Is your office harming your health? Consider this: If you’ve ever grabbed vending-machine junk food while rushing between meetings, or gone to work sick because you felt you couldn’t take time off, then your office is playing a role in your overall well-being. Now, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) wants to help buildings take better care of their occupants — and UW Medicine’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is helping inform the effort.
At IWBI, making buildings better for people involves implementing the WELL Building Standard. That’s their certification system for buildings, interior spaces and communities that want to implement, validate and measure features that value human health and wellness.
“In the WELL Building Standard, the word “building” is as much a verb as it is a noun,” says Nathan Stodola, IWBI chief engineer of standard development.
In the standard, 10 wellness concepts — air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community — are broken down into features that enhance the built environment. For example, stocking a cafeteria with healthier snacks improves nourishment. Features like public art, gardens or courtyards encourage walking and connecting with nature, which enhance fitness and mental health. Some policy-based concepts, such as offering matching donations for employees’ charitable contributions or providing paid time off for volunteer service, strengthen community.
“We consider everything within the structure to be in our jurisdiction,” says Stodola. “Promotion of parental leave, access to healthcare or restrictions on the food being provided may not be physical things in the building, but they’re still under the purview of the company seeking certification.”
With the second version of the standard, launched in 2018, IWBI hopes to expand their global reach to be more accessible to audiences such as developing countries and nonprofits. IHME’s Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, which draws on the work of more than 3,600 collaborators worldwide to quantify health loss, became a powerful resource in providing support for the new standard.
IWBI linked IHME’s top modifiable risk factors in behavior and environment with WELL features by country. This data allows decision-makers in those countries to prioritize those features if they wish to address modifiable risk factors. The data also links public health language and metrics to building-level interventions. It turns out that risk factors in developed countries tend to be consistent and largely behavioral — things like smoking and lack of physical activity. In developing countries, however, environmental issues like air or water quality may be more pressing.
Seeing GBD health data applied to built environments is new ground for IHME.
“We all take for granted that we’re living and working in environments that are either healthy for us or neutral, yet IWBI has identified all these different ways our environments could be improved to make us healthier,” says William Heisel, the director of global services for IHME client services.
“Given their ambitions, the work they’re doing with IHME data has the potential to make thousands, maybe millions, of people healthier,” Heisel says.