16th July 2018

The green building evolution: From environment to wellbeing



“In recent years there have been enormous advances in understanding how the design, construction and operation of buildings impact human health and wellbeing. Furthermore, an array of guides and standards have been developed to help corporate occupiers and real estate investors implement measures to optimise health and wellbeing outcomes in their buildings.

This article highlights how technical measures to achieve a lower carbon and more sustainable building will often also improve wellbeing and productivity for building users. If valued and communicated correctly this will greatly enhance the business case.

The key message of this article is that addressing health and wellbeing in buildings will enhance any organisation’s sustainability programme (or EHS or ESG programme or green energy strategy) by making it more engaging, improving business cases and addressing social as well as environmental issues. It serves as an introductory guide to anyone in sustainability, energy, real estate or HR on the guidance and tools available to help you”.

– David Short | Lawyer & Consultant in Clean Energy and Sustainability

The International WELL Building Institute released a new version of its WELL Building Standard on May 31, 2018. This article reviews the history of how “green” buildings have evolved leading up to the WELL Standard v2. Toward the end of the article, we briefly comment on the changes from v1 to v2 and share where you can find more information on the most recent version.

Lastly, this article features insights throughout from one of our Acre Bench experts, Chris Davidson, who is a Sustainable Buildings Consultant.

“After nearly 20 years in the Green Energy space I have become increasingly convinced that well designed and constructed green buildings just feel better. From homes to commercial buildings and from ground source heat pumps to solar photovoltaic panels the use of low and zero carbon technologies promote a sense of wellbeing that on the face of it seems baffling, but which we hope to show can be demonstrated and quantified. These surprising benefits add significantly to the traditional “payback” model for green investments based on fuel cost savings and grants alone. They can help to sell and let buildings more effectively, can attract and retain the best talent and can maximise productivity and wellbeing overall”.



“During their construction, occupancy, renovation, repurposing, and demolition, buildings use energy, water, and raw materials, general waste, and emit potentially harmful atmospheric emissions. These have prompted the creation of green building standards, certifications, and rating systems aimed at mitigating the impact of buildings on the natural environment through sustainable design”.

– Stephanie Vierra, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Lets Review

Highlights of the Green Building Movement in the UK

  • 1980s: Green product standards begin to appear in the marketplace.
  • 1990:  Creation of Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), the first green building rating system in the U.K.
  • 2000:   U.S. Green Building Council released the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for new construction, which ultimately grew in its application to existing buildings and entire neighbourhoods as well.
  • 2003:  The Merton Rule was developed requiring new developments (all types of buildings, not just homes) to generate at least 10% of energy needs from on-site renewable energy equipment to reduce annual CO2 emissions. Merton Council adopted it in 2003 followed by the Mayor of London and various other councils so that it became part of national planning guidance.
  • 2005:  Launch of the Renewable Heat Incentive a flagship government policy to deliver on the EU Renewable Energy Directive. The multi-billion-pound policy incentivises the production of renewable heat and pays by kilowatt hour produced. Eligible technologies include biomass, solar thermal, deep and shallow geothermal and heat pumps.
  • 2009:  BSRIA launches the Soft Landings program. Its purpose is to provide the structure for project teams to stay engaged after practical completion, hand-holding the client during the first months of operation to fine-tune and de-bug systems and ensure the occupiers understand how to control and best use their new work environment. The Soft Landings process is designed to extend up to three years post-completion.

In the 21st century, green product standards and certifications continued to grow as evidence-based concern over global warming and resource depletion accumulated so that a broader scope of environmental issues came into focus.

Green Building Standards and Certification Systems

► REGULATORY BUILDING STANDARDS – Are statutory instruments which underpin and codify construction outcomes or real estate practices.  For example, Part L of the Building Regulations sets out assessment methods and minimum requirements for the modelled energy and carbon performance of buildings on new construction and major refurbishments. Energy Performance Certificates require a similar modelling and disclosure for existing buildings when they are sold or let.  However, significant improvements have been hampered in recent years by political softening in the face of the global economic downturn.

► GREEN BUILDING RATING & CERTIFICATION SYSTEMS – Beyond regulation from government, several voluntary market-led frameworks for green building design and construction have been developed across the world. Notable UK examples include BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), first published by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in 1990, which is the world’s longest established method of assessing, rating, and certifying the sustainability of buildings, and more recently SKA rating, an environmental assessment tool for sustainable fit-outs managed by the RICS.

