Working WELL: Designing for human health.

WELL is the first building standard to focus on enhancing people’s health and wellbeing through the built environment.  In this article, authors Kaitlyn Gillis and Dak Kopec provide an overview of the WELL standard and its principles. They also examine Canada’s potential to establish itself as global leaders in the practice of creating healthy workplaces.

The WELL standard is premised on the World Health Organization’s definition of health as the optimal physical, psychological and sociological state of an individual—and not simply as the   absence of disease or infirmity. This comprehensive definition has been around since 1948, but our practical conceptualization of health often remains centered on illness and injury. In every moment of life, humans are in an environment, whether 
it is natural or built. At all of these moments, there’s an opportunity 
to positively impact people’s health through design.

Canadians spend over 90 percent of their time indoors—either in buildings or in transit between them. While that’s been acknowledged 
by the design sector for some time, the health impact of spending 
so much time indoors has been relatively neglected. An emerging design trend is taking a hard look at how the built environment informs the health and wellbeing of building occupants. As a large and culturally diverse country with an emphasis on social justice, Canada has the potential to become a global leader in this health and wellbeing movement.

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 Over the past decade green building practices focusing on creating environmentally conscious buildings have become entrenched in the industry.  Shifting towards a closer look at how buildings can positively impact the wellbeing of its occupants represents the next step in the path towards sustainability.


Ethonomics: Designing for the principles of the modern workplace.

A new paper by Teknion and Perkins+Will explores the connections between sustainability and human health. Examining key drivers of workplace wellness including: technology, food, urban environments, movement, nature, disruption and sensory stimuli, the authors explore how workplace design can impact employee wellness.

We are beginning to see a cultural shift—a new awareness of how deeply human and environmental health are connected. If we begin with a discussion of the lifestyle choices we make as individuals, we must consider three key features of the cultural landscape that influence our behaviors, our health and that of the natural world. These are technology, food and the urban environment.

Considering the impact of human systems on natural systems—and the impact of the natural and built environments upon human beings—we can posit that the power of design today is something more than aesthetics, communication or the creation of desirable products. Rather, it must be practiced as a process of integrative thinking—a synthesis of design, technology, science and humanistic principles—set within the context of social, economic and environmental ethics: “Ethonomics.”

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In this paper, the authors posit the idea that well-designed space, in all its forms can be a catalyst for physical and psychological health. As such, ethonomics is a deeper dive into our understanding of sustainability and what that means in terms of human beings at work.



Recently, Kay Sargent, VP of A+D and Workplace Strategies at Teknion, hosted a roundtable discussion on design’s impact on well-being in the workplace.  She and the participants discussed what defines a “good” or “healthy” work environment and how does one achieve it in a space?


The sustainability movement has lead to a new awareness of how to design buildings to be more sustainable. But what are we doing for the occupant? True, greener buildings are healthier for the occupant with better lighting, more access to natural daylight, reduced exposure to toxins and increased fresh air. But that’s not enough. Sitting stagnantly at a desk staring at a computer all day is killing us faster than anything else. Many office-based workers are not living healthy lives, and we as the design community have an opportunity to change that. 

Teknion Livello Tables

On April 5th, Teknion hosted Sue Schmidt of Healthways to speak to industry thought leaders in New York to discuss how designers can improve well-being in the workplace through the power of informed design. The session included a presentation by Sue, a lively interactive discussion among the designers present, and was followed by a group interview conducted by Susan Szenasy of Metropolis magazine.

Sue’s background is in Facilities and Real Estate with a focus on built environment design. As a Well-Being Design Leader at Healthways, Sue’s role is to help organizations create optimized physical environments that support well-being.

The health and well-being of an individual affects many aspects that impact work, including absenteeism, presenteeism, productivity and healthcare costs. One’s well-being is determined by a combination of factors. Surprisingly, access to care only influences 10 percent of one’s well-being, while genetics and environment comprise 20 percent each, with healthy behavior responsible for 50 percent of an individual’s well-being. How we design spaces today can impact an individual’s well-being and determine if they thrive or dive at work. But how do we define a “good” work environment? If the definition is one that increases productivity, drives retention and makes an organization an “employer of choice,” then well-being is a factor that we can’t overlook.  

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The Corporate Workplace is changing. Economic volatility remains a top concern for 2013 and many Mississauga companies are looking at ways to reduce their overall space. By shifting to fewer private offices, to smaller individual workstations and incorporating more open/shared space for teaming, companies are able to reduce real estate costs while incorporating solutions to meet their additional workplace goals such as sustainability, new technologies and diversity.

