COVID-19 & architecture: the importance of designing for occupant wellness

Commentary, Online Exclusive Feature / 2020

COVID-19 & architecture: the importance of designing for occupant wellness

April 23, 2020

Have we been coping WELL?

In 2020, after a brief celebration of the dawn of a new decade, an unprecedented wave of uncertainty hit us—the coronavirus pandemic has gravely affected our lifestyles; how and where we live, work and play have been stripped down to the core and turned upside down almost overnight. Our homes have become our workplaces, exercise arenas and playgrounds. Some have found out the hard way during this pandemic about the importance of design and the value of space—poor families living in tight quarters; migrant workers staying in cramped dormitories—and what this ultimately means to curbing the spread of a virus like COVID-19.

These have clearly underscored the importance of holistic approaches to good design, where architecture, ergonomics and performance strategies should collectively be (or have been in recent years) carefully implemented to promote good health and well-being. For example, to date, there are 293 projects in Asia that are certified under the WELL Building Standard: 76 in China; 18 in Australia; five in Japan; two in Singapore; four in Taiwan; one each in Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand, etc.

Samantha Allen, International WELL Building Institute Asia’s director of Business Development, spoke to FuturArc about the WELL Building Standard in FuturArc 3Q 2019 issue. “We often don’t realise that our health and well-being are influenced by, and sometimes a direct result of, our immediate environment. Since we spend around 90 per cent of our time indoors, our buildings can greatly influence our health and well-being; perhaps without us even knowing. Buildings, therefore, have the potential to act as public health tools. The WELL Building Standard (WELL) is the first comprehensive rating system that focuses on occupant health and well-being in the built environment.”

Notable projects in Asia

Allen also highlighted some notable projects in Asia, such as the JLL Shanghai Office in Shanghai, China (WELL Platinum) and National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment (SDE4), Singapore (WELL Gold).

In JLL Shanghai’s office, air purifiers and water filtration systems were installed to meet WELL’s stringent IAQ and water quality prerequisites. In addition, air and water quality monitoring systems were incorporated as well.

NUS SDE4, the first purpose-built net-zero energy building in Singapore, offers a biophilic experience with a building design that makes use of the architectural concept of floating boxes, where its shallow and porous layout allows for cross ventilation, natural lighting and views of the landscape.

At FuturArc Forum 2019, one of the topics that Allen shared was about materials. “There is a lot of talk about biophilia and greening of the indoors, which is great, but if we are using harmful chemicals like pesticides, then that’s doing more damage than we are getting good from it.”

“We can maximise productivity through improved HVAC system designs to make the indoor environment more adaptive, to allow people a range of thermal environments that they feel the most comfortable in, so that they can work to their best capacity,” Allen added on the topic of thermal comfort.

“Green buildings alone are not enough to create a sustainable future, as there needs to be whole ecosystems solutions that are scaled up to have a greater impact on mending the planet. Occupants need to change their behaviour and mindset for change to be effective; building better will see greater returns in the social and economic sense because the cost of not doing so will be higher than any monetary or opportunity cost,” commented Candice Lim, editor in chief, BCI Asia, and moderator at the FuturArc Forum 2019.

Putting wellness at the heart of building design

Astee Lim, BOA registered architect, LEED Accredited Professional and certified Green Mark Manager with 10 years of experience in sustainability consultancy, gave her insights in FuturArc 3Q 2019 issue, where she detailed why building owners and corporate occupiers can no longer afford to ignore the demand for the well-being of occupants. For instance, biophilic design and good indoor environmental quality are parallel concepts in both arenas. These include elimination of tobacco smoking, mitigation of pollution during construction, meeting minimum fresh air rates and provisions that encourage walking and cycling.

She added that the unique nature of the WELL standard lies in its incorporation of soft service parameters, which explores the management and operational policies that relate beyond the physical space. For example, WELL introduces various avenues for the promotion of healthy dietary behaviour, a major component of wellness. These include locating the project within close proximity to grocery shops selling fresh fruits and vegetables, display of nutritional information for food provided or sold to occupants within the project, and reduced marketing and provision of unhealthy foods.

