The recent trend in building innovation is unmistakable: Being green means being healthy. Not only do thought leaders want buildings meeting top sustainability ratings, but a clear majority also wants to achieve new standards for wellness, too. And this confluence of environmental and health-focused design has opened the door for more wood structures, systems, and finishes.
Driving the parallel growth are long-understood design and operations benefits of wood materials and engineered wood products, on the one hand, and on the other hand, increasing knowledge of how buildings shape health outcomes. Bottom line: Architects and building owners want greener places that also boost occupant comfort, productivity, and enjoyment.
Environmental benefits of wood are even more apparent in the latest Version 4 of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certifications and even in recent studies on how, for example, wood-frame options meet rules set by IECC, the International Energy Conservation Code. As for high-performance sustainability, commercial wood systems are commonly used in zero-net-energy (ZNE) structures, with many advances coming from California.
To see the role of wood in wellness, project teams today benchmark against the WELL Building Standard™, an increasingly influential third-party certification led by the International WELL Building Institute. Based on rigorous scientific and medical research, WELL encompasses seven areas of building performance including daylighting and water quality, psychological impacts, and physical and sensory experiences, as well as human inputs like air, food, and exercise.The WELL movement points to wood solutions in a number of areas. Acoustics are essential to wellness and productivity, while a relatively minor element of sustainable design. Solutions include sound-reducing surfaces as well as sound barriers, two areas where wood systems offer design flexibility and advantages. Wood framing and paneling has long been preferred for both noise-reducing properties as well as ways to optimize reverberation and sound reflection. Newer systems, including cross-laminated timber (CLT), present large-scale, prefabricated panel systems with carefully engineered, superior acoustic performance.
Wood structures and wall assemblies also offer natural resistance to heat and cold, reducing thermal bridging and boosting the envelope’s insulation volume. The properties help meet wellness goals for occupant comfort as well as productivity, thanks to the performance of systems like wood floors, glulams, and structural insulated panels, or SIPs.
Another key element of the WELL Building Standard is biophilia, the human attraction to natural shapes and patterns referenced under the “Mind” section of the standard. Some architects and project teams create a “biophilia plan” by using lighting, layouts, and environmental elements that take advantage of human biology and our inherent love of nature. These relationships impact the built environment on many scales, including the use of exposed wood finishes with visible graining as well as the patterns and colors of many wood products.
A number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of biophilia and how wood improves this human response. One of the most striking, a Canadian study, showed that top-rated building spaces are “completely wood dominated, containing little to no artificial materials and having large windows with views of nature.”
Other factors point to wood solutions. The “Olfactory Comfort” section of WELL addresses how to eliminate distracting and unpleasant odors, and new engineered wood products are known for their positive olfactory stimuli. This includes not just their elimination of VOCs and other substances -- which helps meet WELL’s material safety requirements -- but even more so the ability of wood materials to actually improve indoor environmental quality and air quality.
In this way, including innovative wood systems in green, healthy building projects appears to be driven by market need as much as anything else. The U.S. Green Building Council identified the potential for adoption of the WELL Building Standard last year, showing that 79% of U.S. building owners believe healthier architecture and operations will boost employee satisfaction and engagement. That’s the plus side, but there’s also a penalty for owners who don’t build green and healthy. Beyond lost energy and squandered resources, today’s poor-performing buildings can contribute to reduced productivity due to poor health, which Integrated Benefits Institute estimates at a staggering annual rate of at least $570 billion.
As research on health and productivity continues, a parallel inquiry persists by leaders in the study of engineered wood. As seen in the newest standards, wood and WELL will remain an interlinked story for years to come.