Interview: Ekkist's Olga Turner on building for wellness & the growth of biophilic design

By PrimeResi Journal

"Architecture for well-being is not just a trend but the result of scientific findings: it cannot and should not be ignored"

The most forward-thinking residential property developers & designers are taking an holistic approach to their projects, applying wellness principles to create homes and environments that put people first… At the forefront of the movement is former CBRE “rising star” surveyor Olga Turner, co-founder of WELL Building design consultancy Ekkist.

Olga Turner & Jonathan Baker, founders of Ekkist

You were a successful surveyor at CBRE – named as a “Rising Star” by EG in 2016 – before launching Ekkist; how did you get involved in the well-being side of property?

I came across the WELL Building Standard™ whilst at CBRE. The more I learnt about the standard, the more I could see it applying to not just large-scale projects, but also at an individual home level. My partner and I have always wanted to design our own house, and when we explored incorporating well-being into a design, we saw an opportunity to turn the idea into a business. We founded Ekkist in 2017 and after becoming a WELL Accredited Professional in August, we became one of the UK’s first WELL Faculties™ in March 2018.

Could you give us a brief overview of what Ekkist does?

Ekkist design and create buildings that focus on human health and well-being. With our architectural partners Studio McLeod, we have created the UK’s first concept house designed to both Passivhaus and WELL Building Standard™ principles, which is available to purchase as a blueprint. We also provide development consultancy on design for well-being, working with developers and housing associations to maximise well-being for future occupants, across all use classes, using our expertise in the WELL Building Standard and our ‘design for well-being’ framework. We are also working on a second housing typology, a flexible townhouse, which aims to satisfy housing demand in urban areas.

A lot of major commercial property projects have put well-being elements – from natural lighting and energy efficiency to indoor gardens to employee spas – at their core in recent years; how is the residential sector keeping pace?

“Well-being is becoming an increasingly important factor in consumer purchasing behaviour, and this includes residential projects”

A great deal of research has gone into how building design impacts our well-being, but this is almost exclusively applied to commercial spaces, focussing on benefits to staff retention and employee productivity, but there is still a lot more to be done in the residential sector. As a result, commercial projects are a long way ahead; but well-being is becoming an increasingly important factor in consumer purchasing behaviour, and this includes residential projects. Elements of well-being are being incorporated into some developments, but few have taken a holistic approach to design for well-being in the residential space, or looked into WELL Building Standard certification – we aim to help developers apply it to more use classes.

Are there any resi-led schemes that you think are doing great things in the well-being space right now?

The Wardian by EcoWorld Ballymore at Canary Wharf is a great example of biophilic design; plants and trees are inherent to our well-being, proven to reduce stress as well as improve air quality. Bosco Verticale in Milan also has gardens which are staggered up the building so that the facades are engulfed by greenery. This also improves local air quality, moderates the temperature of the building to some extent, and can reduce noise. Aside from biophilic design, London City Island makes a great effort to create a sense of community and re-introduces traditional community anchors, such as a baker, grocer, and florist, as well as the familiar notion of a village square, which are all important for social well-being. We have recently reserved an apartment here.

Many developments incorporate some elements of design for well-being, such as biophilic features, good quality natural light and health facilities, but few have thoroughly reviewed all the building materials which are used in the construction process for their impact on occupants’ health and well-being; which is where we can help developers most.

Wardian London’s pool, surrounded by lush foliage. The scheme “offers an exceptional opportunity to engage with the natural elements while living in the thriving hub of the city,” said Huw Morgan from Camlins, one of the project’s landscape architects. “Green space is one of the most sought after commodities in London and Wardian London capitalises on this with abundant planting of more than 100 different exotic species of plants and flowers across the development. Creating hidden sanctuaries, inspired by Wardian Cases, was of utmost importance in this project to deliver a tangible retreat from city living.”
The lobby of EcoWorld Ballymore’s Wardian London development. The scheme is “a great example of biophilic design,” says Olga Turner

It seems that well-being has emerged into the mainstream property consciousness only in the last few years; how can developers, owners and designers differentiate “faddy” elements from step-changes that are here to stay?

