With a Major Retrofit of Their New York Office, IWBI Walks the Walk
The administrators of the WELL Building Standard filled their office with plants and standing desks to achieve WELL Platinum.
Newly ensconced on the eighth floor of a gracefully aging neo-Gothic Fifth Avenue tower, just below looming gargoyles, the 35 full-time New York employees of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) often get a little chilly. Or too hot, depending on the vagaries of the radiant pipes that still line the 1912 building. Staffers have figured out which spots on the floor are a better bet, intel that’s led to what IWBI president Rachel Gutter calls “the thermal comfort wars.”
“It’s like, if I’m running the meeting, then I get to set the temperature,” she says. “By giving people the ability to choose where they work, they get to be in a warmer section of the office or the cooler one.”
Such is the challenge of a retrofit, with acoustics running a close second: IWBI’s lease is blessed and cursed by original copper-framed, double-hung windows—easy on the eyes but rough on the ears, as the symphony of New York’s streets can become a little much. Project architect Bethany Borel of COOKFOX, the firm responsible for the office revamp, made sure the open floor plan included quiet getaways such as four peripheral conference rooms (each named after a different Beatle), 3-by-3.5-foot “phone booths,” and a lactation room.
Mitigating temperature swings and traffic Klaxons paled in comparison with the project brief, which compelled the architects to achieve the ambitious WELL Building Standard Certification (now in its v2 pilot) for the very team that administers it. That meant achieving enough credits on a 100-point scale to come in with a certification of WELL v2 Silver (at least 50 points), Gold (60), or Platinum (80 and up).
IWBI relies on Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) as a WELL third-party reviewer (GBCI also performs the service for LEED), so it wasn’t judging itself. But it was getting real-world experience in the design gymnastics necessary to lock in a variety of healthy building credits, all on a limited budget. Attempting this in a retrofit would pressure-test an overall ethos to make the WELL Standard accessible across the board.
“We wanted a space that would reflect the values that we were baking into WELL v2, which was designed to be more equitable and more inclusive, in particular to be friendlier to existing buildings and tenant spaces in existing buildings,” Gutter explains.
Borel and the IWBI team did their first walk-through of the turnkey tenant space during April of 2018. Move-in was October that same year, so they had to work fast, prioritizing anything that would bring employees comfort and earn points. Borel capitalized on the building’s corner location by relegating conference rooms mostly to the back, leaving rows of workstations exposed to the buttery natural light coming in through those historic windows. She went big on biophilic design elements, too (her personal taste and a WELL point-getter), carpeting walking areas with a blue-green Mohawk design inspired by lichens. And plants. Plants everywhere—ten-foot fiddle-leaf fig trees in abundance, snake plants reaching toward the ceiling above bookshelves, ferns nestling office couches.
When the IWBI team discussed personal workspace preferences, they found that everyone wanted a standing desk. WELL required only a percentage, but the team made a bold decision to spend a huge chunk of their budget on a standing desk for everyone, in addition to an ample kitchen. Out of cash, the IWBI team hustled to secure donations including an air-quality monitoring system from Kaiterra. They scored some extra points for workplace policies like allowing bikes in the office and offering a “remote working month” to employees during summertime.
By the end, the new office clocked in at WELL Platinum. That’s a comfort, particularly as the old building’s quirks had threatened to outpace its perks. “Every once in a while, you’ll hear the clanking of the pipes and you’re like, ‘Yup, we’re in a New York high-rise commercial office space,’” laughs Gutter. “But we loved the idea of putting ourselves through our own certification experience.”
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