WELL Standards can reduce candyfloss and boost parsnips

WELL Standards can reduce candyfloss and boost parsnips

Wednesday, January 9, 2019
/ By:
Jamie Anderson & Fergus Anderson

In looking at how design can influence health and wellbeing, living long, disease free lives is  important. But International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) also place importance on Subjective Wellbeing (SWB) — people’s own perceived quality of experience – their personal feelings – about themselves and how they relate to others. After all, it is quality and quantity of life that matter, right?

Understanding and delivering environments that support SWB are both in their infancy. The WELL Building Standard and the WELL Community Standards are key facilitators in improving this situation, as they help researchers and practitioners to be more robust, to ditch the ‘fluffy’ reputation around this field.

The problem

For some time, the SWB movement was dismissed as candyfloss: all very sweet but lacking in substance. It was considered too fluffy, having weak scientific foundations and received much criticism. In the past 30 years or so, this has altered dramatically, as the science of SWB has grown in standing.

However, this is not necessarily the case for SWB and the built environment. Although there are strong areas of initial research, for example, underpinning links between urban greening and SWB; the science base is limited and varies greatly in terms of quality of insight.

A parsnips antidote

A key solution is to grow more parsnips: give potential consumers of SWB data something more substantive to chew on; to help grapple with the inherent complexity of urban SWB. As quantum physicist Johannes Eichstaedt put it:

”Wellbeing is more complex than quantum physics and the questions are twice as interesting”.

The aetiology represents a multifaceted myriad of interacting factors, often simultaneously: a person’s genetics, built and natural environments, professional, family and community life — each shaping SWB from moment-to-moment.

Convincing disentanglement requires solid theory and experimental precision; on being able to differentiate between causality and correlation. A non-SWB related example can be found on Spurious Correlations.com. Drawing on credible data collected between 1999 and 2009, a 95% correlation is found between cheese consumption per capita and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in bedsheets.

Though a link between green space and stress reduction may not have the same logical basis as that of cheese-consumption and the lethality of bedsheets; it can be equally unclear how, and to what extent greenspace is a contributor to the outcome of stress reduction, and, therefore, how much priority greenspace should be given in practice. Understanding this could influence decisions of how much public health authorities should pay towards the maintenance of parks.​

How WELL can help

WELL is important to ameliorating this situation from both a demand/decision maker perspective and a supply/research community viewpoint.

On the one hand, in our work at BuroHappold Engineering on projects such as International Quarter London or our recently awarded Gold certificate office in Warsaw, the Standards represent go-to authoritative sources of accessible summaries of the latest ‘what works’ science. Within the Mind concept, for example, the evidence underpinning the provision of mental health awareness programs (M01) is drawn from multiple sources. This includes NAMI NYC’s Working Well reports with its summary of meta-analyses (Lipsey and Wilson’s 1993) — itself a study combining many studies.

Meta-analyses present summary evidence, avoiding ‘cherry picking’ single studies and therefore offer strong grounds for the prioritisation of this Feature as a Pre-requisite, or standard feature. However, as recognised by Lipsey and Wilson as well as in later, improved reviews that concentrated on stress, the 1993 research proved too crude for an optimal ‘probing analysis’ of the potential biases and complexities involved.

Furthermore, although important foundations, these 15-20 year old papers contain insight generated in a limited number of countries, and the successful take-up of programmes specific to work environments (MO1) is not clear. This highlights opportunities to plug gaps with ‘parsnips’, and help to deliver the ambition of IWBI’s international mission.     

From a supply perspective, and in a research capacity at the Urban Institute, University of Manchester, WELL is motivating because they offer an authoritative and credible home for research and because science doesn’t implement itself. In the context of field experiments, our award winning review sparked constructive debate, as we have begun to address 8 challenges of complexity, defining what parsnips might look like and building new tools, such as MOHAWk (Method for Observing pHysical Activity and Wellbeing).

Nourishing a young SWB knowledge ecosystem

The candyfloss vs parsnips metaphor is simplistic, compared to more pragmatic guidance, such as Nesta’s 5-level research hierarchy. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition serves to remind that all research cannot be treated equally — particularly that involving SWB.

It is an exciting time for SWB and evidence informed-design. Addressing knowledge gaps with higher quality of evidence will better inform a growing interest in this area and need not hinder action. Despite the challenges, we are optimistic that the use of WELL, informed by sufficient evidence and championed by an increasingly global community, will catalyse the evolution of a healthy and vibrant knowledge ecosystem.



Jamie is a member of the WELL Community concept Advisory. He is passionate about creating strong research and the translation of this into evidence informed design. Jamie works on 2 large nature based well-being research projects led by Manchester University (GHIA and Grow Green). His translation work takes place within BuroHappold’s Sustainability team, liaising with developers, national and local policy makers.

Fergus is also a Senior Consultant within BuroHappold’s Sustainability team. He is a WELL AP and has significant experience in supporting clients and communities to understand the opportunities for delivering wellbeing outcomes through the built environment. Fergus was recently selected to the UK Green Buildings Council’s Future Leaders programme 2019.