Salutogenic designs: Residential

In Hong Kong, Mount Pavilia (FuturArc May-Jun 2018; FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2018: Merit) offers 31,500 square metres of green spaces in the form of landscaped parks and garden, providing a significant contribution to the overall health and welfare of the community. Architectural features such as large windows achieve a recommended 12-per-cent daylight factor into the indoor environment. The physical needs of residents are addressed by having parks, biking and walking trails, playing fields and swimming pools all within a 0.8-kilometre walking distance of the residential buildings, thus promoting fitness, community inclusion and wellness. Urban farming and hydroponic plants were designed to extend the vibrancy of residents’ lifestyles.


The Breathing House in Indonesia (FuturArc Sep-Oct 2016) is named for the generous large glass openings that serve as windows and doors, where the bricks were cleverly laid to create voids or that allow cross ventilation and an abundance of light.

FuturArc correspondent Assoc Prof Dr Zalina Shari wrote about modern residential tropical properties (RoL House and Window House, FuturArc Sep-Oct 2018) that have adopted different approaches in relation to being organic in context with nature, and minimalist in structure, form and massing, with distinct passive designs incorporated.

Another project in Malaysia, the Planter Box House (FuturArc 2Q 2019; FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2019), shows how a planter box façade is used as a filter to redefine the internal and external spatial relationship, introducing a new view for the internal living area and external public space as well as attempting a way of being self-sufficient in food through urban farming. The house is covered by more than 40 types of edible plants, tripling the green area of the site.

In Singapore, the site plan of Cornwall Gardens (FuturArc May-Jun 2016; FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2016: Merit) enabled a series of voids and crevices to be carved out on the structure, breaking down the building mass for daylight penetrations and ventilation. The front façade is cladded with charcoal for solar insulation and absorption of air pollutants.

Similarly, the dormitory blocks at Pioneer and Crescent Halls, Nanyang Technological University (FuturArc May-Jun 2016; FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2016: Merit), Singapore, are positioned in such a way that maximises their interaction with greenery, wind and water. This synergy of the green and blue infrastructures seeks to enhance the quality of life of the students and communities. On the inner façade, the double-glazed casement windows catch the wind when opened and allow an increased airflow through the bedrooms. This ‘breathing’ façade system provides physical comfort and wellness to the residents.

In Vietnam, Stepping Park House (FuturArc 2Q 2019; FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2019: Merit) was designed to become a living extension of its surroundings and becomes part of the natural landscape. The fenestrations and the central volume ensure a steady flow of wind movement from the park throughout the spaces.

Salutogenic designs: Schools

In Australia, Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Primary School (FuturArc 3Q 2019) is enclosed in a high-performance envelope with light, airy interiors. An educational space that elevates well-being, a vast four-storey atrium acts as the main entry via a central circulation spine, connecting all areas on the upper levels of the building with the ones on the ground floor.

In Hong Kong, the University of Chicago Center (FuturArc 2Q 2019; FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2019: Merit) offers maximised views via generous floor-to-ceiling glazing with custom-designed frit patterns, allowing for light/shadow to further connect the building with its surroundings.

In Malaysia, the International School of Kuala Lumpur (FuturArc Jan-Feb 2017) has created voids or courtyards in the spine building, which not only serve as breakout areas for students and staff, but also allow for breezes to cross ventilate the building.

In Vietnam, the double-layered roof and walls of iSchool Quang Tri (FuturArc 2Q 2019; FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2019: Merit) mitigate heat gain and protect from heavy rains while enhancing air circulation. The spatial design favours connectedness and openness, in an attempt to integrate the built structures with the surrounding blue and green areas, as well as helping students experience an interactive living and learning style.

Salutogenic designs: Commercial

In China, the Shanghai Greenland Center (FuturArc 3Q 2019) is designed in such a way that the boundaries between the inside and outside have been blurred, creating a lush and spacious arena and contributing to improving occupants’ health and well-being.

In India, vertical green walls run along the entire two-floor length of the Office for Communique (FuturArc 3Q 2019) along its eastern and western edges, and treated fresh air is brought in to improve indoor air quality. The design of this office project seeks to prioritise comfort, health and well-being of its users.

Are we too late?

The WELL Building Institute emphasises the importance of prevention and preparedness. But are we prepared; have we done enough; and most importantly, did we do our due diligence?

