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Product, Service & Design Innovation
5 Key Trends at the Intersection of Health, Wellbeing and Design

Here, Shaw Industries’ VP of Global Sustainability, Kellie Ballew; and Rachel Hodgdon, CEO of the International WELL Building Institute, discuss game-changing trends in building design — all centered around a new focus on human health and wellbeing.

Shaw Industriessustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program recognizes a diverse slate of organizations that are working on innovative projects and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet. The nine organizations selected in 2021 displayed tremendous effort and progress amid unprecedented challenges — challenges that continue amidst the ongoing battles with COVID-19 and other social and environmental issues.

One of those organizations is the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) — a public benefit corporation and the world’s leading organization focused on deploying people-first places to advance a global culture of health. Since its founding more than a decade ago, IWBI has continually expanded efforts to mobilize its community through the building ratings and professional credentials, applicable research, the development of educational resources, and advocacy for policies that promote health and wellbeing everywhere.

Shaw VP of Global Sustainability Kellie Ballew and IWBI CEO Rachel Hodgdon recently discussed key trends at the intersection of health, wellbeing and design.

KB: The events of the past 24 months have made a lasting impact on all of us. I know none of us has a crystal ball; but given the breadth of IWBI’s work, what do you predict for the future?

RH: At IWBI, we’re seeing five leading trends at the intersection of health, wellbeing and design.

  • Design is taking center stage when it comes to enhancing ESG performance.

  • Design fosters health equity — leveling the playing field.

  • Real-time data can bridge the confidence gap for getting back to business

  • Design drives retention and can help companies dodge the Great Resignation.

  • There’s growing demand for our homes to provide metaphorical shelter from the storm.

Each is a sign of momentum and transformation and is worth paying attention to — given the impact we predict they'll have.

KB: I’d love to dive into each of these topics — starting with the role design can play in enhancing ESG performance. In a recent Greenbuild Connect + Learn that Shaw hosted, you shared that the ESG paradigm is evolving. Could you talk more about what IWBI is seeing in that regard?

RH: Investors are increasingly applying non-financial factors — namely Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors — to their analysis of material risks and growth opportunities in companies that they're considering for investment.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it's that health is material to a company's bottom line — and the design of our places and spaces is taking center stage. As companies look to futureproof their buildings and interior spaces, health and wellbeing are central to the way that they're thinking about their workforce.

Where we sit and who we sit next to are the single most important determinants of our state of health — more than access to healthcare, lifestyle choices and genetics, combined. Yet, indicators of health and wellbeing are routinely underreported by companies and almost always undervalued by investors and shareholders.

That's a missed opportunity, because the health and wellbeing of a company's employees significantly affects its bottom line. Ninety percent of an organization's operational costs are in its people; and 100 percent of its profits are dependent on their productivity. Protecting worker health and ensuring employee resilience are key to any organization's success. And, because where we sit and who we sit next to is what matters most, design — both physical and organizational design — play a critical role in driving that success.

Today, companies are being put under the microscope like never before, regarding public health issues and the way they treat their employees. In the world of investors, the latter is what's referred to as human and social capital management. And the pandemic has demonstrated on a large scale the importance of other aspects of human and social capital management that are paramount to investors — including disaster preparedness, community planning, continuity planning, and employee treatment through benefits such as paid sick leave and the ability to work from home.

Leading-edge companies aren't waiting for regulatory bodies or indices to mandate, or even incentivize, this shift. We've seen their human and social capital commitments show up in their CSR, sustainability and ESG reports. Rather than just saying people are their greatest asset, they're acting on it and embracing the fundamental truth that high-performing businesses require high-performing people. And high-performing people require spaces in which they can thrive.

KB: We know from our own experience that conversations around making design decisions based upon health & wellbeing can be difficult, especially for those who want to see a number like a carbon footprint value. What’s on the horizon to make those impacts more tangible?

RH: We're seeing this massive shift to real-time data visualization, like we've seen with energy and water management — but this time with an eye toward human health. This trend is driven by both the demands of the people in the buildings, the tenants — employees, visitors; and those contemplating whether they'll sign a lease, accept a job offer; or go inside to shop, dine or catch a show. These people want to know one thing: Am I safe?

