Looking Back to Look Forward

 Robert J. Kobet, AIA, LEED Faculty

I entered the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning in 1968.  The research I did to apply led me to believe it was an excellent school – which it was – but I didn’t know it was one of the country’s first environmental design programs.  What was obvious was the fact I was about to benefit from a group of world-class professors who were equally dedicated to and passionate about, architecture and architectural education.  Their gift for education was manifest in their ability to break down complex topics in ways that were simple to understand, and in how they used metaphors and analogies to familiarize us with what architecture is and isn’t.  For instance:

  • We are simply inefficient heat engines. We consume fuel to keep warm and keep our bodily systems functioning.  The more “turned up” and unaffected by faltering systems we are, the better we are physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • We run on electricity. Our neurological system, synapse, and overall functioning depend on our distribution of nerves and the messages they carry.  Our brains control both our voluntary and involuntary responses.  This closely mimics a buildings electrical distribution system and the role building energy management plays in how buildings function.
  • Muscular-skeletal systems provide our framework for form and movement. Structural systems do the same for buildings.
  • Gastrointestinal systems distribute food and water and eliminate waste. Building plumbing systems do similar work.
  • Cardiovascular systems also distribute food and oxygen, help control temperature, and eliminate waste. HVAC systems do the same.

As a species we have learned to augment these systems:

  • We modify the microclimate immediately around our bodies with clothing and shelter to remain comfortable. This is the first order of interaction with the built environment.
  • We use furniture to extend the ability of our muscular-skeletal structure to maintain positions that otherwise would be difficult. Try maintaining an upright-seated position for even a few minutes without the use of a chair.
  • Computers are an extension of our brain. As miraculous as our brains are, until we can understand and utilize them more completely, a computer can perform certain functions at a speed our brains cannot.  The field of artificial intelligence is based in part on bringing those two realities together.

Yet, as important as optimizing building design has become, we have not come close to the human body as the quintessential example of integrative design.  The spinal column that enables us to stand upright also routes and protects some of the most critical nerves we have.  The integration of dexterity, strength, touch, and utility inherent in the human hand is unmatched anywhere in the built environment.  I still smile at the mention of “intelligent buildings” knowing in the true sense of the word, there is no such thing.  Like all good art, buildings may, indeed, evoke emotion, but a building will never make love, write a song or raise a child.

WELL Building Standard

Areas of concentrations in the WELL Building Standard

All this said, I am pleased to see the new WELL Building Standard http://www.wellcertified.com is based on recognition of human physiology, over all wellness and human factors in design.  It is a welcome throwback to how I was taught to think about architecture.  Like the Living Building Challenge, which uses flower petals to organize topics, the WELL Building Standard requires building designers and builders to construct buildings that benefit the following human systems:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Digestive
  • Endocrine
  • Immune
  • Integumentary
  • Muscular
  • Nervous
  • Reproductive
  • Respiratory
  • Skeletal
  • Urinary

Their scorecard categories are:

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

As someone who has devoted much of his career to designing allergy-free, non-toxic environments for clients with multiple chemical sensitivities, I find the core principles and tenets of design put forth by the WELL Building Standard to be timely, refreshing and instructive in the best sense of what environmental stewardship should be.  I look forward to seeing how their philosophy and process enriched the green building movement.


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