“Architecture for well-being is not just a trend but the result of scientific findings: it cannot and should not be ignored”

Architecture for well-being is different in the sense that it is not just a trend but the result of scientific findings: it cannot and should not be ignored. It is about moving towards using healthier building materials and design features which we hope will eventually be adopted into policy. Moving away from using unsustainable, artificial, and sometimes toxic, materials and finishes, towards using natural materials would signal a huge move towards developing buildings which are truly good for your well-being and stand the test of a time as a way of designing rather than a temporary fad.

There’s an array of building standards and benchmarks available; could you talk us briefly through how the main standards – Well Building, BREEAM and Passivhaus – compare?

There is a degree of overlap between some of the standards. Passivhaus and BREEAM certified buildings are predominantly sustainability-focussed; Passivhaus is very much based on energy efficiency, relying on high levels of insulation and maximising solar gain to heat the building. BREEAM focusses on sustainable construction, but also addresses aspects of well-being, advocating good levels of natural daylight, as well as good indoor air quality.

The WELL Building Standard™ however focusses specifically on occupant health and well-being: defined by the air, light, water, fitness, nutrition and comfort provided in the building, as well as the impact of it on the mind. Similarly, the Fitwel standard aims to promote health and well-being for groups of building users. The main consideration for those seeking certification should be starting with what you want to achieve: what means the most to you as an organisation, what impact are your trying to achieve, and which standards help you do that. There is some overlap between them, and in many ways they all are just features of good design practice.

How do such design standards inform your work? Are they best viewed as an objective for a project, or as a starting point?

“We take a holistic approach to design, focussing on aesthetics, environmental sustainability and human health and well-being”

Ekkist use a range of building standards in our work depending on the project requirements. We have our own design for well-being framework, which encompasses the criteria of the main building standards that we work with (The WELL Building Standard, BREEAM and Passivhaus), as well as evidence from recent scientific research. We take a holistic approach to design, focussing on aesthetics, environmental sustainability and human health and well-being, bringing in the relevant standards where needed.

There have been some big claims circulating about your Ori House project with Studio McLeod; how can you prove whether a building can improve its residents’ health – and quantify the benefits?

The IWBI (International Well Building Institute), who developed the WELL Building Standard™, spent seven years pulling together research on healthy buildings from scientific studies, universities and public health organisations, and is therefore based on strong evidence from highly credible and respected organisations. The standard informs every aspect of the design of Ori House; and by carefully curating materials which meet the standard’s requirements, and exceed it, we are confident in our assertions. There is a lot of research about how building materials, water and light quality affect our health and well-being, which we have incorporated in our design approach.

The Ekkist Ori House, designed in collaboration with RIBA Awards-winning architects Studio McLeod, is the first house in the UK designed specifically to enhance occupant health and well-being, based on concepts from the WELL Building standard and designed using non-toxic building materials.

Ori House is evidently designed from the ground-up with well-being principles in mind, but we’ve seen a number of recent projects – by the likes of the Grosvenor and Portman Estates – developing period (and even listed) properties to Passivhaus standards. Is the process of retrofitting a property to high well-being standards a very different experience to a new-build project – and are there limits to what can be achieved?

There are many opportunities with retrofit to incorporate some or all of the design features for well-being or sustainability. Sometimes the process is more difficult due to existing restrictions on light or room proportions and solar gain or energy generation opportunities on site, but the majority of features in standards such as Passivhaus and the WELL Building Standard can be incorporated into existing buildings. Often, it is about being creative in your approach to design for well-being, and therefore important to have an excellent, open-minded architect on board.

Ekkist’s blueprint for Ori House has been designed around six core principles: Air, light, water, biosphere, atmosphere and flexibility. Read more about how these are applied in practice at the bottom of this article.

Which building materials are particularly good for creating a “well” building – and which should be banished?

Most building materials can be easily switched for a more natural alternative which can contribute to creating a “well” building. For example, natural lambs’ wool is an excellent alternative to mainstream alternatives which can be toxic; it is sustainable, naturally fire retardant, and does not emit VOCs. Wood is also an excellent building material – not only is renewable and sustainable (if sourced correctly), it brings a range of health benefits: studies show being around natural materials such as wood can reduce the presence of cortisol, the stress hormone, and lower blood pressure. A crucial consideration is also the finish that is used – natural waxes and paints will emit far fewer VOCs than lacquers, glues and alkyd-based paint, and are therefore better for the health of building occupants. Finally, clay is also a great material, as it can improve the acoustic quality of a room, help regulate moisture presence to a healthy level, and also doesn’t release and VOCs, supporting good indoor air quality.

