Rachel Gutter talks about how COVID-19 will change the places we live and work

We believe that this pandemic is going to fundamentally shift our relationships to the places and spaces where we live our lives. This is the biggest challenge of any of our lifetimes, but also the biggest opportunity
– Rachel Gutter, president, International Well Building Institute

The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is one of the foremost bodies when it comes to recognising how effectively the places we live ensure our health and wellbeing.

CLAD spoke to president Rachel Gutter about how this priority has taken centre stage.

IWBI was set up in 2014 with the aim of doing for people what LEED had done for sustainability, via its WELL Building Standard – the human-centric, wellness equivalent.

After meticulously piecing together the second version of its standard for launch in March 2020, the organisation was overtaken by the events of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We had been in this massive multi-month sprint, all the way through public comment, all the way through multiple rounds and reviews with our advisories and with a select group of about 200 stakeholders," explained Gutter. "And on the night before the vote, I pulled our chief engineer aside, it was the same day we decided to close our offices in New York City, and I said, 'I feel like we have an obligation to press pause right now'."

Task force

Instead of launching the second version of its initiative, the IWBI pulled together a task force to explore how buildings, organisations and communities can tackle COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

With time being of the essence, it will be convened for only a short time, but the intention is for it to provide practical outputs for everything from hand-washing, cleaning and ventilation to what happens when buildings are shut down for a long period, as well as to inform the new version of the WELL Building Standard.

Just a week after launching the task force, several hundred acceptance letters were being sent out to those that had stepped forward or otherwise been nominated to serve on it.

"It's a jaw-dropping number and it is so humbling," Gutter said. "I'm overwhelmed by not just the sheer volume of people, but the calibre of people who have raised their hands for this. They are doctors and researchers and governmental leaders and deep subject matter experts, building practitioners, facility managers, real estate executives and then super, super focused experts on anything from ergonomics to acoustics."

This tapping of expertise from across the spectrum is in stark contrast to much of the commentary that has been circulating in news outlets and on social media, which has been ill-sourced, speculative or just plain wrong.

As Gutter remarked, now more than ever, it's critical that the information we deal in be voraciously interrogated and accurate.

"Everybody is an expert right now," she said. "It's amazing to me, watching the webcasts go by, who is being positioned as an expert on workplace wellbeing, or work-from-home practices or even addressing trauma in the workforce; a lot of people who, quite frankly, don't understand the research and that's risky."

Badly prepared

There is also a recognition that we have, on the whole, been badly prepared for preventing a major health event like this, or indeed for dealing with the logistics of one as it plays out.

"Our fundamental issue here is that we haven't been understanding that our buildings and our communities can themselves be vehicles for public health. And we think that public health somehow is the job of a government, elected officials, city officials. No, public health is about the sum total of what our organisations do and are prepared for in a moment like this.

"The biggest thing that happened was that we found ourselves caught off guard, that most organisations were not adequately prepared for work-from-home scenarios, that most employees are not adequately educated on how to optimise work-from-home environments for productivity, but also for personal wellness."

If there's a silver lining to all of this, Gutter believes it's that we will be forced to think more carefully about the ways in which we live and work.

"We believe that this pandemic is going to fundamentally shift our relationships to the places and spaces where we live our lives," she said. "This is the biggest challenge of any of our lifetimes, but also the biggest opportunity. It's a call-to-action for all of us that places matter and that they can have a dramatic impact on our health, wellbeing and safety. Our homes, our schools, our hospitals, our places of work."

Tangible outputs

Drawing on the wealth of past research, experience and knowledge of the IWBI, Gutter sees three main tangible outputs arising from the pandemic.

"There will be a substantial uptick in the demand for third-party verified certifications for health and wellbeing – and not just of buildings, but of products as well. I think there's a lot in this scramble, as I'm sure you've seen in all the news coverage, of fake solutions or invalid solutions.

"Second, I think that we will profoundly change our relationship to remote working. I can't tell you how many of my mentors and other executives that are in my orbit but who are a generation or two apart from me are saying 'I've never been a fan of remote work, but it's actually kind of great, I can actually really see that it's working'. I think that's a kind of generational shift that perhaps this is prompting.

"And I think that the third and biggest change will be to the way that we consider our relationship to our physical environment. And I hope, hope, hope that that includes the planet; that it includes not just our indoor spaces, but a kind of reverence, respect and shift in the way that we view our relationship to our planet.

"We've always had this dependence, this interdependence - it's the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the food that we eat, it's the crudest versions of shelter. All of these things are so fundamental to our survival and, in our best moments, to our ability to thrive."

"I hope it is the beginning of the revolution that we've been looking for, around broader topics of sustainability," said Gutter.

"It's time for us to start talking about human health and planetary health for what they are, which is fundamentally inextricable and fragile."

As part its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IWBI is offering a free webcast series focusing on how buildings, communities and organisations can support our health and wellbeing, its WELL Accredited Professional (AP) exam at a reduced price and a free five-part virtual training series as preparation for the exam.

IWBI  Rachel Gutter  COVID-19  workplace wellness  well home 
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