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.

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Much to the relief of International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) staffers, their New York office achieved WELL v2 Platinum status, the highest standard offered by the organization. The IWBI team worked closely with architecture firm COOKFOX on the revamp of the nearly 6,000-square-foot space, which is situated within a 1912 office building opposite Madison Square Park. “It’s rare to have the client also act as a consultant,” says project architect Bethany Borel. Courtesy Eric Laignel

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.

Aj2a9000 Courtesy Cookfox Architects
The structure, known until recently as the Croisic Building, stands on the corner of busy Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, just opposite Madison Square Park. IWBI’s decision to to take up residence in the aging building (one of several early skyscrapers lining the park’s perimeter) was made as a part of an effort to expand the scope of the standard’s application. “We wanted to make sure that any well-intentioned project would be able to achieve certification without the need for major capital improvements,” explains IWBI president Rachel Gutter. Courtesy Cookfox Architects

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.

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The office polled its staff about the design of the work areas: Did they want conventional sit-down desks or standing ones? All opted for the latter, and management obliged, despite the costs involved. (There are 43 such workstations—Teknion’s Expansion Cityline collection—for a full-time staff of 35.) Both the architects and IWBI solicited products from manufacturers such as Kaiterra, which donated an air-quality monitoring system, and Teknion, which contributed furniture. Courtesy Eric Laignel

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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