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Taking Sustainable Building Beyond Design


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WorkSafe Victoria’s new Geelong headquarters

Developed and administered by the International WELL Building Institute, the WELL building rating system takes sustainable building far beyond the initial completion of a project. It takes a deeper look at the ongoing relationship between the building and the wellbeing of those who live and work in it.

It is becoming the hallmark of leading-edge practice in Australian building and property development.

Leading contractor, Built, is one of the first to engage with WELL. The company achieved Australia’s first WELL Shell and Core Gold pre-certification for Barrack Place and WELL Platinum for WorkSafe Victoria’s new Geelong headquarters.  

The WELL difference

Clare Gallagher, built sustainability engineer and WELL faculty member, tells Jobsite there are a few key differences between building for WELL and building simply to achieve compliance with the National Construction Code.

Firstly, achieving WELL is not just about the design and construction, she says. There is also a whole section of the rating system that looks at the operations of the building, the future policies, and how the building will be managed.

The overall goal is to go beyond design to actually influence occupant behaviour in ways that improve health and wellbeing.

WELL features are proportioned as around one-third for the design and building, one-third for the operations of the building, and one-third for the policies. The latter may include the provision of ongoing wellbeing initiatives like quarterly water quality testing and providing occupants with a guide to the wellbeing features incorporated into the building.

The overall goal is to go beyond design to actually influence occupant behaviour in ways that improve health and wellbeing.

In terms of how this changes specifics, Gallagher explains that while the building code might specify a minimum fresh air rate inside a building, WELL is not just concerned with the rate of fresh air. It also deals with its quality in terms of particulate and toxin concentrations.

Therefore, the builder and specifier need to think about what type of air filtration systems might be needed. They can thus proactively prevent contamination of indoor air systems during construction.

In terms of chemicals, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), consideration needs to be given not only to the VOCs that might off-gas from paints and carpets once the building is occupied, but also the level of VOCs that might be present in furniture and insulation or those that come from cleaning products.

One of the reasons these things need to be addressed during the early project stages is WELL’s air quality credit is mandatory.

WELL’s mandatory water quality credit requires that the water meets high standards for purity.

Water is another area where the standard demands more than business as usual. WELL’s mandatory water quality credit requires that the water meets high standards for purity. For that reason, water filtration may also need to be on the specification list.

Testing the quality of mains potable water supplies to the site is also necessary before the final hydraulic specifications are developed. Furthermore, according to Gallagher, the hydraulics contractor also needs to be on board; they need to ensure that all products specified for the job will be fit for WELL purposes.

Vigilant Materials Control

That can mean further scrutiny of product documentation, as there have been recent cases of recalls of imported tapware in Australia due to the discovery of unacceptably high lead levels in the taps.

Gallagher says that there needs to be a high level of control of all materials brought into the project on the part of the head contractor. “You have to be vigilant in checking and in monitoring subcontractors,” she says.

As part of targeting the ratings it has achieved, Built brought subcontractors, the facilities managers, and the building owners together in the early stages.

As part of targeting the ratings it has achieved, Built brought subcontractors, the facilities managers, and the building owners together in the early stages. Workshops were held to explain the value the WELL rating had for the owner, the tenant, and the builder.

“We started with trying to educate the subcontractors on the requirements of the rating and the risks,” Gallagher explains. “We couldn’t have achieved the ratings without subcontractor buy-in.”

When Built first aimed for the WELL rating two years ago, one of the challenges it faced were the standards and eco-labelling schemes that the company was not used to. They differed from those utilised by the Australian National Construction Code or other commonly-used green rating systems, such as Green Star.

Raising the Standards

This meant the Built team had to understand and apply a whole set of new benchmarks and standards. Gallagher says that since then, the IWBI have evolved the tool, and it now recognises relevant local standards.

A “crosswalk” has also been developed between the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star tools and the WELL standard. This enables projects to obtain credits under one system for initiatives that meet the standards of the other. Under its most recent iteration, WELL V 2.0, a project can get five credit points for meeting the requirements for a Green Star rating, for example.

Gallagher points out that all of Built’s WELL projects have also targeted a Green Star rating. There were some parts of the project specifications and practices, such as achieving excellent acoustic comfort, which were not needed for achieving WELL.

Some aspects of the rating mean you should be innovative with work-arounds. For instance, where a paint with higher VOC levels needs to be used for a performance reason, strong practices on site can be put in place to manage potential impacts on air quality performance.

Gallagher says strategies can include flushing air in affected spaces after work was completed; using temporary carbon filtration; scheduling high-risk activities to be undertaken in controlled environments off-site or before building close-in; and having designated cutting rooms.

Engaging with the standard’s materials requirements and learning about how materials, such as plastic timber composites, might affect wellbeing has been “fascinating,” Gallagher says.

Optimizing Wellbeing

It is something that not only has implications for the eventual occupants, but also for those working with them onsite. Many of the key aspects of WELL that relate to the people inside a building were already part of how Built manages its own workplaces. Initiatives include having a gym on-site, a personal trainer available to staff, sit-to-stand desks, and providing employee assistance programs.

At Barrack Place, these kinds of initiatives were extended to the site office, as part of the WELL approach. It also enabled the team to target an innovation point.

“We thought since people are there for two years constructing this building, we should consider their health and wellbeing,” Gallagher says. “We used it as a chance to test what we could do.”

“We thought since people are there for two years constructing this building, we should consider their health and wellbeing."

The site wellbeing program also drew on aspects of principles developed and tested by the Responsible Construction Leadership Group’s sustainable site sheds initiative. 

Specific measures at Barrack Place included weekly fruit and vegetable deliveries, skin cancer health checks, and months where the team focussed on specific health goals around nutrition, fitness, or mental health. The site office had a proper kitchen so team members could sit down and eat “mindfully.” 

What is more, Built has standard management plans to improve air quality for site workers. These include dust containment and removal, vehicle and equipment emission controls, and smoke free policies, as well as policies to promote comfort on site like air conditioned break rooms, and cold drinking water and sunscreen available throughout the site.

In addition, the project applied the WELL Altruism feature through holding regular fundraising BBQs at the site, led by the Built site team.

All of the initiatives aimed to make the worksite a good place to work, by making it more comfortable and healthy, Gallagher says.

Thanks to this approach, the company has experienced higher retention of personnel. The same team worked on the project for the duration of the program. The measures also bolstered the sense of teamwork, she says.

One of the real keys to success for Built has been having clients that are really engaged with the standard’s goals and requirements on the policy and operations front. In the case of 1 Malop Street, the major tenant, WorkSafe, believed the standard really aligned with their purpose as an organisation. They even trained up an in-house WELL Accredited Professional to champion the rating internally.

“We want the buildings we create to have a lasting impact. To do that, we have to implement healthy design and construction principles that support and facilitate the wellbeing of future occupants.”

The project’s sustainability design consultant, Aurecon, was also committed to the approach and found opportunity to uplift the rating to Platinum—the highest rating level.

According to Gallagher, a much closer relationship is required with the facilities management team that will be looking after the end product. All because the rating system is not a once-off, static achievement assessed at final completion. The first phase of assessment is a documentation review, which includes statements of commitment from the design, construction and operation team, policy documents and operational schedules confirming the building will be maintained to continue to deliver a healthy environment. 

Following PC there is a three to four-day onsite performance verification where extensive testing and visual inspections are carried out. Finally, there is a commitment to re-certify the building every three years. This process also means Built remains engaged with the building beyond practical completion.

“We want the buildings we create to have a lasting impact. To do that, we have to implement healthy design and construction principles that support and facilitate the wellbeing of future occupants.”

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