“Our Clients are aware of changing employee demographics,” says Kathy van Brussel of Mississauga based Comley van Brussel Design. “They want to attract top talent and are using these new workplace strategies to create a positive work environment with less individual real estate”. But less space doesn’t need to feel small. Today’s innovative offices make the most of shrinking footprints to benefit both the office worker and the bottom line. Here are some tips for getting more out of less space.


Companies that really want to really reduce space are doing it by addressing the desk to employee ratio. For example, accompany with 100 employees could have only 60-80 assigned desks.1 How is this feasible? Because the reality is approximate 60% of a company’s desks are vacant at any one time, because workers are either on the road, working remotely or in meetings, according to CoreNet Global, Canada’s leading corporate real estate association.2


Remember how big our computers used to be? A lot of people are still sitting at worksurfaces designed to hold those large, bulky computer monitors. Now that we have laptops and flat screens a lot of the worksurface is under-utilized. Accordingly, we can reduce the depth of worksurface, with no impact to the employee.

In this digital age we generate less paper so our filing needs have also gone down. Smaller storage units, strategically placed within workstations, are now feasible alongside shared meeting tables.


Consider a standard private office of 10 x 15 sq.ft. with a swinging door. Simply replacing the swinging door with a sliding door saves approximately 9 sq.ft.3 Some meeting rooms have become “convertible” and can also be used as a private office.

Furniture with overlapping surfaces and under-surface storage make even more efficient use of space. This provides more storage capacity where you need it, like under your desk and not where you don’t need it, like behind your monitor. Use furniture that can multitask. For example, storage units can double as space dividers in a workstation, and cushions on top of file drawers accommodate visitors. As our workspaces continue to shrink, we should ask not “how can we get that space back” but how can we use the space we have to its greatest potential!


  1. Sargent, Kay, IIDEX Cocreate Round Table Discussion, Toronto, September 2011
  2. Shevory, Kristina, “Office Work Space is Shrinking, but that’s Not All Bad”. The New York Times, January 19, 2011
  3. Fleming, Darren, The Trend of Shrinking Office Space

Clearing the air: Creating healthy environments

On average, we spend 90 percent of our time indoors – whether it’s at home, school, the office, or within another enclosed space. Research has shown that indoor air can have greater toxicity than outdoor (by up to 5 times).3 But, did you know that according to the EPA, indoor air quality could be ten times worse than the outdoor air on warm days in large smoggy cities?4

Considering the health warnings we receive on smoggy days, what happens when we go to an office everyday that has poor indoor air quality? The effects of poor air quality can range from a low-level headache to fatigue to respiratory problems4 – and their impact on the office is significant. It is estimated that employers in the U.S. lose approximately $15 billion a year to sickness and/or productivity loss as a result of inadequate indoor air quality.4

New, energy efficient buildings may even compound the issue. Improvements in construction practices mean newer buildings are virtually sealed.  This reduces natural ventilation and airflow, potentially increasing indoor air problems.2

VOCs: an unseen danger

A major contributor to poor indoor air quality is Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs include a variety of chemicals that are emitted as gases (known as off-gassing) and are linked to several health issues.4 VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products – everything from the paint on the walls, to the chair you sit in, and the permanent marker you use may off-gas.  Importantly, products may continue to off-gas even after they lose their “new” smell.

Teknion factory where indoor air quality is monitored

Improving Indoor Air Quality

Despite the impact indoor air quality has on employee health and productivity, it is often overlooked when planning an office space. Product selection, application and planning can greatly improve indoor air quality in the following ways:

1. Selecting low VOC furniture

Many manufacturers offer low-VOC or no-VOC products as standard in their product offering.1 Look for GREENGUARD, BIFMA, or Scientific Certification Systems IAQ – to be assured that the furniture won’t contribute to poor air quality through off-gassing.

Global’s Princeton workstation has the GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Certification

2. Maximizing workspace airflow

Maintaining airflow throughout a space will improve air quality. Opting for lower panel heights as well as panels that don’t extend to the floor will not only help create an open plan workspace, but also provide a light and airy feeling while enhancing air circulation.

Additionally, ensuring that vents and windows are unobstructed, and that areas are not overcrowded, will allow for better circulation.5

Teknion’s District panel systems use VOC-free powder coat paint, allow airflow both above and below the system, and are GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) certified

3. Using furniture efficiently

Gone are the days of needing a large desk that can accommodate a big bulky CRT monitor. Technology has also reduced many workplaces’ need for paper storage and filing.

