qualitative experience of a design feature. It asks design teams to develop a biophilia plan that supports the thoughtful incorporation of environmental elements, lighting and space planning at each design stage of the project.

WELL Features that parallel patterns of biophilic design. Read more about the science behind each of these patterns in Terrapin’s publication 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design (2014).

This idea of a user experience narrative or plan is something Terrapin has been encouraging designers to do before they are too heavily ensconced in a concept design. It is essentially a tool for cross-checking progress with intended health outcomes and user experience. A narrative or design plan that is initiated early in the design process is also more likely to result in biophilic strategies that are integral to the overarching architectural design, possibly even multifunctional and, most importantly, not value engineered out later in the design process.

Feature 100 Biophilia II – Quantitative is an Optimization (i.e., a recommended option for WELL certification) that prescribes a visual and physical connection with outdoor nature, with a component of refuge. Indoor biophilia not surprisingly focuses on a visual connection with nature, but while the focus of this optimization is on quantity, designers will want to corroborate their design strategy with Feature 89 Biophilia I – Qualitative to ensure the experience of the design meets the intended outcome.

Design optimization through the application of the water feature metric is only applicable to larger projects (100K+ SF), offering no equivalent metric for smaller projects. This is a missed opportunity for smaller projects and the people who will occupy them; then again, understanding the health benefits of the presence of water, the lack of a WELL Optimization credit should not dissuade a project from incorporating a water feature.

WELL Parallels with the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design

As biophilia is but one piece of the wellness puzzle, the WELL Building Standard doesn’t elaborate on the intricacies and relationships between biophilia and other Features, but the relationships are there, it’s not all too difficult to identify them. Terrapin’s publication 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design is a tool that can be used to help develop your ‘biophilia plan’ and articulate those relationships between nature, human biology and the design of the built environment so that we may experience the benefits of biophilia in our design applications. Table 1 indicates direct (in bold) and indirect parallels between WELL features and the 14 patterns [P] of biophilic design.

EMLux melanopic ratios

WELL provides this example: If incandescent lights provide 200 lux in a space, they will also produce 108 equivalent melanopic lux (incandescent light lux x melanopic ratio = 200 x 0.54 = 108 EML). If daylight is modeled to provide the same visual brightness (200 lux), it will also provide 220 equivalent melanopic lux (200 x 1.10 = 220 EML). See the WELL reference Tables L1 and L2 for more on melanopic ratios for different light sources and how to calculate EML (WELL v1.0, p190-192).

Reading through the 102 features of WELL, I came across parallels with nearly all of the 14 patterns of biophilic design, some of them more obvious or direct than others, but nonetheless worth noting. For instance, Feature 54 Circadian Light Design directly relates to pattern [P6] Dynamic & Diffuse Light, which elaborates on the science behind the health and comfort benefits of quality light, including diurnal light cycles. Other features and preconditions in the Light concept for WELL will be familiar to designers who’ve applied the LEED® rating system, but what’s transformative about Feature 54 is its focus on melanopic light intensity, with a proposed alternate metric, Equivalent Menalopic Lux (EML), as a measurement of the effects of light on the circadian cycle.

In essence, Feature 54 Circadian Light Design gets at the heart of our biological connection with nature and the positive effects adequate access to quality light can have on our wellbeing. Research continues to inform what it means to design for quality daylight. Lighting manufacturers are challenged with developing effective circadian lighting technology, and the US General Services Administration (the nation’s largest public real estate organization) is conducting research to determine whether daylight can be “a health benefit related to its importance in stimulating circadian processes”. See the photo caption for more on this study; see Healthcare Design magazine for the sidebar by ZGF Architects on “4 ways to integrate circadian lighting strategies“.

Federal Center South, Building 1202, Seattle, WA

Optimizing the Daylight Ecosystems in GSA’s Buildings. According to Dr. Mariana Figuerio and Dr. Mark Rea of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in a recent presentation to the GSA Green Building Advisory Committee, circadian disruption can lead to “poor sleep, higher stress, increased anxiety and depression, increased smoking, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast cancer.” In their sampling of GSA buildings, building orientation, desk space location and floor height each influenced the amount of circadian stimulation received by the building occupants. In the same presentation, Judith Heerwagen highlighted that as part of the building’s “ecosystem”, daylighting is “affected by technology, interior design, organizational culture and behavior”. She highlighted that the daylight mapping of buildings could better inform space planning. Photo of Federal Center South, Building 1202, Seattle, WA © Benjamin Benschneider

Feature 82 Individual Thermal Control incorporates Optimizations for ‘free address’ and personal thermal comfort devices, which directly aligns with qualities of [P4] Thermal & Airflow Variability. Both the WELL feature and the biophilic pattern support the idea that people benefit from having access to variable thermal conditions based on personal preference or activity.

Feature 99 Beauty and Design II does not make reference to nature patterns, but the application of this feature could be enhanced if devised through a biophilic lens, specifically using patterns [P1] Visual Connection with Nature, [P10] Complexity & Order, [P11] Prospect, [P12] Refuge, and [P13] Mystery.

What aspects of biophilia are not addressed in WELL?

Feature 77 Olfactory Comfort focuses on eliminating unpleasant or distracting odors, but does not address the benefits of naturally occurring olfactory stimuli, such as from flowers, herbs and plant oils. But perhaps the multisensory experience stressed in [P2] Non-Visual Connection with Nature is better suited to parallel with Feature 88 Biophilia I or Feature 89 Adaptable Spaces. Feature 89 has an optimization that focuses on Stimuli Management to mitigate auditory and visual distractions, but doesn’t address stimuli that is beneficial to visual comfort and concentration, such as addressed in [P3] Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli and [P6] Dynamic & Diffuse Light.

What can we learn from these parallels?

I am excited to see how the WELL Building Standard is adopted. I think it has the potential for making a very positive impact, refining what it means to build green and healthful spaces. In doing so, I also believe that biophilic design can and should play a larger role in health and wellness design. While the two WELL Features for biophilia do introduce the conversation to a wider audience, as designers, we shouldn’t restrict our incorporation of biophilic design to those two Features alone.

WELL institutes qualitative and quantitative metrics that could also be utilized more widely than the standard is applied, which may be valuable in broadening the pool of comparable design strategies and associated health outcomes. For projects not pursuing WELL certification, there is still an opportunity to benefit from the WELL Building Standard with respect to biophilic design. I encourage owners to consider which health outcomes are most important for the success of your project. I also challenge designers to write user experience narratives (or biophilia plans), and to use the WELL metrics such as EML and others that correspond with the biophilic patterns you’re applying to your designs. Consider how the metrics enable or hinder design progress. Then share your experiences so the rest of us may learn and improve upon it.

If you’re new to biophilia, check out the new one-hour course “Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Wellbeing in the Built Environment” provided the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) in collaboration with Terrapin Bright Green. The course gives an introduction to the science and design application, but our understanding of the science of biophilic design is always evolving. Ultimately, my hope is that from the implementation of biophilic design through programs and standards, such as WELL, LEED, and the Living Building Challenge, emerges a growing set of projects with comparable post occupancy performance and health outcomes data that continuously push forward health and wellness design thinking.

The original post (July 22, 2015) has been updated by the author (Feb 16, 2017).

Catie is the Director of Projects at Terrapin and a leader in biophilic design movement. With a background in urban green infrastructure, Catie's interest lies in systems thinking to address human health and sustainability challenges at each scale of the built environment.