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How Your Building Is Nudging You Toward A Different Way Of Life

If you are at a buffet, even if you aren’t that hungry, you fill your plate, right? It is just the the way our brains work.

So how do you encourage people not to overeat? You give them a smaller plate.

The WELL certification designed by the International Well Building Institute has become the standard for the increasing number of property owners who want to show that their buildings promote wellness, the catch-all term for mental and physical health. And it was designed with smaller-plate kind of nudges in mind.

Plate size is more important than you think.

To receive a WELL certification, building owners in all sectors, but particularly office, need to hit a base level of quality across 10 key areas, such as air of a certain purity. But then across these 10 areas they earn points for providing designs, facilities or services that go above and beyond that base level. These extras will resonate with anyone familiar with the ideas of behavioural psychology founded by academics Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and built upon by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

“Nudge theory” is an idea within psychology where you subtly encourage people toward a certain type of choice or behaviour, usually by making it the easiest choice, or by making indirect suggestions.

Examples in wider society include making people opt out of pensions or savings schemes rather than opt in — this is effective because humans are hard-wired to go with the default choice.

A lot of the design features encouraged by the WELL certificate also rely on hard-wiring.

“If you make the healthy choice the easy choice then you have the ability to change people’s behaviour beyond the parameters of the workplace and have a dramatic impact on people’s entire lifestyle,” said Ann Marie Aguilar, IWBI director of operations for Europe. “We spend 90% of our time inside buildings, so how can we take these small things and use them to create an impact that people take into their whole lives?”

Smaller plate sizes are just one of the fascinating nudges encouraged by the WELL Certificate. Here are eight more.

Water Of Life

The EDGE Olympic building in Amsterdam, with its high-end water fountain at the bottom left of the picture

Medical research is increasingly finding that a lot of people are dehydrated a lot of the time, so office and building owners can combat this by taking water fountains out of dusty corners and making them well signposted and appealing, as well as producing pure, clean water. An example is the EDGE Olympic office building in Amsterdam with its super-stylish fountain in the centre of the floor.

“It’s about making the invisible visible,” Aguilar said. “The water cooler used to be the place where people met and talked, and it can be that again.”

I Have Measured Out My Life In Coffee Spoons

While building users are being encouraged to drink more of one liquid, water, they are also being encouraged to drink less of another: coffee. As with plates, the WELL certificate encourages the use of smaller coffee cups so that employees drink less Joe and are not totally jazzed from too much caffeine.

Your Five A Day

A classic example of making the healthy choice the easy choice is the provision of healthy snacks, particularly fruit and vegetables, and making them easily visible and accessible.

“We have people tell us that they never eat fruit and vegetables normally, and they are suddenly taking them home for their families,” Aguilar said.

Putting The Break In Lunch Break

The employee dining area at the Crown Estate's office in St James's Market, London.

As well as what you eat, how you eat is important for wellness. Staff should be encouraged to actually take a break while they eat lunch, and ideally sit somewhere and converse with colleagues.

“Talking and eating with colleagues reduces depression and can have a long-term impact on alleviating loneliness,” Aguilar said.

How to encourage this in practice? Creating appealing, beautiful eating areas where staff can move away from their desk is one way. More interventionist, but perhaps more effective, is a policy of barring employees from eating at their desks.

Stand Up, Baby, Stand Up

Discouraging a sedentary working day is a key part of encouraging wellness, and the WELL certification process outlines different ways of nudging workers out of their chairs. One is sit-stand desks, and companies must provide a certain proportion of these desks to win points in the certification process. The design of the office can also encourage movement, with staircases easy to access and well signposted, and design encouraging people to get up and walk around the office.

Mind Over Matter


The WELL certification process has an entire section on the mind, with mental health and mindfulness being recognised as vital for people to be happy and productive. Areas of workplaces designed and set aside specifically for contemplation, relaxation and restoration — basically, not for work — can be included to increase the WELL score. They have to meet specific criteria in terms of being a minimum size, being quiet, low-lighting and painted in calming colours.

But In That Sleep, What Dreams May Come?

Getting enough sleep is one of those things most people know they should do more of, but don’t. Companies and building owners can encourage people to rest up by allowing employees nap breaks of 20 to 30 minutes, and providing the facilities to do this. The IWBI said these facilities could include beds or daybeds, couches, cushioned mats, sleep pods, fully reclining chairs or hammocks, placed in calm, low-light environments.

The Great Outdoors Indoors

Access to nature is seen as a major part of wellness, and so is promoted by the IWBI. Even for building owners that don’t have access to outdoor space, nature can be brought indoors: The WELL certification rewards building owners for installing green walls and plenty of plants. But using natural rather than man-made materials, and incorporating the patterns of nature into designs (something Islamic art has been doing for centuries) also score well.