Core materials used in the design of Ekkist’s Ori House

How much of a building’s wellness performance can be attributed to aesthetics, rather than its structure or apparatus?

Aesthetics are also a crucial element of well-being. Inspiring spaces can stimulate the mind, and certain aesthetic materials and design considerations can also have significant health benefits. For example, natural materials and plants can help improve concentration and reduce stress. Clutter around the house however can impair concentration, and so incorporating beautiful storage solutions to hide any clutter can improve well-being.

Nature and plants are often talked of as being a good way to improve the “feel” of a building; Coutts’ HQ on the Strand and Apple’s Regent Street store both feature striking indoor trees in London, while EcoWorld Ballymore’s Wardian residential development in Canary Wharf is currently making a big marketing deal of its “outside-in” horticultural elements. Do such natural components require a particularly holistic approach to landscaping, architecture and interiors – or can projects be approached in a more modular fashion?

Well-being can be achieved at a variety of scales. Where large-scale indoor planting is part of the design, you need to take a more holistic approach to account for planting depth, light, growing space and irrigation. The Bosco Verticale in Milan is a prime example of this holistic approach! But at the other end of the scale, natural components can be added in a much more modular fashion. Simply installing indoor planters with plants that love shade/light depending on where they are is an easy solution to improving air quality in the home. However, there are many other aspects that contribute more to indoor air quality and well-being, such as good ventilation and low VOC, breathable, non-toxic building materials. It is about a holistic approach. To design a development to improve well-being, these elements should all be incorporated at the earliest possible stage.

Milan’s Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) is a pair of biophilically-designed skyscrapers by architects Boeri Studio. Completed in 2014, the buildings house as many trees as could be planted in a hectare of forest
The residential towers rise 364 ft and 249 ft, and contain more than 900 trees on 96,000 square feet of terrace space
How Milan’s Vertical Forest planting benefits the building and its residents (drawing by Stefano Boeri of Boeri Studio)

How do well-being credentials or features affect a residential property’s pricing? Is there a discernible premium available on sales and/or rental values, and is demand higher in the private rented sector than from owner-occupiers?

Research has shown that strong aesthetic design can achieve a premium, so by extension, design for well-being if aesthetically refined could also contribute to a property’s pricing. Demand tends to be higher in the owner-occupier market; this audience tends to occupy their property for a longer time period, and therefore can expect to see the greatest benefit from design-for-wellbeing. That said, as well-being becomes an increasingly important factor in buyer behaviour across all industries, both owner-occupiers and the private rental sector are likely to see increasing demand for buildings which can contribute to improved health.

What are the key factors that can improve a building’s well-being quotient?

Improving the well-being of a building can be grouped into five key areas:

  1. Improve indoor air quality: reduce VOCs by using natural finishes and bring fresh air into the building with good ventilation
  2. Maximise daylight to promote healthy circadian rhythms
  3. Filter water to remove any chemicals and contaminants
  4. Biophilic design: bring the outdoors into the building using plants and natural materials
  5. Create a practical home, providing sufficient storage and flexible spaces to meet the changing requirements of the occupant(s) over their lifetime.

How do you think attitudes towards building wellness will evolve over the next five years – and what are your next steps at Ekkist?

Wellness is becoming increasingly part of the narrative of built environment design. The Porter Building, the first Shell and Core building in the UK to achieve WELL Building Standard Certification, has just achieved WELL Gold Certification, and others are in the pipeline. Wellness is a huge global movement, not only in buildings but across all sectors.

“Wellness is a huge global movement, not only in buildings but across all sectors”

At Ekkist, our mission is to design, build and provide clients with advice on creating healthy buildings, and we aim to lead the building industry in designing for well-being. We have just been shortlisted to design a new Nature and Well-being Centre with Studio McLeod for Kent Wildlife Trust from 248 entries to 4 and are working up the next stage of designs. We are also currently designing an affordable, flexible urban townhouse typology, to demonstrate well-being can be improved in dense urban locations, and will be looking for opportunities to work with local authorities and housing providers to deliver innovative housing schemes and mixed-use masterplans incorporating design for well-being.

