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Building Abundance #3: Abundance in Architecture Starts with Abundance in Human Health

Just as buildings became an incredible tool in the movement for environmental sustainability, they can and must become our greatest asset when it comes to human sustainability.

By Rick Fedrizzi
April 4, 2019

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on abundance created and curated by Edward McGraw, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, founding partner and chief executive officer of Ashley McGraw Architects.



Architects know the backstory all too well. Twenty-five years ago, when we first started talking about green buildings, the real estate industry couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get their heads around it because we laid out the simple, irrefutable truth: buildings have an enormous negative impact on the environment.


Buildings account for 40% of the world’s energy consumption and a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. They use copious amounts of water. In their construction and operation, they create megatons of waste. And, of course, getting to these buildings by car uses massive amounts of fossil fuels that contribute to outdoor air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.


The conversation picked up steam, however, when we began to quantify the savings that came along with energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and transit-friendly development. I call this the “First Wave” of sustainability, where the focus was on protection and minimization – protecting the environment, protecting people, and minimizing the negative impacts of buildings on both.


Yes, buildings do have an enormous impact on the environment, but they also have an enormous impact on the people inside them.


We spend 90% of our time inside buildings, frequently surrounded by toxin-emitting furnishings and fixtures. And, when combined with “value-engineered” air-exchange solutions, they sabotage our indoor environmental quality. Add to that poor lighting, worse acoustics, and the messy variables that humans bring with them – such as sedentary behaviors and questionable nutrition – and suddenly you have building solutions that are long on energy efficiency but short on human efficiency.


At the International WELL Building Institute, we use the WELL Building Standard to advance the Second Wave of sustainability, which is all about enhancing the health and wellness of people by ensuring buildings and communities intentionally improve human health.


We know how to build green buildings, and more importantly, why it’s vital to do so. But we’re only just beginning to understand the science and changes in practice that buildings and communities need in order to proactively improve human health.


We know anecdotally that we can design buildings that help people feel better and heal faster. But we can also design buildings that help us work better and think better, too. And it’s no longer just off-the-cuff observations – it’s solid scientific evidence that’s pouring in, as well as economic arguments similar to those that gave green building its market-transforming momentum. Think of the profound implications of what could happen if, when companies pondered their profitability, they focused on a culture of health.


When we talk about health, we’re often talking about sickness – only 20% of the human health equation. The other 80% are the social and environmental determinants of well-being: the things that prevent illness, and that make us feel better, think better, and do better at our jobs, in school, and in our communities.


Doctors promise, “First, do no harm.” Architects need to make sure that buildings not only “do no harm,” but also do a lot of good. That’s where the architecture of abundance lives.


Just as buildings became an incredible tool in the movement for environmental sustainability, they can and must become our greatest asset when it comes to human sustainability.


We know people are starting to think about and care about their overall well-being more and more. As you can see from the growth in organic foods, exercise trends, and personal health-tech devices like Fitbits, wellness has become a thriving $4 trillion industry.


Not only do people care about their own health, businesses are starting to care a lot about the health of their employees, too. The Global Wellness Institute has estimated some of the staggering costs incurred due to being unwell at work:


·                     $1.1 trillion in costs from chronic disease

·                     $250 billion related to workplace injury or illness

·                     $300 billion in costs from stress

·                     $550 billion lost due to disengagement at work


All told, we’re talking about $2.2 trillion dollars in lost productivity, or 12% of the GDP. The flipside of that statistic is that there’s $2.2 trillion-worth of room for improvement.


The motivation is there. Big businesses are going to want to improve the health of their employees because it lowers costs and raises productivity. Insurance companies are going to want to keep healthy people healthy and reduce expenses for people with chronic conditions, so they can keep more of our premiums and boost their bottom lines. Employers are going to want healthy workspaces so they can better recruit and retain talent and improve productivity.


Going beyond business, think of what this human-centric design approach could mean to vulnerable populations, especially our kids, who need spaces that mitigate their asthma, not aggravate it, and the Baby Boomers, who are beginning to think about aging-in-place options.


To get there, it’s going to take a reset of design and construction practice.


It’s going to take new research and new ideas.


It’s going to take rigorous testing, and maybe even a little righteous anger.


At worst, our building materials and designs and our choices about location and maintenance contribute to some of the key public health concerns of modern society, from asthma to cancer to obesity.


That’s why it’s important to embrace this Second Wave, so that the definitions of sustainable building include the sustainability of people as a matter of course – not as an unintended consequence. It’s how our buildings and communities can become powerful protectors and promoters of health and well-being, as well as of the human abundance we all seek.



Rick Fedrizzi is chairman and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute and founding chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council. He is the author of Greenthink: How Profit Can Save the Planet. Follow Rick on Twitter @rickfedrizzi

See also:


Building Abundance #1

Creating abundance is more than sustainability or resilience, and should be a driving force in architecture.

By Edward McGraw, AIA, LEED AP BD+C


Building Abundance #2: Three Keys to Abundant Design

Hint: Designing for less bad won't get us there. Aiming for abundant design requires seeing and working in new ways that are largely unfamiliar, challenging - but oh so worth it!
By Josie Plaut, Colorado State University Institute for the Built Environment & CLEAR (Center for Living Environments and Regeneration)

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Ashley McGraw Architects

Google defines abundance as “plentifulness of the good things in life.”


WELL Silver: Symantec, Silicon Valley California; Architect: Little and AP+I Design (2017)


WELL Gold: Mirvac, Sydney, Australia. Architect: Mirvac - Lucy Pullin and Davenport Campbell - Kirsty Argyle (2017)

Citi Tower

WELL Silver: Citi Tower, Hong Kong. Architect: M Moser Associates (2018)

JLL Shanghai

WELL Platinum: JLL Shanghai. Architect: iDA Workplace + Strategy (2017)

Structure Tone

WELL Silver: Structure Tone, New York City. Architect: Gensler (2017)