Evolution of Wellness Design


New Tools for Enhancing Campus Wellness


In my first week of graduate school, the department chair told our cohort –

“What we do here is not normal. That’s why we provide student health services.”


He then launched into a listing of the various services provided by the university for student wellness, reciting a litany of different offices and facilities for safety and security, mental, physical and emotional health. Over time, we’ve come to think of student wellness as a set of disparate health services provided for student well-being. This change has largely resulted from specific trends and changes in college healthcare needs, such as rising stress and anxiety levels among students, attention deficit disorders, suicide awareness and prevention, and increasing levels of violence and sexual assault on campus.

This response to these healthcare concerns has been appropriate and merited. But, lost in the shuffle of these changes is a focus on the idea of wellness. A simple shift of viewpoint to an encompassing wellness approach can be much more effective at solving these health issues, rather than a reactive attitude toward the various illnesses. In current sustainable design trends, the concept of wellness has evolved to become a holistic set of principles for student life, encompassing everything from health services, to campus design and development, to curriculum and pedagogy. Indeed, the concept of wellness is becoming one of the leading trends for sustainable design of college campuses and buildings and may one day even eclipse the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard for sustainable design.

Over the last 10 years, several new standards have been developed for sustainable design including FitWel, the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, the Living Building Challenge, Zero Energy Certification, Zero Carbon Certification, Petal Certification, the WELL Building Standard and Biophilic Design. The LEED standard itself has expanded to serve a range of different project types for Interior Design, Operations and Maintenance, Homes and Neighborhood Development. With this explosion of sustainability and design standards, it can be very difficult to parse through the details to understand which standard is best for your project, and which design guideline can best improve and promote wellness on your college campus.

The Spheres
The Spheres // Seattle, WA


To better understand the trajectory and power of wellness design for universities and colleges, this article will focus on Biophilic Design and the WELL Building Standard. But first, let’s provide a little more detail on the other standards for comparison.




This standard was created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention together with the General Services Administration in 2015. This standard is operated and certified by the Center for Active Design and is primarily focused on wellness design for the workplace and for multi-family residential buildings. For a college or university, this standard may be of interest for student housing projects or possibly administrative office spaces, but at this time does not apply to academic buildings or open campus environments.


Buckminster Fuller Challenge

Named for the visionary philosopher, designer, inventor and mathematician of the 20th Century, this challenge invites students and professionals to develop solutions for some of humanity’s most pressing problems. Fuller famously coined the term “spaceship earth” and championed socially responsible design which would work for 100% of humanity. In this spirit, this challenge is an invitation for creative and responsible design thinking. Such a challenge isn’t directed toward any one specific building or program, but to inspire innovative thinking for socially conscious design. Though this would not be a common standard to pursue for a new construction project, the holistic pursuit of wellness for an entire college campus is certainly in line with this vision.


International Living Future Institute – Living Building Challenge

The Living Building Challenge and Petal Certifications are certified by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). These standards are related in that each standard imagines a building to be as efficient as a flower. A Living Building meets the requirements for the full set of 7 petal certifications, i.e. place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity and beauty. To achieve Petal Certification, a building must only meet the requirements for 3 of the 7 petals. The Living Building Challenge is among the most rigorous and difficult to achieve standards for sustainability, visualizing the ideal for the built environment. Such a building should be regenerative, self-sufficient, healthy and beautiful. It can be an amazing focal element or complementary piece for any campus, yet it is not the only way to achieve a new standard for college campus wellness.


International Living Future Institute – Zero Energy / Zero Carbon Certifications

Zero Energy and Zero Carbon Certifications are also certified by the ILFI. These certifications provide an owner with an alternative path for achieving a singular goal. If your primary focus is to reduce and eliminate energy or carbon consumption, then these standards are tailor made for your project. Such a project will help the bottom-line in that energy consumption (and costs) can be reduced to zero. These standards are great for reduced energy consumption and general sustainability, but are limited in terms of their application to wellness design.


Crosswalks and Alignments

Given the overlap between some of these standards, it is possible for a project to achieve multiple certifications using the Crosswalk paths recognized by LEED, the ILFI, and the International Well Building Institute (IWBI). One project may use this path for corresponding credits to achieve both LEED and WELL certifications. A separate project could use similar documentation to obtain both the WELL and Living Building Challenge certifications.

Biophilic Path
Michael B. Coleman Government Center // Columbus, OH



This standard was initially developed by IWBI as a pilot program in 2012 and officially launched in 2014. It has already encompassed over one million square feet in new project development. It is focused on eight key areas for project design:


  • Air
  • Water
  • Nourishment
  • Light
  • Fitness
  • Comfort
  • Mind
  • Innovation


Some of these areas are very similar to LEED. Yet, whereas LEED provides a general standard for sustainable design, reduced energy consumption and improved building systems, the WELL Building Standard’s primary focus is occupant health and well-being. To this end, WELL was initially applied to commercial and institutional workplace environments. However, WELL has also noted the importance of educational spaces for educator and student health and well-being and is now developing a pilot program to refine criteria for these facility types.