Organizations must bridge the confidence gap in bringing people back inside. One of the best ways to do that is to deploy sensor networks to monitor air quality and other aspects of indoor air quality (IAQ), and visualize that data to occupants in a way that is meaningful and understandable. Integrating networks of permanently installed sensors and visualizing ongoing performance data to occupants throughout the building is a significant design challenge. That’s a lot of new knowledge for building managers, architects and design professionals to incorporate. There's also not a lot of consensus around best practices for installation relating to factors like density, positioning, and calibration and maintenance.

The WELL Performance Rating — which will launch in Q1 of this year — will support the industry in establishing best practices for continuous monitoring, performance requirements for sensors; and leadership thresholds related to air quality, water, quality, thermal comfort, acoustics, lighting and occupant experience. Whether or not you're seeking the rating, aspects of the criteria will become industry benchmarks.

We hope the performance rating will help us unlock and accelerate the use of smarter, more integrated approaches to improve health and wellbeing; and support the industry in applying both quantitative and qualitative data to track, monitor, and improve the performance of both the buildings and the people inside.

KB: Obviously, that’s the right thing to do for people and the planet, but there’s clear business value in that, as well.

RH: Exactly. Invest in people for return on investment. Human and social capital management — how we treat our people — is the difference between losing to the Great Resignation or winning the Great Retention.

A recent study compared the appreciation of 45 companies who received high scores in a health and wellness assessment against the S&P 500 over a period of six years. While the average company in the study appreciated 159 percent, the companies with strong health and wellbeing performance appreciated 235 percent.

As the pandemic drags on, employers are seeing record levels of stress, anxiety, depression, burnout and acute mental health issues. Stresses on the workforce ultimately accrue to stresses on the business. And these strains have amounted to landmark levels of turnover — [aka] the Great Resignation. If organizations want to dodge the Great Resignation, they've got to intentionally implement workforce strategies and solutions that encourage post-traumatic growth.

KB: We’re seeing that increased focus on occupant health among our customers, as well — across a broad spectrum of property types from commercial office to affordable housing. The pandemic laid bare the fragility of our economies and the inequities and disparities within our societies. A common sentiment I’ve heard at virtual conferences is that it shouldn’t only be “healthy for the wealthy.” How can design foster health equity?

RH: Without a doubt, the pandemic has shed light on stark, deep-seated and pervasive inequities that exacerbate the spread of the virus and drive divisiveness. And once again, summoning the wisdom of the social determinants of health, we know that design and the way it shapes the places and spaces where we live our lives — and how we interact with one another — can be a powerful force for advancing health equity. Design has the power to welcome people in or push people away. Design can make people feel valued and included, or unseen and invisible. Our choices, both subtle and overt, matter.

Through our work with the IWBI Equity Advisory, we want to provide an evidence-based roadmap for what actually works when it comes to advancing health equity, because access to safe and navigable places and just and inclusive workspaces should be the right of all and not the privilege of a few.

KB: We’ve talked a lot about impacts on our work environments, but what about at home?

RH: As remote and hybrid workplace practices become the new normal, we’ve seen new demands for our homes to provide metaphorical shelter from the storm. Even before the pandemic, we spent 90 percent of our time indoors and more than half of that in our homes.

We've come to realize just how much we rely on our homes to keep us healthy, safe, productive, connected and happy. The definition of a healthy home has shifted. The notion of a healthy home used to be much more limited: preventing danger by improving sanitation, avoiding toxins like lead and rayon or asbestos, and maybe the basics like operable windows or water filters. Those things still matter; but today, given how much time we're spending in our homes and given the airborne virus that has so profoundly impacted our lives, the typical consumer has become massively more aware of the linkage between the air they breathe and their health.

For those of us working from home, we have new needs and design demands — ergonomic workstations to avoid muscular injuries, improved lighting conditions, audio equipment, and other acoustical solutions for those of us who share our space with partners, roommates or children. All of this is to say that residential design, like commercial design, is undergoing equally profound shifts toward health and wellbeing driven by the pandemic and a host of other factors. In recognition, IWBI will launch a new offering for single-family homes this year.

KB: So, what does all this mean for the future of the places and spaces where we spend so much of our time?

RH: Architects, interior designers, manufacturers and real estate professionals play a key role in healing that which ails us — from pandemic recovery to climate change to systemic racism.

The opportunities to reset and reimagine the places and spaces where we spend our lives to use our talents and imagination, our training, and passion for design to embolden our visions for a healthier, more equitable world — these things are too precious to forsake.