Wellness Elevating Design Excellence

Centering wellness in the design process can reframe our approach to creating spaces that meet a diversity of occupant needs, including physical, environmental, social, emotional, and spiritual health. In a recent virtual event, we convened clients and collaborators from Atelier Ten, Okta, Inc., the Rodale Institute, and the Center for Active Design to hear their unique perspectives on creating places that support, inspire, and educate.

Allen Kachel, AIA LEED AP, a senior associate in our Wilkes-Barre studio and moderator for the event, noted a renewed conviction to “design the world that we hope for” as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, and to look with fresh eyes at the ways our cities and buildings, public parks and streets can promote and support wellness. While we have witnessed individual and community resilience at the local, national, and international levels in many ways over the past year, the pandemic also revealed a host of issues centered on fatigue and anxiety over personal safety. The past year has taught us that wellness-centered design is more than a luxury — it is a necessity.

Communicating Trust
Joanna Frank, President and CEO of the Center for Active Design, noted that the pandemic laid bare the inequity experienced within our built environment. “All buildings and places are not created equal when it comes to promoting health and wellness,” she said. The Center for Active Design oversees Fitwel certification, which is based on public health research, and in Frank’s words, “looks at not just the box that is your building, and the indoor environment, but how that building impacts the community at large. And how does the location and community impact the building?”

Pages from “The Office guide to Building Health” by the Center for Active Design. Learn more about this resource under “Further Reading” below.

Highlighting the importance of trust in encouraging a return to pre-pandemic behavior, including returning to the office environment and embracing public space, Joanna cited research and insight into creating welcoming environments that support trust, rather than erode it. As Frank noted, “When it comes to feelings of safety and trust, a lot of research shows that signs of a deteriorated public realm or building will really erode trust.”

Re-Knitting Natural and Built Environments
For the environmental design consultancy Atelier Ten, the process of creating spaces that promote wellness begins by asking clients about sustainability goals at the very beginning of the design process. Emilie Hagen, an associate director in Atelier Ten’s San Francisco studio, described the firm’s approach to microclimate design and the opportunities found in transition areas between indoors and out that extend the variety of comfortable spaces accessible to occupants throughout the year. One recent project, at Uber’s headquarters in Mission Bay, includes a passively conditioned “front porch” that saves energy while providing occupants with a protected space that offers natural ventilation, vegetation and indoor/outdoor views.

Atelier Ten collaborated with our practice on Lauder College House at the University of Pennsylvania, providing interior lighting integration for visual enjoyment and energy performance. © Jeffery Totaro

Emilie pointed out that although site selection is important, businesses are oftentimes not ideally located, with ready access to nature or other desired attributes. Much of Atelier Ten’s work, including a resilient master plan for the city’s India Basin neighborhood, involves re-knitting these elements into the built environment in a way that benefits building occupants and the surrounding community. The India Basin master plan includes open green space for habitat and recreation and is designed to adapt to sea level rise.

‘Dynamic Work’ and the Adaptive Workplace
The pandemic accelerated a shift at Okta that was already in motion: the practice of “dynamic work.” Assal Yavari, LEED AP, senior director of global workplace at Okta, shared how the initiative was developed to empower employees with flexibility around where and how they work. For Okta, creating an adaptive workplace meant thinking about a variety of settings beyond the office, meeting diverse needs through a “work from home store,” and offering guidance on how to maintain balance, lead teams effectively and communicate clearly in a dynamic remote setting. In a recent survey, over 93% of Okta employees said they felt empowered to work from anywhere.

Building a Culture of Wellness
The Rodale Institute, a global leader in regenerative organic agriculture, has fostered a culture of wellness for staff as well as visitors wanting to learn more about its mission and practices. Our firm is currently working with The Rodale Institute on a master plan for current and new facilities — including research labs, demonstration gardens, greenhouses, and visitor engagement facilities on its farms in Kutztown and Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

Rodale’s Chief Impact Officer Jeff Tkach said that a wellness mindset is integral to the new campus plan and the institute’s mission to empower staff and educate visitors. Jeff noted that the project combines “the best of modern agriculture and the best of modern built environments and blends them with ancient biological systems that have supported us for thousands of years.”

An aerial view of the Rodale Institute’s headquarters in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

Panelists agreed that creating environments that teach and inspire can foster a sense of pride and ownership. In Okta’s Sydney office, opening in early May, employees will find signage and other information that guides them through the different building systems, furniture selections, and other details that contribute to its sustainable design. Joanna noted how the Center for Active Design’s research shows simple adjustments can have a significant impact in healthy behavior, citing a study that found that having signage encouraging occupants to ‘take the stairs’ increased the likelihood of people taking the stairs by 8%, as well as the measurable benefits of positive signage (“can-do” signs) versus negative.

As we continue to design spaces that contribute to our overall sense of wellness, it is worth noting the fundamental activities many of us have discovered (or rediscovered) in recent months. Jeff noted the increased popularity in gardening during the pandemic, saying “we get sent home from our offices and our instinct is to plant a garden. We crave nature in the workplace and in our backyards.” Joanna added that gardening in any sized plot — the act of getting hands in soil, as well as associated social interaction — “reduces cortisol back to baseline in 30 minutes.”

“We have the potential to do more than return to our pre-pandemic state. We can create lasting change. And now is really the time to move forward with even greater conviction to not only preserve our environment but also ensure the wellness of everybody who calls it home.”

— Allen Kachel, AIA LEED AP, senior associate, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Further Reading

About the Speakers
Rodale Master Plan
Center for Active Design: The Office Guide to Building Health

Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.