One of the key features of this standard, and a point of comparison with LEED is the Letter of Assurance. With the LEED standard the architectural and engineering team submits substantial information for each credit area to show how a building design meets the sustainability standard. This is a large endeavor for the design team, but an even larger investment for the project owner, which does not always ensure the project will perform as designed. In the WELL standard, the design team submits a Letter of Assurance, which simply states the design meets the specified standard. Rather than placing emphasis on the preliminary calculations, this standard prioritizes performance verification and building commissioning. In this way, a project owner has extra assurance that their new facility will perform as designed and will achieve the project’s sustainability goals set during conceptual design.

The WELL Standard, as a human centered design approach, based in medical research, seeks to explore how humans connect to buildings. The design categories for light, water and air quality are similar to other established standards. In providing a new design standard for nourishment, WELL ensures that building occupants have access to healthy food, community eating spaces to encourage socialization, and high standards for food sourcing and preparation. The fitness requirements encourage an active life style via incentive programs, wayfinding which highlights the use of stairs, spaces for physical activity, and new furniture, like sit-to-stand desks. In terms of comfort, WELL emphasizes flexibility of spatial function, acoustics considerations to reduce noise levels, and body comfort through natural ventilation, odor comfort, airflow and temperature controls. Overall, WELL sets a high standard for mental and physical health by encouraging a healthy balance for work, study and life, and a focus on nature, aesthetics and beauty.




This design philosophy aims to re-connect people with nature through buildings. The term “biophilia” was developed by Harvard biologist and environmentalist Edward O. Wilson for the love of life and living systems. While we spend approximately 90% of our time indoors, this standard aims to improve human health and well-being by creating connections between the natural and built environment. This is not just a generic interconnectivity between interior and exterior environments but is tied to the specific ecology and climate of the local environment.

  1. Nature in Space Patterns address the direct and physical presence of nature within space. These areas are roughly analogous to the 8 target areas from the WELL Building Standard and reference the direct presence of water, dynamic light and airflow.
  2. Natural Analogous Patterns address organic, non-living and indirect evocations of nature within space.
  3. Lastly, the four Nature of the Space Patterns are Prospect, Refuge, Mystery, and Risk / Peril. These four patterns represent elements one might experience on a nature hike. Yet, each of these experiences can also be provided within interior and exterior campus spaces.
    • Prospect is a spatial configuration which can provide an unimpeded view over a distance, from an open vantage point or sheltered enclosure. Such spaces can provide visual interest, reduce boredom and may be able to reduce stress, as a person can survey surroundings for observation and planning.
    • Refuge provides a place for withdrawal and may be as simple as an interior library carrel or exterior pergola with park benches. This protected space can be large or small, but generally provides respite from surrounding activity and a private place for contemplation and concentration.
    • Mystery provides the promise of more information and may be provided by a winding pathway or within an interior open concourse where some areas may be obscured and then revealed as you move through the space.
    • Risk / Peril provides a more ephemeral notion of perceived threats and real safeguards. Such experience can change throughout the course of a day and may be affected by lighting design and levels of activity.

Biophilic Design is an inherently loose and open design strategy, which is specific to place and must be unique to each campus. Each of these spatial concepts merit consideration, as we strive to provide varied campus environments with opportunities for focused concentration, collaboration, relaxation and rest, which provide great value for improved psychological and emotional health.

Bosco Verticale
Bosco Verticale // Milan, Italy



The university environment, whether in urban or rural settings, has long been perceived as a pastoral landscape, separate and reserved for the studies of higher education. Many college campuses already have some elements of these standards for biophilic and wellness design. The key question for many of these schools isn’t how to implement wellness design from scratch, but how to accentuate the elements already present in their classrooms, laboratories and open spaces.

Clearly, there are a number of wellness design standards and tools available to help university and college campuses achieve these goals. This brief exploration of these varied standards provides a range of options for use individually or in tandem. One option for an owner to consider is using the WELL Building Standard for the construction of new academic buildings and student housing facilities, within an overall approach for Biophilic campus design. There are many options for an owner to consider, yet this approach may just be the key to fostering an environment where student safety and security, emotional and physical health aren’t just maintained through a set of services, but established through intentional wellness design.


John Ryan

John Ryan, AIA, LEED AP // Project Architect

John practices architecture as a collaborative process, engaging with the client, user groups, stakeholders and other project partners to discover the project solution. His experience includes a range of building types, including civic, healthcare, higher education and commercial projects. Common to each of these projects is the use of design as a tool for engagement, conversation and problem solving for the entire design team. John’s interest in wellness design stems from his interests in environmental and social sustainability, and his belief that design can yield powerful results for the integration of built and natural environments, as well as strengthen the social fabric of our cities and communities.



  1. International Living Future Institute - Living Building Challenge - https://living-future.org/
  2. WELL Building Standard - https://www.wellcertified.com/
  3. Biophilic Design - https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/reports/14-patterns/