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How healthy is your office?

Developers and architects are now focusing on the effect that buildings have on the people who work in them

From standing desks and an organic foods cafe to triple-filtered air and plants galore, Delos' new headquarters is a showcase for the trend of commercial real estate designed with wellness in mind.

FOR decades, many developers and architects worked to ensure that their buildings were kind to the planet. Now, their focus is on the effect that buildings have on the people who work in them.

Studies show that healthy workers tend to be more productive, a concept that is behind a growing trend in real estate to create offices with measurable wellness benefits. One frequently cited Harvard study showed that improving air quality caused mental cognition to soar.

New certification programmes have sprung up to guide the way, including the Well Building Standard, introduced by the development company Delos in 2014 and based on medical research that shows how our surroundings affect our health.

Delos' new headquarters, on the fourth and fifth floors of a 10-storey tower in Manhattan, were designed by architecture firm Gensler. The 19,000-square-foot office space houses 70 employees and serves as a showplace for the Well standard.

In the reception area, where a tour of the office was about to begin on a recent afternoon, the air quality was good. There was proof: A digital display measuring about 6 1/2 feet by 12 feet covering one wall showed the indoor temperature, the humidity level, and other measurements of cleanliness and comfort with data supplied by sensors throughout the office.

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"We have 51 sensors, which is extreme overkill," said Janna Wandzilak, a Delos director, who was leading our tour.

Triple-filtered air whooshes in from floor vents, while ceiling ducts suck out carbon dioxide-filled air. Plants cascading from walls and partitions also help clean the air while satisfying our innate need to connect to nature, a concept known as biophilia.

Standing desks are everywhere, and a wide oak staircase stretches between the lower and upper floors, encouraging staff to walk up and down rather than take the elevator - all contributing to fitness.

"I definitely find myself sitting less," Paul Scialla, Delos' chief executive, said in an interview in his office, which was decorated with framed photos. One showed him with wellness guru Deepak Chopra, a member of the Delos advisory board.

After 18 years trading bonds on Wall Street, Mr Scialla founded the company in 2014, having identified an untapped market at the intersection of real estate and the booming wellness movement.

The Well system has criteria in seven categories that promote the health of a building's occupants, including nourishment - which explains the almond butter, the whole-grain bread and the organic apples in the Delos cafe. The other categories are air, comfort, fitness, light, mind and water.

A 282-page manual explains the standard, which is administered by the International Well Building Institute, a public benefit corporation spun off from Delos. The third-party certification is done by Green Business Certification - which also certifies Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, projects - and involves in-office auditing and laboratory analysis of water and air samples.

According to Delos, 954 projects in 35 countries are registered for Well, certified or precertified; 327 of them are in the United States, including 24 in New York. The vast majority of projects are offices. Not surprisingly, the Delos headquarters achieved the most demanding level of certification, platinum.

Other standards have been created for health and wellness. Fitwel, for instance, offers a certification programme with similar goals but a different origin and methods.

Developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fitwel is based primarily on public health data and promotes strategies shown to have the greatest effect on health.

After testing the system on workplaces of the General Services Administration, the CDC contracted with the Center for Active Design, a nonprofit organisation in New York, to administer the programme and apply it more broadly.

Started last year, Fitwel is essentially a do-it-yourself Web-based checklist and scoring system. A building owner or manager enters information about a facility and submits photographic evidence.

"It was designed to be so simple that you can walk around a building with a tablet and check on a checklist and take photos with the tablet and upload them," said Liz York, the CDC's chief sustainability officer. "At the end, you click a button." Reviewers process the information and give the user a score as well as a to-do list to improve office conditions.

Some companies, such as commercial real estate firm Tishman Speyer, which has a seat on Fitwel's advisory board, are applying the programme across their portfolio of buildings.

"You can use Fitwel in an individual building, but we want to support massive users," said Joanna Frank, president and chief executive of the Center for Active Design. "We're looking at large-scale market transformation." Certification for Fitwel costs far less than that for Well.

The expected improvements in employee wellness from either programme can result in productivity gains, including lower health care costs, lower rates of absenteeism and increased revenue from better employee performance.

The American Society of Interior Designers said it had achieved a 16 per cent productivity gain after moving into its Well-certified headquarters in Washington two years ago. The organisation, which spent about US$2 million outfitting the space, tracked the impact of the design and found increased engagement and reduced absenteeism, Randy Fiser, the chief executive, said.

Mr Fiser, who is also a member of the Delos advisory board, said the organisation added nearly US$700,000 to its bottom line in its first year from the productivity increase as well as savings from energy costs.

However, the desire to attract staff seems to be driving many companies to turn to programmes that help them develop healthy offices, according to architects and designers who work with clients on such projects.

"In today's economy, people can change jobs," said Paula McEvoy, an architect and co-director of sustainable design for Perkins & Will, which last year completed two Well-certified projects and five Fitwel certifications. "They can choose their workplace." NYTIMES

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