Seven Ways Designers Can Use Smart Technology to Enhance Wellbeing

Addressing everything from toxic chemicals in interior finishes to the maintenance of office plants, these technologies promote wellness in commercial spaces.

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When most people think about how technology can help us stay healthier, fitness trackers like the Apple Watch or Fitbit probably come to mind. But a new frontier for wellness and technology has opened up recently that could have a huge impact on public health—the built environment.

Certification systems like the Well Building Standard and Fitwel, as well as the acknowledgement of human health concerns within sustainability standards like LEED and the Living Building Challenge, have helped architects and designers quantify the connection between buildings and the wellbeing of occupants. And increasingly, these standards are asking building owners, managers, architects, and designers to rely on smart technologies to deliver health outcomes.

The Mart in Chicago is one of the most recent buildings to receive Fitwel certification for contributing to the wellbeing of its occupants. Courtesy the Mart

Released last May, the second version of the Well Building Standard defines healthy spaces as those that, “protect us from that which can make us sick, promote practices that can keep us well, and facilitate opportunities for us to connect with one another and live our lives to the fullest.” The new standard puts an emphasis on continuous monitoring, both through conventional surveys and smart technologies like sensors, in order to fully assess the human experience of buildings. Sensor-based systems have proven especially useful in monitoring indoor air quality—a vital element of any healthy interior.

ASID’s WELL Certified headquarters, designed by Perkins+Will, use smart lighting and shading systems to promote wellness. Courtesy Eric Laignel

Digital technologies are also being harnessed to ensure that potentially toxic chemistries don’t end up in the materials and products that interior designers specify for their projects. At the Living Product Expo last September, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) announced that its popular Declare label—a widely adopted standard for chemical transparency in interior products—can now be generated through the Toxnot software platform. This streamlines and simplifies the arduous process of evaluating the entire supply chain for any given product. The hope is that Toxnot will “will allow companies to scale Declare simply and easily across entire product portfolios, soon making transparent disclosure standard practice for all manufacturing companies,” says James Connelly, ILFI’s VP of Products + Strategic Growth.

Another key focus for buildings and interiors that promote well-being is lighting, and here natural light remains the gold standard. “Daylighting has a lot of properties that humans respond to,” says Marty Brennan, a lighting specialist at the architecture and interior design firm ZGF. “So how can we bring more daylight into the space and how can we support that with electric lighting?”

The shading systems at the ASID headquarters help keep the space comfortable over the course of the day. Courtesy Eric Laignel

Smart technologies stand to play a disruptive role in this sector as well, by strengthening the connections between indoor and outdoor conditions. LED fixtures now make it possible to tune the spectrum of light in any space to match the hourly changes in natural light as closely as possible. When this is combined with smart lighting control systems and carefully automated shading, buildings can harness both daylight (when it is available) and artificial light in accordance with the circadian rhythms of our bodies.

Ironically, it would seem that smart technology is at its best when it provides a vital link back to nature—helping mitigate the harmful effects of the manmade environment while encouraging us to make better choices that reconnect our bodies to natural systems. Here are seven established and experimental technologies that are bringing wellness into the built environment.

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