Advances in technology and globalization of the workforce also mean that less and less workers spend all their time in the office. As a result, less permanent workstations are needed and there is more need for shared spaces that can be used for a short time by any number of people.

Incorporating furniture that can be quickly and easily reconfigured to adapt to changing work styles often means that less space and furniture is needed per person over time. This effective and efficient use of product mean less VOCs are created and released.

Offices that prioritize air quality benefit from improved morale and vitality. Tellingly, visitors to these offices reported a greater a sense of energy and wellbeing6.  Through the careful selection and application of product in a space, organizations can realize a return on investment in employee health, wellbeing, productivity, attraction and retention, and ultimately the bottom line.


1.     EcoEvaluator. 2008-2011. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Available:

2.     Kazawest Property Management. 2012. Indoor Air Quality: maintaining a healthy environment in offices and homes. Available:

3.     GREENGUARD Environmental Institute. 2012. Sustainability. Available:

4. 2008-2010. Indoor Air Quality. Available:

5.     Building Air Quality Inc. 2006. Tenants: Building Occupants and IAQ. Available:

6.     Smith, Chris. (April 16, 2012) Do We Really Need Business Cases for Healthy Indoor Environments? Workspace Design Magazine. Available:


The Multi-Generational Office

George Burns once said, “Look to the future, because that’s where you’ll spend the rest of your life”.  For millions in the corporate workforce, this couldn’t be more true. 4

Much has been written about how this is the first time there are four generations in the workforce. Characterizing and understanding the attitudes and expectations of these generations – Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millenials – inside the workplace has been deemed the secret to integrating everyone and therefore creating a successful workplace.

But what is a successful workplace? Michael Greene, National Director, Corporate Solutions, Jones Lang LaSalle believes “to accommodate any group of individual’s requirements means a partnership between Human Resources, IT and Corporate Real Estate and building a culture that allows flexibility.  An environment that caters for different workstyles and different generations should measure success through:

  • Staff retention and attraction
  • A built environment that can support change
  • Instilling corporate culture into a disparate workforce”3


Okay, so you know that Millenials are collaborative and feedback oriented, Gen Xer’s are motivated by autonomy, Boomers “live to work” and Traditionalists are hierarchical and loyal.

So what does this really mean and how does it affect furniture purchasing?

Today’s office spaces need to adapt to both the Millenials’ inherent need for constant communication and feedback and the Gen X and Boomer’s need for autonomy and privacy.  The point, therefore, is not to contain and direct each group1, but as Gensler points out, to design and fit out a workplace that supports the ways in which everyone works.  To that end, Gensler has determined that work falls into four general categories: collaboration, focus, learning and socialization.2


While this is a major theme for Millenials, they don’t own the need to collaborate. Extending beyond the boardroom, areas for collaboration include flexible, comfortable spaces that allow employees to re-arrange furniture to meet changing needs and encourage impromptu meetings. Wireless access is critical, and whiteboards should abound. Accommodating this can be as simple as a bench or a table alongside workstations, or some comfortable couches in the lunchroom.



Every generation still requires privacy. Private offices should not only be the purview of senior staff but be determined by position and work role.  Privacy needs can vary from needing a “phone booth” to make a private call, to a secluded “study carrel” away from visual and audio distractions to write a report.



In today’s knowledge economy where technology changes as it happens, training is a constant.  Research shows that learning is the most efficient when it happens in dedicated spaces.  Tables should integrate power and data for laptops, or projectors.  They should also be flexible to allow for classes to break into smaller groups, providing a balance of formal and informal learning.



Socialization spaces are becoming increasingly crucial. Beyond the cafeteria they can serve as an opportunity to build relationships, trust and shared ideas. Varied in their design, they can be small or large, but more and more these spaces are being integrated into the rest of the workplace and not tucked away.  Comfortable chairs and sofas encourage informal interaction and are a place to refresh and recharge.


Focusing on the ways in which everyone works, rather than the differences between the generations, enables functional, comfortable and productive spaces can be created.  Not only will this bridge the gap to create a more cohesive team environment, it will also support individuals throughout the stages of their careers.



1.      Pink, Daniel (2010, November 6). Think Tank: Fix the workplace, not the workers.  The Telegraph, Finance. Retrieved from

2.     Strombom, Dean. Accommodation of Multiple Generations in the Workspace.  Facilities Management Journal.  Retrieved from

3.     The impact of age-based demographics on design.  Facilities Management Magazine: RFP Office Space. Retrieved from

4.     Epstein, Royce (2010, March 26). Future Furniture Trends. Contract. Retrieved from