Wellness Is the New Black (But Is It Classist?)

Feb. 17, 2021

Occupant health is a top priority in the built environment—especially after COVID—but not everyone may be benefiting from spaces designed for wellness.

When both Vogue and GQ magazines publish articles about where to buy stylish face masks, it’s clear that facial wear is officially in fashion—even if out of necessity to protect our health. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, health and wellness were already trending across industries from consumer goods to travel to interiors. 

In fact, the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) reports that wellness real estate represented a $138 billion global market in 2017. Further, there are more than 5,000 WELL-certified projects in 65 countries to date, as well as more than 840 registered Fitwel projects and 240 certified or in-review projects, according to the Center for Active Design.

In other words, occupant health has been—and will continue to be—a top priority in the built environment. But the question isn’t whether it’s necessary to design interiors and buildings that keep people healthy and safe (it is); the issue is, who do these spaces benefit most and do they promote equity or classism? And if the answer is the latter, how do we ensure lower-wage earners and underserved communities benefit from the healthy environments we create?

Wellness: Fashionable (and Vital), But Not Equitable

Among the harsher realities the pandemic has exposed is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. While we are collectively enduring the same storm, the shelters in which we weather it are vastly different. 

Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC observes that people from racial and ethnic minority groups often live in crowded conditions that make it more challenging to follow prevention strategies, for example. 

“We knew pre-pandemic that, essentially, in almost every public health crisis that the people who have the least suffer the most,” said Rachel Gutter, CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). 

Whether it’s COVID-19, the obesity epidemic, substance abuse or a host of mental health issues, Gutter says they all trend higher in lower-income communities. “The reason is that, as they say, your zip code has more of a bearing on your state of health than your genetic code, the social determinants of health, which is a broadly accepted perspective in the public health community,” she explained. Citing CDC data, Gutter says physical and social environments—where you sit and who you sit next to—have a greater bearing on your state of health than your genetics, your access to healthcare and your lifestyle and behaviors combined. “That is the power of place. That’s the power of culture.”

Are popular building rating systems like WELL and LEED contributing to inequity? To answer the question, we need to take a top-down approach by looking at the industry as a whole and ask a different set of questions altogether, said Kay Sargent, director of Workplace, HOK.

“You can ask some very specific questions about LEED or WELL, and are they biased, or do they predominantly benefit the middle class? And the answer is, yes,” she suggested. “However, you have to ask yourself if that’s a fair question to begin with because the entire industry is inclined towards that.”

Sargent pointed to the fact that the percentage of the population that benefits from design services is minute. Today, only half of American workers report to an office, and of those workplaces, how many have been designed by a professional interior designer? Furthermore, of those, how many have been designed to LEED and/or WELL standards? The numbers are small by comparison to the entire building stock, but designers have a duty to create the best environments they can for the individuals that they are impacting—whoever they are, Sargent said.

[Related: Design for Wellness Beyond Today]

“Is designing the built environment that we have to the best of our ability elitist? I would say, no,” Sargent explained. “Are there a whole group of people that are being underserved and neglected? Yes. Do WELL and LEED have a prerequisite that you have to meet to even be able to qualify? Yes.”

However, equity in the built environment is a responsibility that design practitioners can’t assume alone; it must be shared. “I would say that there’s a greater responsibility here on business owners, on the community, on society as a whole to step up and to say, ‘We want to put people in better conditions,’” Sargent noted. 

Gutter agreed: “If we want to address these issues, as we have learned about for a whole host of other kinds of inequities like economic inequity, you have to actually intervene in the larger system. The scale of these challenges is quite enormous.”

She pointed out that in the school system pre-pandemic, half of the nation’s schools were in a state of disrepair and decay, providing students with substandard air quality. The problem is now exacerbated by COVID, particularly in rural and lower-income areas where the tax base isn’t large enough to support funding for needed upgrades to educational facilities. 

Addressing Inequity Through Design

The good news is the industry has already mobilized to address social inequities in the way spaces are designed through existing organizations and tools. The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Center for Green Schools, for example, has been working for years to ensure that green, healthy schools are accessible to all students no matter their race, status, wealth or where they live. 

Likewise, Gutter said IWBI has partnered with organizations like Enterprise Community Partners (ECP) to develop a multi-pronged collaboration to create and implement a shared vision for affordable homes that improve residents’ health and well-being. With the integration of key aspects of WELL 2.0 into ECP’s Green Communities Criteria, affordable housing developers will have a flexible roadmap for achieving higher levels of health and wellness benefits that are firmly rooted in the latest scientific evidence and design best practices. Through the collaboration, Enterprise and IWBI will also advance research and stronger public policy that leads to improved housing options for all. 

Existing design and building frameworks like WELL and LEED also address social equity issues through new pilot credits that can help ensure greater community access to wellness. Sargent explained that LEED credits that directly speak to social equity remain optional—but there are some alternatives. 

In 2014, following a report by a special working group, LEED introduced three pilot credits to its Building Design and Construction program: 

  1. One rewards projects that identify and address community needs and disparities
  2. A second rewards equitable practices by owners, architects, engineers and contractors
  3. A third calls for supply chain assessments, particularly targeting human rights violations

Additionally, IWBI introduced three community preconditions to WELL v2, which advocate collaborative design and community-minded practices within the workplace, like providing “easily accessible” wellness education. “It is hard to miss, however, that universal design and equitable bathroom accommodations are ‘optimizations,’ not ‘preconditions,’ under WELL v2,” Sargent said.

She noted that projects pursuing LEED’s Social Equity within the Community credit must complete two portions of the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network evaluation—a rigorous tool for assessing the social, economic and environmental impact of design projects—or partner with community service or advocacy groups, “but there is no requirement as to what the outcome of that partnership might be.” 

For those pursuing its Social Equity within the Project Team credit, there are multiple routes: 

  • Paying wages and benefits that meet or exceed the requirements of the federal Davis-Bacon Act 
  • Participating in workforce development training 
  • Demonstrating corporate social responsibility through other certifications

While not perfect, these pilot credits are a step in the right direction to help ensure greater access to wellness to those who need it most. But the discussion about adopting them needs to happen early and involve a variety of stakeholders.

“Social impact thinking—particularly at the community level—needs to be introduced in the early stages of forming a design brief, sometimes years before an RFP is even issued,” Sargent suggested. “And the power to form a brief that takes equity seriously lies disproportionately with the client, be it a developer, building owner, city agency, nonprofit or foundation.”

Gutter echoed the sentiment, suggesting it’s important to plug wellness protocols into existing, scalable models such as affordable housing or embed wellness incentives into funding mechanisms within school bills to chip away at the inequities that exist. 

“It’s not to say mandates are the right choice, but you find ways to link those solutions that a system like WELL or Enterprise provides with the funding,” Gutter explained. “If that doesn’t happen, if you don’t bridge from research to practice to capital, then you only have one little piece of the solution. Just because you build it doesn’t mean that people can show up.”

Read Next: 4 Ways to Create Spaces That Inspire Workplace Wellness

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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