The WELL Building StandardTM and the Living Building Challenge®

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March 15, 2022

Home » The WELL Building StandardTM and the Living Building Challenge®

By Darren James

[email protected]

Darren L. James, AIA is President & COO of KAI Texas, a multi-disciplinary firm including architecture, interior design, MEP engineering, program/construction management and construction

Educational spaces continue to evolve as various school districts and researchers look to create academic settings conducive to meeting the instructional needs of tomorrow’s pedagogies. Researchers have shown that the built environment can have an impact on student success. In the last few years as sustainable initiatives have been codified a core group of early adopters created WELL Building StandardTM and the Living Building Challenge®.  These two are complimentary yet distinct and can work in concert with LEED to produce a holistic approach to sustainability.

Whereas LEED, Green Globes and Enterprise Green Communities have human health as one metric, the WELL Building StandardTM encompasses 7 attributes; the framework is structured as 7 petals of a flower; Place, Water, Energy, Health + Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty.  These variables are measured over a twelve month period of time to determine actual real-world performance opposed to calculated or expected outcomes.

Environmental Concerns Are Critical

In an educational setting this can be paramount to improved educational outcomes.  In two of KAI’s most recent projects, a $52 million additional and major renovation to a high school built in the late 1950’s and a new PK-8 elementary and middle school, the community and parents were as concerned about environmental conditions as they were about academic spaces and technological amenities.  In numerous community meetings, our design teams along with the district’s environmental department spent considerable time discussing the indoor air and water qualities conducive to supporting the academic rigor they expected and demanded.

The paradigm shift in these parents’ minds was that these were not mutually exclusive conditions that needed to work sequentially or even in a silo fashion.  The expectation was that an indoor healthy environment was a fundamental right and that we should be as concerned about the human aspects of health as the built academic spaces.  Obviously they had sympathetic ears from both the owner’s perspective and the design team’s.  The Well Building Standard TM is a great compliment to assuring the indoor environment meets the desires of students, teachers, parents, administrators and designers in providing a healthy place to learn.

The evolution of the sustainable movement to introduce means and methods for promoting, encouraging and measuring the 7 petals the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) identifies goes a long way beyond the reduction of the operational impact, life cycle costs, material utilization, landfill waste and travel distances quantified in and calculated in the LEED or other pre-certification processes.  Those metrics are extremely valuable and need to work collaboratively with the WELL Building StandardTM and the Living Building Challenge®. However the value of looking holistically provides a system that encompasses all aspects of a building and its impact on the person as well as the environment.

A Holistic Approach

In our educational design efforts, we seek harmony with students and educators in mind, defining, refining and creating spaces that encourage maximum performance in the best spaces with connectivity to data-proven touchpoints such as natural light, comfortable flexible learning and serendipity spaces.  As noted, we were selected to update a 1950’s era undersized building bringing to current codes and educational standards while addressing community concerns. 

Dallas’ South Oak Cliff (SOC) High School is a microcosm of the issues WELL Building StandardTM was created to address.  The students were so frustrated with the state of the learning conditions that they organized, protested and petitioned the Board of Trustees for redress.  The crux of their most persuasive argument was that conditions inside were not conducive (and, in fact, were counterproductive) to learning.  It was difficult and hard to concentrate or get the quality of education they expected and deserved in the conditions they were subjected too.  Amazingly the human spirit cannot be denied or stifled and despite the conditions the school produced at least two Gates Scholars and other academic champions. 

However, as we began the process with a series of community engagement meetings, the majority of the early meetings quickly moved beyond answering the mail, so to speak, of address the physical academic environment to the thoughts first and foremost on their minds; “Would the newly renovated SOC be healthy and encouraging to my son/daughter?” As we worked through each issue sequentially, it was apparent that, although LEED was not part of the equation, addressing the quality of life aspects of this project was paramount to the success of the project upon completion.

Our design team consisted of architects, interior designers, MEP Engineers, acousticians and landscape architects and educational thought leaders.  Each took a holistic approach to solving their discipline-specific need but reviewed their respective solutions parametrically determining the downstream

reaction their specific solution may have on another aspect of the building and the interior and exterior learning and transitory environments we created. The desired outcomes were measured against perceived benefit and true benefit.  The iterative nature of this process elevated the solution beyond a typical addition/renovation project with stakeholder buy-in and true engagement.