Details: Ori House

Ekkist’s Ori House – a concept blueprint for the UK’s first health-promoting home, is designed around six core principles. The firm’s founders Olga Turner and Jonathan Baker talk us through how these principles are the foundation of practical architectural design for well-being:


We have taken a daylight first approach to lighting, encouraging a healthy circadian rhythm, alertness in the day, and restful sleep at night.

Scientific research has shown that exposure to daylight and sunlight increases our levels of serotonin and can improve mood and even healing. Working with lighting consultants Cundall, we’ve ensured every room has excellent daylight levels.

  • Daylight-first approach to lighting, limiting the need to use artificial light and improving quality of light in the home and reducing running costs.
  • Option to upgrade to a circadian lighting system, which can be synced to work with your body clock and improve alertness in the day and restfulness at night.
  • No single-aspect North-facing windows; instead the use of corner windows to optimise light.
  • High ceilings to increase light and a sense of openness.

Indoor air quality can often be 5 x as bad as outdoor air quality, due to chemicals from furniture and cleaning.

We’ve specified an air filtration system ensuring that clean fresh air is delivered to every room in the house and stale old air is constantly removed, without the need open windows. This also significantly reduces running costs in winter.

  • Air filtration system.
  • Internal air quality optimised through an interior specification using non-toxic materials and limiting materials with VOCs.
  • Breathable clay plaster walls.

We’ve used a filtration system recommended by the WELL Building Standard, ensuring only the purest water is delivered to every tap; cleansed of any metals or public water additives which can harm the organs and nervous system.

  • Water filtration system to filter out pollutants.
  • Each bedroom is en-suite for optimal occupant comfort and each bathroom can be fitted with a laundry cupboard including a ventilated drying cupboard, to prevent excessive moisture in occupied rooms and unsightly laundry drying around the home.

We acknowledge that buildings are part of a wider community and biosphere, and have used renewable British materials in our design, with the option of Hempcrete or rammed earth walls, British Douglas fir and clay plaster.

Just switching to clay plaster in Ori House has saved over one tonne of CO2 (during the manufacturing process vs standard plaster).

Swapping steel or crittal frame windows for wood has both contributed to the building’s sustainability and wellbeing; as timber has been shown in studies to reduce stress levels and have a calming effect.

  • Interior planters designed to be filled with plants which improve indoor air quality, based on NASA research.
  • Connections with outdoors are optimised with a seamless blent between indoor and outdoor spaces, with a focus on sheltered external entertaining spaces.

Creating emotionally satisfying environments is key to our wellness.

We’ve created special moments throughout the house.

There are dramatic double height spaces and cosy window seats, and we have swapped an indoor air polluting fireplace or woodburner for a focal planting arrangement, filled with air purifying plants as recommended by a NASA study.

  • Rammed Earth, Hempcrete and timber are natural materials which form the core of the design and create a sense of warmth and atmosphere; extensive use of wood internally, which has been associated with benefits to mood and stress reduction.
  • Sculpture-like quality to the building, an approach very much advocated by Studio McLeod.
  • Spaces for contemplation and relaxation designed-in, including a designated quiet room, window seats and viewing points throughout the building.

Finally, flexibility and adaptability have been key to the design.

The main reception room walls are moveable and create an open plan space or three separate rooms depending on your needs.

The ground floor annexe allows you to give independence to an elderly relative, use it as a work from home space or rent it out to create a revenue stream if in need.

  • A ground-floor annexe-style room can be used for any disabled or elderly household members, or as a home office.
  • Flexibility and adaptability designed-in with acoustic folding screens in the main reception space, allowing open-plan living or separation when required.
  • Minimum of 2-metre wardrobe storage space per occupant, reducing visible clutter and associate stress.
  • Lighting fixtures are on sliders, allowing occupants to choose where they want to focus light in the room.
  • Sockets are built into skirting, meaning tat their locations can be changed when required.
  • Optional side extensions which can include additional living space, “outdoor rooms” or sheltered space for parking cars under cover and electric car charging.
  • Attic is designed to be extended into to provide an additional three bedrooms if required.
In Pictures Ori House designed by Studio McLeod with Ekkist / /