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Thought Leader Profile: For a Safe and Healthy Community, Your Buildings Can Get a Checkup


Whitney Austin Gray, PhD, LEED AP, WELL AP, senior vice president at the International WELL Building Institute, wants you to think about a fact: You spend about 90 percent of your life indoors. And she’s dedicated to making that 90 percent a healthier experience.

Whitney Austin Gray, PhD, LEED AP, WELL AP
Senior vice president, International WELL Building Institute

While there are multiple standards for sustainability, cleanliness, and function of various parts of a building, the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL standard takes a broader view, encompassing factors that affect individual health, community health, and environmental health. It tracks indoor air quality and waste management, access to healthy food and stress reduction, ergonomic features and proper lighting, and more.

“WELL is a roadmap for improving the quality of our air, water, and light with inspired design decisions that not only keep us connected but facilitate a good nightʼs sleep, support our mental health, and help us do our best work every day,” says the organization.

With a PhD from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dr. Gray was the first public health professional to become a LEED Accredited Professional—a building sustainability credential more typically held by architects and builders.

The organization includes senior living communities in its mission and has been working with Welltower real estate investment trust (REIT), which has a longtime sustainability and health commitment.

Welltower is a partner in the new Sunrise at East 56th community—a luxury high-rise in Manhattan with multiple technologies for safety and health—which is under consideration for a WELL v2 rating.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview.

Q. What was the motivation for the WELL certification?
A. Historically, architects and designers were not required to have training in health as part of their degree requirements, and in public health, design was not a required course. The WELL building standard becomes a tool to help health professionals speak design, and design professionals speak health.

Q. How can a building promote well-being?
A. We know that on average we spend 90 percent of our time doors. I think lately it feels like even more time than that. If you’re 50 years old, that’s 45 years of your life. So what are you breathing? What access do you have to nature? Are you constantly in this sort of beige-on-beige-on-beige environment? Do you have spaces that encourage movement? The WELL Building credential becomes a tool for your community to understand how to incorporate health strategies and preventive health measures. It becomes a people-first community—it puts people before places.

Q. What are communities doing to improve lighting? Why is it important?
A. Lighting is more than being able to see in a space. It creates light for health for this vulnerable population, who are particularly sensitive to circadian rhythms. Many people donʼt realize is that your photoreceptors canʼt tell the difference in light sources, which is sort of a quirky evolutionary issue.

It’s very important that our building professionals and the design of the space incorporate that circadian lighting to help regulate sleep rhythms. There’s lot of research on access to natural light; we know the spectral quality and temperature that’s needed for peak human function.

If you cannot get that outdoor light, we then need to look at artificial ways to incorporate it. People need access to the right color, temperature, and quality of the light for a certain period of the day. We have parameters for how to do it with artificial light and how indoor lighting can be timed to adjust to the right kind of lighting at different times of day.

Morning light is more blue. Afternoon light has that warm, rose color. People don’t realize how much impact those different temperatures colors have on them. That blue light tells the body to reduce production of melatonin. The warm, incandescent light can create that tired feeling.

Q. Have the features for the certification changed since COVID-19?
A. We had lots of clients saying they wanted to proceed with the WELL certification, but that could take many months—and the people in their buildings wanted to know what they’re doing for safety today, right away.

We adapted the WELL Building Standard in response to the pandemic by creating the WELL Health-Safety Rating, which uses 25 features of the larger WELL Certification and can be completed within weeks. It was important to us that people could start by downloading the standard and just going check, check—or “I need to do more on this.”

COVID is a wake-up call around resilience. It’s not about how do I fix the problem, but how do I move ahead despite that problem.

People forgot how interconnected we are to each other. With infectious disease, you have to take care of everyone, from the front door man or woman to the CEO—anyone can spread the disease; we’re all connected.

A lot of the strategies that we look at have secondary benefits: When you’re thinking about carpeting and patterns and light, it’s not only about mobility, but it has an effect on acoustics, and on relieving stress. And I would argue that these benefits are for staff and visitors as well as residents. You’re not just problem-solving—you’re solution-building for the community.

The WELL Building Standard, developed by the International WELL Building Institute, sets performance standards for “design interventions, operational protocols and policies, and a commitment to fostering a culture of health and wellness.”

It looks at 108 features from 10 concepts: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind, Community. For instance, features in the Water category address drinking water quality, water conservation, Legionella prevention, and more.

In the wake of COVID-19, the organization launched the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management.

This rating, developed by more than 600 experts, evidence-based, and third-party verified, means a building has met at least 15 of 20 features from these core areas:

  • Cleaning and Sanitization Procedures
  • Emergency Preparedness Programs
  • Health Service Resources
  • Air and Water Quality Management
  • Stakeholder Engagement and Communication

More information about the standards and certification are at