SOC is truly a historic PLACE and is at the heart of the surrounding community. Multi generations have attended that school from the same immediate and sometimes extended families.  It is near and dear to the consciousness and a reflection of the pride exhibited by those that came before and the nurturing they impart on those attending today and the future.

WATER was of utmost concern due to age of infrastructure and previous district wide and campus specific water quality tests.  The design team and the district staff work diligently to address this issue to the eventual satisfaction of the community leaders and parents.

The School is known for its athletic proficiency as well as its academic acumen. A 35,000-sf addition would over-extend the existing ENERGY service capacity and eventual need for a new gymnasium addition and Academic programs.  Our engineers were very creative in providing new service entry points to make the current system work more efficiently and augmenting only where needed with capacity for future flexibility and growth but with highly efficient light fixture and mechanical systems that will save operational and utility costs while making the indoor environments much more pleasant and well lit.

South Oak Cliff High School was graced with two wonderful internal courtyards that provided natural light and limited access to certain classes or grade levels.  We repurposed those courtyards and created the new main entry to align with a view into the green space.  We opened up each corner of the courtyards providing access for outdoor experiential learning and overlooks from the 2nd floor from the new collaboration spaces.  One courtyard will have an amphitheater and stage while the other will serve as social gathering spaces for all grade levels.  Each will be accessible to the educators for outdoor learning.  A new 2 ½ story student entry named the ‘Bear Den’ is immediately adjacent to an outdoor newly designed and created pocket park on the school property celebrating the arrival of the students each morning, setting the tone for their Health + Happiness in the new SOC when it opens in August of 2020. (Picture 7)

MATERIALS played an essential role in marrying the two main additions – the 1st floor administration wing (with 4 new science labs above) along the front at Marsalis Blvd. and the new gymnasium addition along the rear of the school.  The materials had to match the style and feel of the existing composition with texture and color as well as signify the renewed focus and address the pride exhibited by the students, parents and community leaders.  Just as important was how we addressed the interiors to reflect a new day.  We repurposed the old gym floor and married new finishes with old to create a blend that demonstrated progress while paying homage to the past.  These discussions were as involved with campus leadership as the other aspect of this complex project.

 From the onset of our engagement, this entire project pivoted around the concept of EQUITY.  The students and parents felt slighted.  They expected to receive the same quality of education from other areas of the district and would not take status quo answers.  They demanded the same and expected no less. The platform they utilized allowed this project to fulfill the needs of this project at a level beyond the initial project parameters.  With Gates Scholars and Collegiate Academies they performed well and expected similar spaces from schools in the Metroplex.  Equity was at the basis of all conversations and resonated strongly with my team as we work diligently to deliver a dollar for dollar equivalency with all of our projects regardless of location or surroundings.

When our renderings were unveiled for the first time, the audience was pleased with the care, concern Picture 7and design solution for their new front door.  As SOC previously stood, the front door was non-descript and did not denote a sense of arrival for guest or parents.  The students were required to enter the school before hours at the rear of the school and go up a set of exterior bare concrete stairs past a loading and service dock.  We addressed both entries with solutions that celebrated the arrival and signified the pride of the past and promise for the future.  The BEAUTY was welcomed and commended by all.

 It is increasingly clear that for the U.S. to close the educational gap with the industrialized world, it is going to require new thinking. Academic programs must work in concert with learning spaces allowing educators and administrators flexible spaces to adapt as times and teaching pedagogies change.  What cannot be lost is the need to create sustainable solutions to ensure the future of our planet and society is not imperiled due to exhaustion of resources and the next level of higher thinking is the health and wellbeing of the individual users.  Previous sustainability measures have addressed the built environment. WELL Building StandardTM and the Living Building Challenge® may not be the panacea but the conversation moves along to include the human element which in turn can assist educational outcomes. The parents have spoken loudly to us and they want a healthy functioning equitable building and that is what we strive to deliver each and every time.

—–do not use below this line

Darren L. James, AIA is President & COO of KAI Texas. KAI believes in transforming communities through design and construction solutions.  KAI is a multi-disciplinary firm including architecture, interior design, MEP Engineering, Program/Construction Management and Construction. 101 N. Zang Blvd. Suite 100 Dallas, TX 75208


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