Sustainability Gets A Healthy Check-Up

Sustainability Gets A Healthy Check-Up

Hospital “healing gardens” that double as storm water management systems. Office buildings that are both energy efficient and healthy places to spend time. An “organic tower” built with bricks made from chopped up corn stalks and mushroom byproducts. Edward Gunts looks into the latest developments in “Human Sustainability.”

Two of the most popular concepts in the design world today are “sustainability” and “wellness.” Increasingly, architects and interior designers are combining the two ideas—to get an edge on the competition and create better buildings for their clients. One proponent has dubbed the movement “Human Sustainability.”

Is this new push to integrate wellness into design the next major iteration of sustainability? Does it signal a return to a more low-tech, humanistic approach to green design? Or is it a kind of feel-good green washing, resulting in projects that sound novel but actually have little positive impact on users and the environment?

The answers may come from a series of recent initiatives by organizations seeking to marry the best practices of designing for environmental sustainability and healthy buildings. Around the country, architects, interior designers, developers, builders, and property owners are forming alliances with medical professionals, chemists, researchers, and educators to come up with ways to make buildings both greener and healthier for their clients and occupants. In this new effort, design emphasis is shifting from the exteriors of buildings to the interiors, where people spend most of their time.

“This is the first time major corporations and institutions from multiple sectors have come together to publicly commit to improving human health through green building,” said Dan Geiger, former executive director of the Northern California chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which launched one of the initiatives. This growing movement to make sure that health and wellness are seen as vital components of sustainability and green design, he added, is “a tremendous stimulus for the movement for healthy communities for all.”


“It’s an unmet need” in planning the built environment, said Fernando Arias, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), a Washington-based organization behind one of the initiatives. While sustainability experts have long focused on designs of building exteriors and what works best for the environment, he said, this new breed of designers is focusing on building interiors and what works best for the occupants.

“By taking this human centered approach to design, we’re helping people understand how buildings affect their health,” said Arias. “This will be the Rosetta Stone for a variety of ratings systems and best practices.”

In many cases, collaborators say, the marriage of wellness and sustainability in design means getting health care professionals and scientists to work more closely with building industry professionals to achieve common goals.

“There is a growing recognition in medicine that the built environment has significant health impacts,” said Elizabeth Baca, a West Coast physician who is working with the USGBC to make buildings greener and healthier. “Physicians want to understand the underlying causes of their patients’ conditions. That’s why we ask, ‘Where do you work, live, and play?’ It is imperative that the medical profession and the building industries learn from one another about the health impacts of the built environment.”

One of the first efforts to combine environmental sustainability and wellness design was the Building Health Initiative, launched last year by the Northern California chapter of the USGBC.

The initiative is a two-year program in which leaders from different industries will make pledges in areas where they are positioned to bring about change for a healthier built environment. The pledges include demanding “transparency” in information about building materials, conducting research, promoting health and wellness, providing consultation and education, building toolkits and resources. The initiative has spurred cross-sector working groups focused on revolutionizing procurement strategies and fostering diversity and access to healthy buildings in traditionally underserved communities.


As part of its initiative, the chapter is planning a Building Health Forum on the Mission Bay campus of the University of California San Francisco in December. It is one of a series of educational events spotlighting aspects of healthy building and communities. The goals, organizers say, are to elevate green building as a public health benefit, accelerate the development of clear standards in building materials, and promote the sharing of best practices and collaboration by experts from different fields.

In partnership with 11 other organizations, the ASID in August announced a commitment to develop “Protocols for Health and Wellness in Design.” The commitment, made as part of the Clinton Global Initiative to stimulate the economy and solve pressing problems around the world, involves training 40,000 interior designers and architects throughout the U.S. to use the ASID protocols, create spaces that promote the occupants’ health, and specify healthier products and building materials, as well as following sustainable design principles. The ASID expects to begin testing the protocols by late 2015.

Arias said he believes one outcome of the project may be the creation of a new category of design professional: Individuals who are trained to evaluate designs for how well they produce healthy buildings and spaces. He envisions that this new breed of design professional may come to be trained in the same way that architects now obtain training to design buildings that are environmentally sustainable as certified by the USGBC’s LEED program.