► GREEN PRODUCT CERTIFICATIONS – Government sponsored programmes such as the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) seek to ensure both products and installers are fit for purpose and deliver on performance claims. “It is estimated that there are nearly 600 green product certifications in the world”. (BuildingGreen)



Building design and technologies have human impacts as well as environmental impacts. Humans spend 90% of their time indoors. In recent years, dramatic advances have been made in defining the range of issues that can be addressed through building design, construction and operation to positively impact human health, wellbeing and productivity. For example, the WELL Building Standard™ Version 1, released in October 2014, identifies 100 performance metrics, design strategies, and policies under the following 7 headings. As discussed in the foreward, toward the end of the article we explore how this version below has evolved into a new version released in May 2018.


Promotes clean air and reduces or minimizes the sources of indoor air pollution through monitoring, ventilation, filtration, material selection, moisture control, cleaning, construction processes and maintenance.


Promotes hydration and safe, clean water through the implementation of proper filtration techniques and regular testing in order for building occupants to receive optimal quality of water for various uses.


Requires the availability of fresh, wholesome foods, limits unhealthy ingredients and encourages better eating habits and food culture.


Addresses building design to promote daylighting and promotes lighting design, shading and glare control strategies that will minimize disruption to the body’s circadian system, enhance productivity, support good sleep quality and provide appropriate visual acuity. .through buildings design and electrical light design.


Promotes the integration of physical activity into everyday life by providing the opportunities and support for an active lifestyle and discouraging sedentary behaviours.


Establishes requirements with regard to building design, HVAC, furniture, acoustics and smells designed to create distraction-free, productive and comfortable indoor environments.

Mental Health

Optimizes cognitive and emotional health through design, technology and treatment strategies in buildings, covering topics such as connection to nature, adaptable spaces, aesthetics, stakeholder engagement, altruism and transparency.

“Staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically account for 90% of a business’ operating costs. It follows that the productivity of staff, or anything that impacts their ability to be productive, should be a major concern for any organisation”. (UKGBC)



“Many organisations are sitting on a treasure trove of information that, with a little sifting, could yield important immediate improvement strategies for their two biggest expenses – people and places, and the relationship between the two.” WGBC


Getting a measure of how the features of building design and operation are impacting the health, wellbeing and productivity of staff is no simple task, let alone understanding the interplay with business profitability. Luckily, many world-leading organisations have been working on this for some time and plenty of information is available to help you build a framework and improve your business cases.

For example, the International Well Building Institute, the organisation behind the Well Building StandardTM, has a wealth of information on what to measure and business impact.

The World Green Building Council developed a useful framework for office owners and occupiers to engage with this agenda through measurement under 3 categories:

Environment: Direct measurement of the physical environment, such as temperature, pollutant levels, lux levels or noise levels, plus indirect measures such as evaluation of views outside. Developments in sensors, IoT and wearable technologies mean some of these can be measured in real time.

Experience: Occupant perception of comfort, psychological health and organisational culture as measured by staff perception surveys or building user surveys.

Economics: Measures like staff absenteeism, turnover/retention, revenue and physical complaints (e.g. hot/cold calls).


If organisations systematically collect relevant collateral data it can be translated into meaningful strategies that drive business profitability with a happy, healthy and productive workforce. This, in turn, can may be used in a quantitative or qualitative way when making the business case for green technologies. The biggest financial returns are likely to come from employees in the form of:

  • Improved staff attraction/retention
  • Reduced absenteeism/ presenteeism
  • Improved staff performance




Adopting a real estate strategy that focuses on health, wellbeing and productivity will improve an organisation’s profitability. However, the biggest challenge is that it will involve an integrated approach between a range of functions in the organisation that may not have collaborated in the past. Also, it may be difficult to find one function to take the lead to kick-start the process.


An integrated approach between the following teams will be necessary to effectively implement health, wellbeing and productivity improvements, as well as to track the necessary data:

Real Estate | Facilities Management | Human Resources | Finance Dept | Sustainability/CSR |EHS

A good catalyst for many organisations is to bring in an outside consultant to run a half-day workshop for the above teams to raise awareness of the issues and the business benefits and to kick-start collaboration and action-planning.