In a recent case, we see a sharp spike in the foreign workers’ dormitories in Singapore, where it is largely densely populated, and spatial design has not been previously considered properly. A grave wake-up call, the Singapore government has proceeded to tackle the situation with isolation facilities and stricter social distancing protocols: e.g., block-to-block and floor-to-floor separation with colour-coded wristbands. Construction of more foreign worker dormitories in Changi East is being accelerate to help relieve the crowding in existing foreign workers’ dormitories. Meanwhile, the three existing dormitories in Changi East have been renovated and other buildings on the site have been fitted out to meet the enhanced medical and isolation requirements for foreign workers. Facilities include prefabricated dormitories with double-decker bunk beds and a gym for workers.

Salutogenic designs: Workplace

In Vietnam, Deutsche Bekleidungswerke Ltd Factory Long Hau, as published in FuturArc Mar-Apr 2017 issue, shows how a factory can go far beyond basic compliance and demonstrate environmental leadership, where the client took a strong stance from the outset on worker comfort and health, setting sustainability goals to maximise benefits to occupants. It has been recognised for its Green efforts with Platinum LEED and LOTUS (developed by the Vietnam Green Building Council (VGBC)) certifications.

For a comparison, find out about Method South Side Soapbox in USA (FuturArc Mar-Apr 2017), which is a well-ventilated industrial facility that is awarded the LEED Platinum certification for its efforts at achieving comprehensive environmental sustainability.

To round it up, get an in-depth review about the new workplace revolution (FuturArc Mar-Apr 2018), where our FuturArc correspondent expounds the evolution of our needs and expectations of the workplace, and as a result, the typology of the office building.

There might be some sectors that have been overlooked, and immediate remediation measures have to be put in place, but this is not to say the same should be applied for all. We do not have to look far for a building’s palpable positive impact—all the abovementioned projects are good examples—where nature has been incorporated into the architecture and/or interior spaces, whether in terms of daylighting, natural ventilation, greenery, views to the outside, etc., and from which users have been benefiting by way of comfort and well-being. With an increased awareness of wellness and sustainability for occupants, the building and construction industry is steadily stepping up on the implementation of user-centric Green measures. Besides the WELL Building Standard, there are also other established performance rating certifications, such as LEED, BEAM Plus (Hong Kong), Green Building Index (Malaysia) and Green Mark (Singapore).

In the latest version, LEED v4.1 the aim is to ensure that a building is resilient from natural and unnatural disturbances with a comprehensive set of design and construction strategies. It raises the bar on building standards to address energy efficiency, water conservation, site selection, material selection, day lighting and waste reduction. Some of the rating systems include Building Design + Construction, Interior Design + Construction, as and Operations + Maintenance.

BEAM Plus comprises four assessment tools, namely New Buildings, Existing Buildings, Interiors and Neighbourhood, covering the whole building life cycle. It assesses aspects such as water use; indoor and outdoor environment qualities; energy use; building management; as well as materials and waste handling. An exemplar project under this assessment is Construction Industry Council’s Zero Carbon Building (ZCB), the first of its kind in Hong Kong that has been awarded the BEAM Plus Platinum status. More than 2,800 sensors are built into the building to report in real-time on every aspect of the building performance, how it interacts with its surroundings. It is climate-positive, reducing urban heat island effects with extensive greenery coverage.

Hope: Through the design of form, space and materiality

Here is a quick summary of how architecture is vital to our well-being and health, by Professor Koen Steemers, Head of Department and Professor of Sustainable Design, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge. He suggests that it is more important to incorporate a wide range of both quantitative and qualitative health considerations rather than to focus on single, narrowly defined criteria. Such ‘silo thinking’ tends not to aid good design (perfectionism can be crippling) and often different criteria are in tension. An alternative approach is to determine ‘good enough’ strategies that increase diversity and adaptability, and that are user-centred.

Stay tuned to the upcoming issue of FuturArc (FuturArc 2Q 2020, Green Awards), where we reveal how far we have progressed with the hallmarks of Green buildings (FuturArc Green Leadership Award 2020) and showcase good design ideas (FuturArc Prize 2020).

Architecture is not only about containment and function, it’s also about empowerment and harmonising, creating a fluid relationship and open interaction between buildings and the natural landscape.

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