Expert Interview: Whitney Gray, PhD, LEED AP

January 09 2018 / by Mari Ryan

The environment in which we live and work shapes our wellbeing and influences our health. In this expert interview, Whitney Gray, PhD, LEED AP, Senior Vice President of Delos, talks about the ways in which the built environment impact our health. You can also read our previous blogs on this topic here and here.


Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essential Series. I’m Mari Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you to this wellbeing expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Whitney Austin Gray.

Whitney is a Senior Vice President at Delos. At Delos, Whitney leads research and development of innovation strategies that seek to improve human health and wellbeing through building design. She’s an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University. Whitney received her PhD from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and was the first public health professional to become Leed AP certified. Whitney, welcome, I’m so delighted to have you here today.

Whitney Gray: Thank you for having me.

Mari Ryan: This is going to be a fun conversation. I’m excited to explore with you a little bit about the work that you do, which is at the intersection of health and wellbeing, and building design. Let’s begin by talking a little bit about how is it that the industry that focuses on building design has come to be interested in the health and wellbeing of the occupants of those buildings that they build and design.

Whitney Gray: We need them, is the answer. Dr. Richard Jackson, along with Dr. Howie Frumpkin, published a book on designing healthy places. In it, they said that architects, designers, planners, may have a greater impact on the future of the public’s health than physicians.

Whitney Gray: That’s a powerful statement, and I absolutely support that with research as well, because we look at the forward determinates of health in this country; those are access to care, we look at genetics, we look at the behaviors, as well as the environment. A lot of people think that those are equally weighted. They figure genetics will actually be a huge component of how long you’ll live, and in reality, seventy percent of what causes chronic disease conditions is caused by the environment and behavior. That’s huge. Who are environmental experts? We think the design professionals are environmental experts. When you look at the workplace, and we think about human resource professionals, they can be behavior experts because they are helping to influence how people are living healthier lives in the office, and performing at their highest level.

The message here is that we need our professionals outside of public health to help us design and create healthier social and physical environments.


Mari Ryan: In the last couple of years, we’re talking about how all these elements come into play, so the “why now,” and in the process over the last couple of years, your organization has developed what has come to be known as “The Well-Building Standard.” Can you talk a little bit about what that is, and what the elements of the Well-Building Standard are?

Whitney Gray: Absolutely. I work with Delos, and Delos is a wellness real estate and technology company, which is really exciting. That means that we’re in lots of spaces that have to do with creating healthier places for you to live, work, heal and play. That means everything from hotels, to workplaces, to schools, to hospitals, and inside of that we have a huge commitment to research and development. Part of that was the development of the Well Building Standard, and Delos is the pioneer of the Well Building Standard. It is administered by the International Well Building Institute. The Well Building Standard really focuses on seven key concepts that have to do with your health.

You just take a step back, and ask yourself how does the physical environment impact my health? Well, it impacts your health by what you are breathing, right now. Do you even know if it’s good air quality? If you’re exposed to carbon monoxide, you wouldn’t know until, often, when it’s too late. We look at formaldehyde, we look at VOCs, we look at molds in buildings. One out of three buildings is considered a “sick” building, according to the World Health Organization.

We push professionals to think about how to design … or, healthy air, which also means increased oxygen in the air flow, decreasing carbon dioxide, and thinking deeply about how buildings in many places of the world are breathing for you.

We also look closely at water quality, so the Well Building Standard will focus on things such as understanding lead in the water supply. For many places around the world, and the United States, we have amazing water sanitation policies and access to clean, drinkable water, but there are also some big challenges that we face, and I think you’ll only see more challenges in water infrastructure in the future.

One of those is been, although the treatment plant has done their job, by the time it leaves the treatment plant and goes through all those pipes and reaches your sink, it’s also going through old lead pipes. What happens is we want to make sure to reduce the potential risk of exposure to those inorganic and organic contaminants by looking at filtering water. We look at water and water access, and of course, your body – the majority of it, actually, is made of water. In fact, your brain right now is over eighty percent water. Water has a lot to do with mood, fatigue, and a lot to do with even our immune/endocrine system at flushing those toxins out of our bodies. This is a really important area, this water.