  • Comfort in the Work Environment – A comfortable and distraction-free environment can improve productivity in the workplace. Being too hot or too cold, inadequate lighting and noise from space conditioning systems will all impair the ability of employees to focus and reduce productive work hours. Conversely, a comfortable workspace that is genuinely a nice place to be will lead to employees who want to be at work, and who achieve more whilst they are there.
  • Low & slow, the natural way – Because the best green energy systems work with the natural environment, they tend to operate at low temperatures and in a slow manner, heating and cooling the entire space evenly. This result is a more controllable environment that simply feels better.
  • A cool place to work and an organisation to be proud of – The brightest and the best care about the environment. By having tangible corporate environmental objectives and investing in visible green building assets, employers can attract and retain the best talent. An engaging and comfortable work environment helps retain staff, and staff retention is by far the most economic form of recruitment.



We now have building design and operation frameworks that focus solely on human health and wellbeing such as:

building design and operation frameworks

  • WELL Building Standard Version 1: The longest established, holistic and complex framework. It contains 100 features to optimise human health and wellbeing in the built environment through design, operation and behaviours. They fall under 7 categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Certification involves significant on-site testing and validation every three years, making it robust but relatively expensive. The framework is available online and can be used as a guide for free. 

*There is now a second version as of May 2018 you can learn more about here: https://www.wellcertified.com/en/version/well-v2. IWBI explains how the rating system has changed:

  • “A new feature set with fewer preconditions and weighted optimizations.
  • A consolidation of multiple pilots into oneWELL, and improvements to the “All Projects In” approach introduced last year.
  • New pathwaysto achieve intents, with a laser focus on feasibility for existing buildings and commercial interiors.
  • An optional early phase review for projects wishing to earn a WELL D&O designation that affirms and celebrates progress toward WELL Certification.
  • A new approach to performance verification allowing projects to contract local providers.
  • A commitment to equity through market- andsector-specific pricing, a focus on localization and the introduction of a dynamic scorecard.
  • A comprehensive and significant adjustment to pricing, including a new subscription option”.
  • FITWEL: A credits-based system for assessing the level to which a building supports the overall health and wellbeing of its users. Like WELL, it covers a broad range of wellbeing topics. It’s less prescriptive, more straightforward and cheaper to achieve. It does not include third party validation and is less robust. Its online portal serves as a one stop shop for guidance materials, pre-assessment, assessment and verification.
  • RESET: Whereas WELL and Fitwel originate from the US, RESET started in China and has been launched internationally. It’s a modular system that currently focuses just on indoor air quality (with other modules such as ‘comfort’ under development). It’s entirely results-based (as opposed to prescribing design or operation features) through continuous air quality monitoring of parameters such as temperature, CO2, VOCs and particulates. It standardises and validates quality of sensors, their positioning and calibration, performance evaluation and reporting to occupiers. Compared to the other systems, it’s a narrow but robust focus and more technical.


– Q&A –

  1. Who is currently utilising these standards?

All three systems are relatively new and you can see the (relatively small but rapidly growing) numbers of certified buildings on their respective websites. The health and wellbeing in buildings movement has been led by tech giants such as Google, whose staff are their most valuable, expensive and productive asset.

  1. Which one should I use?

This will depend on what your organisation does and its objectives. Elements of all three systems can be relevant to property investors, corporate occupiers and facilities managers. A good adviser will be able to guide you to which system (or which elements of one or more of the systems) will help you achieve your objectives, be they attracting and retaining talent, improving productivity or impressing your clients.

  1. How do I get started?

The starting point will almost never be choosing a system and getting certification.  Instead, use the frameworks and guidance to gather relevant data, start collaboration between HR, CFO and Estates/Facilities Management, implement management changes, consider capex measures in the context of refurbishment or office move plans. The Bitesize Briefings on this topic developed by the UKGBC are a great place to begin.



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With over 20 years of experience of designing low and zero carbon building energy systems, Chris is regarded as a leading thinker and influencer internationally. Having completed designs for over 200MW of installed renewable energy systems in North America, Europe and the Far East his depth and breadth of knowledge is unsurpassed in the field. His pioneering designs in thermally active building foundations are a key part of the CrossRail development and his current work is making a real difference to the fuel poor in the Social Housing Sector.