Design for Health: Why Isn’t Healthcare the Leader?

What design movement, currently taking the corporate office sector by storm, is one that many would expect the healthcare industry to own? It is designing for health and wellness. Armed with fitness trackers and nutrition apps, Americans are becoming more aware and motivated to incorporate wellness strategies throughout their daily lives–including in the workplace.

This seems to be in-sync with the healthcare mission to protect and promote health. However, due to the dramatic rise of chronic diseases in lieu of infectious diseases over the last century, healthcare has continued as a sick care system, treating the outcome instead of the cause. This is where the corporate market has stepped in.

The book “Change Your Workplace, Change Your Culture” provides some striking statistics: “Ten percent of the workforce is taking antidepressants; 50-70 percent of primary doctor visits are for stress; 25 percent of the workforce is overweight; 30 percent manage high blood pressure; and, 10 percent have diabetes.” Realizing health’s impact as their highest overhead expense, corporate employers are trending toward solutions to combat preventable conditions, while also aiming to reduce turnover and absenteeism. At the top of the list for employers is a desire to provide workplaces that keep employees happy and healthy, requiring a change in the way the built environment is designed and maintained.

While the U.S. Green Building’s LEED rating system provides a methodology for limiting environmental impacts, relatively new rating systems that are gaining traction address the impact of the indoor environment on building occupants. These rating systems are the frontrunners.

The WELL Building Standard addresses features that impact design and operations of buildings while also influencing human behaviors. The factors assessed include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mind, and innovation. A key feature of this rating system is the rigorous post-occupancy testing required to achieve certification. After implementing WELL at its Los Angeles headquarters, CBRE reported that 83 percent of occupants felt more productive, and 92 percent said the new space created a positive effect on their health and well-being. In our own DFW backyard, the number of WELL-registered projects has jumped from four in April 2016 to 13 today.

Fitwel has a vision for the well-being of both building occupants and surrounding communities. It addresses seven health impact categories: community health, morbidity and absenteesim, social equality for vulnerable populations, feeling of well-being, healthy food options, occupant safety, and increased physical activity. The system features a cost-effective fee structure and a highly rated digital documentation tool. After just 12 weeks of accepting project registrations this year, Fitwel already boasts 159 certified projects and more than 600 registrations.

For Health, created at Harvard University, includes the “9 Foundations of a Healthy Building” as a standardized, holistic approach to understanding how buildings impact the people inside them. Unlike a rating system, the 9 Foundations are scalable guidelines, applicable to any project type. Among these foundations, Harvard has taken a deep look into air quality, including chemicals of concern in building materials. Together with the global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, Google, and additional partners, Harvard is developing the healthy materials tool Portico, which will provide the design industry a library of building materials with vetted information about the substances they contain.

The Healthier Hospital Initiative is a call to action for healthcare organizations to join the shift to a more sustainable business model, and a challenge to address the health and environmental impacts of their sector. Fourteen DFW hospitals have already started the work toward chronic disease solutions. Although most of the HHI challenges do not have the multiple overlaps of WELL, Fitwel, and For Health, there are three that do: the healthy food, safer chemicals, and smarter purchasing challenges.

Much of the evidence-based design implemented recently in healthcare has focused on the patient experience to reduce stress and speed recovery. However, a large opportunity may lie with focusing on the caregivers, whose health is a critical factor in the nursing shortage, and who encounter some of the highest rates of occupational health-related illness. With 10 percent of U.S. workers employed in the healthcare sector, it would seem advantageous for the healthcare industry to join the corporate market sector in pursuit of design for health.

So where to start? Whether formally applying one of these new rating systems, or simply conducting a survey to identify staff stressors, one thing is for certain: the first step will be toward change.

Mary Dickinson is regional sustainability lead designer and co-director of the material performance lab at the Dallas office of global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will and a member of the U.S. Green Building Council North Texas Chapter.

Posted in Expert Opinions.