Arias said the focus on human health concerns in design goes back to Vitruvius, adding that part of the problem in the past is not that designers have not been able to obtain information, but that they have not had many good ways to select the best products and practices.

A new LYFE Kitchen restaurant in Tarzana, California is another WELL pilot project.

A third new initiative, called the Building Product Ecosystems Project, is an effort to “optimize the health and transparency of construction product ecosystems through material research and innovation, process improvements, policy/code evolution, and accessible education.”

The project, whose advisors include a group called the Healthy Building Network, was launched this year by one of the largest developers in New York City, the Durst Organization, which joined forces with Parsons The New School for Design and the City University of New York.

Durst is the company behind 4 Times Square and the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. The project has launched a public lecture series at Parsons, organized a series of working groups in which real estate owners and operators discuss healthy product innovation strategies, and is developing a healthy materials curriculum.

Douglas Durst, one of the Durst Organization’s principals, said during the inaugural lecture in September that his company approached the educators because its principals want to create buildings that are both energy efficient and healthy places where people want to work, but they were having difficulty sorting out information about the appropriate materials to use and the best practices to follow.

Over the years, “what we have found is that the experience of being inside a building is just as important as what goes into it and how it operates,” said Durst. “What are the materials made of? What are their true health impacts?” As developers, “we have a right to know this,” he added. “What is the point of building an energy efficient building if no one wants to work in it?”


Another New York–based developer, Delos, pioneered the concept of Wellness Real Estate and has used the term “human sustainability” to describe projects at the intersection of human health and environmental sustainability. It is behind a fourth effort, a certification system developed by the International WELL Building Institute. The Institute is a public benefit corporation whose mission is to “improve human health and well being through the built environment,” according to its website. It administers the WELL Building Standard, a system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the performance of building features that affect human health. Now in the pilot stage, the WELL Building Standard is designed to address areas such as air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind, in concert with green building evaluation programs such as LEED.

Pilot projects that have been WELL certified include the CBRE Group’s global headquarters in Los Angeles, LYFE Kitchen restaurants in Tarzana, California, and Chicago, Illinois, and the proposed William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Related efforts are taking root all over the country. In Wilmington, Massachusetts, the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry has gained widespread attention for its pioneering efforts to help companies create products made with chemicals that are non toxic and environmentally benign.

John Warner, founder of the institute and co-author of the book

In New York, Gavin McIntyre founded a company called Ecovative, which creates healthy, rapidly renewable, compostable materials that can be used in building products and projects. Ecovative has patented a process by which biodegradable building blocks can be made with Mycelium, a byproduct of mushrooms. Applications range from lampshades to plant holders to a Portobello-shaped surfboard. It is also envisioned as a material that could replace Styrofoam.

One designer that used the Mycelium bricks for building is The Living, a New York studio headed by David Benjamin. One of its first completed projects was Hy Fi, a four-story, temporary, open air pavilion that was erected this summer in the courtyard of the MoMA PS I campus in Long Island City, Queens, to provide shade for people coming to hear summer concerts.

In Baltimore, as part of a $1 billion expansion designed by Perkins + Will, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions created healing gardens that double as stormwater retention zones. One of them, called Sara’s Garden, was named after a former patient named Sara Wilhide, who was treated at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center for a congenital heart condition and died in 1989 at the age of 3. The garden was funded by her parents, Steve and Cheryl Wilhide, and inspired by her favorite book, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Designed by OLIN, Sara’s Garden features volcanoes that children can climb on, an interactive sculpture that lights up like the stars, and a baobab tree.

Besides absorbing rainwater, administrators say gardens are a good way to harness the “healing power of nature” in a health care setting. Natural settings, they say, aid in the healing process by providing “a counterbalance to the stresses faced by patients and their families.”

Proponents of initiatives that combine wellness and sustainability say it makes good sense for designers to seek ways to make buildings healthier while they strive to make them greener. They say the movement has the potential to transform the way designers think about buildings and the way people interact with them, in the same way that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked a movement to protect the outdoors.

“It’s helping people thrive in the built environment because their health outcomes are maximized,” said Arias. “That’s what sets this method of thinking apart from what has come before.”