We also look at light. We want to make sure light gets in the eye. You also might be interested to know that it’s regulated that you have access to light; not so much in the States. Our photoreceptors don’t know the difference between light sources that we receive, which is really interesting. If we receive poor light during the day, we don’t have an immediate biofeedback loop to say oh, that was bad light. Rather, it shows up in your sleep. It shows up in your ability to focus. It shows up in your circadian rhythms, alertness, and it shows up in your mood. You can always test that by looking at jet lag.

We really [skip in audio - 0:06:25.7] part of the industry to try and bring light into space. We think this is a critical area for manufacturers to rethink about how to get light in the eye, not light in the back of the head. This doesn’t help us. Light in the eye.

Further, we look at comfort. So, comfort will look at ergonomic, will look at olfactory comfort, we’ll look at issues around acoustical comfort, so for a lot of listeners out there that work in an open office layout, this may come as no surprise to you whatsoever, but the research is demonstrating that we are interrupted about every three to eleven minutes. Some research says it takes over twenty minutes to get back into that level of concentration. The open office layout, or some form of shared spaces, is here to stay.

We challenge the design industry to re-think about creating spaces that enable people to make choices, to go to where they need to go – sometimes that’s to have more sound interaction, other times that’s to be very quiet and focused.

We look very closely at nourishment. You might be asking yourself what is a building professional doing talking about nourishment? We think that the way you design kitchens, cafés, the way that you design space to have vendors come in, or catering services, or restaurants in your building, matters. Seventy-five percent of what you eat will be within a five-mile radius of where you live. Even during the day, what do you have access to? How expensive is it?

Highly caloric, dense, and cheap food is out there, so we think there is a way to design for better choices. People can always eat whatever they want to eat in a well building; we are not just going to make it easy to make the unhealthy choice. We want to make it easy to make the healthy choice.

Beyond nourishment there are two other categories. The next one is fitness. This is really important. We want you up and moving. Some general protocols in that, or guidelines, are every sixty minutes you want a micro-movement, and then every ninety minutes a macro-movement. That’s because sitting is the new smoking. Your cumulative risk over time of being physically inactive is contributing to it being the fourth leading risk factor of death in the world. Quite simply put, humans were never meant to be sedentary. So, even just standing up every hour, taking a short walk to the kitchen or to grab coffee, or green tea, every ninety minutes is enough to literally change enzyme production, metabolic rate. It sends signals to the brain because it’s re-activating your blood supply, which helps your pre-frontal cortex. That’s up here helping you focus. These are all ways that we want to build in getting physical active.

When it comes to trying to design for health, we think is there a way to design in physical activity and maybe, design out guilt, so you are physically active throughout the day, you don’t feel like I didn’t go to the gym at the end of the day, rather, I’ve had it throughout the day, I’ve had some physical activity. Your ancestors never went to the gym. They had spurts of interval training, they were moving, and then they were recovering. Why can’t our modern ecosystem and environment also support physical activity?

The last concept, one that I think is most interesting, maybe, to your viewers, has to do with mind, it has to do with mental health. How do we design for mental health? We are clearly in an era of dealing with opioid addictions. We are looking at stats that say that one in two people will deal with mental health issues in their life; one in five are in treatment. The stats for major depressive disorder is 16.6 percent of the population have major depressive disorder, upwards of nine years since diagnosis. It’s here. It’s in our workplace, and we know people are dealing with mental health. They are more anxious, they are not managing stimuli, they are overloaded – and this fascinating burnout thing is happening.

How can design help? A couple of things that we look at have to do with stimuli management, adaptable spaces. We look at beauty, so, of course, beauty is arguably the opposite of injury, so how can beauty heal in this way? We are looking at issues of biophilia. That means human’s innate connection to nature, and it’s not just a plant in the room. There is something that we are attracted to around patterns, and around time of the day – circadian rhythms – access to nature, green space, and it’s a fascinating area.

In our research, right now, we are showing that almost one hundred percent of people will say that it matters to them to have nature in the office, and very few ever get it. We are really pushing that this is not optional.

Mari Ryan: Thanks for telling us about all this, Whitney, I am so excited about this and really am glad that I can help spread the word, because it is so important. We spend so much time at work, we want work to be a healthy place, we want you to improve the wellbeing of every individual and sharing this information is another step in being able to do that. Thank you so much for being here today.

Whitney Gray: Thank you. [music]

[End of audio]

Topics: Worksite Wellness, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, healthy building, well building, wellness, environment, work environment

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.