The idea for Wellness Real Estate just popped into Paul Scialla's head about six years ago.
He admired the effort people were putting into making buildings better for the environment, but he thought they were missing something. What about making buildings healthier for the people who live and work in them?
Thus, Delos Living, a New York company that outfits buildings with everything from reflexology pathways to dawn-simulating lights and promotes its new WELL certification, was born. The concept has proven powerful enough to attract two prominent former politicians - Dick Gephardt and Mel Martinez - along with Deepak Chopra and Leonardo DiCaprio to the company's advisory board. Delos' work can be found in very high-end Greenwich Village condos, offices in Los Angeles, and hotel rooms in Las Vegas.
Now, Delos is working with a Philadelphia developer to target a new demographic not renowned for its interest in healthy living: college students.
Cross Properties is leasing WELL Signature Suites apartments for St. Joseph's University students at its Legacy at Drexel Arms building on the edge of campus. For an extra $125 a month, the furnished apartments offer aromatherapy, filtered air and drinking water, Vitamin C filters in showers, and lighting meant to promote better sleep and circadian rhythms. An app from Chopra will teach students how to get the most from the various features.
"Health and wellness appeals to everyone," Scialla, a former Goldman Sachs partner, said.
While he conceded that typical student eating and sleeping habits don't seem focused on long-term health, he said students do want to perform academically. They may find aspects of the apartments that could improve sleep quality and mental acuity appealing.
The company says its features are based on scientific research and lists advisers from the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics.
Kevin Michals, principal of Cross Properties, is so sold on wellness real estate that he will also offer it in an apartment building near Lankenau Medical Center and another in Center City. A vegan endurance athlete who wears a black bracelet that tracks his activity and sleep, Michals sees a trend that's about to take off. "There's a benefit to me, which is first-mover advantage," he said.
Cross has added wellness features to seven of the 28 units - each has four beds - at Legacy. He expects that all will be leased by mid-February.
He thinks parents, who are, of course, footing the $850-a-month bill, will prefer the WELL environment. So far, about 80 percent of tenants have been young women. "Frankly, if I was a young man in college, I'd want to live here," Michals quipped as he showed off the four-bedroom model unit. The living room has a leather sofa and a sleek air filter next to the TV.
The most expensive WELL units, like those in Greenwich Village, come with extensive, built-in features. They use ultraviolet light to disinfect air and water and special coatings to hinder bacterial growth. They have built-in juicing stations and steam ovens. "Impact absorbent" floors supposedly "improve lumbar support." There's EMF shielding and a reflexology path - flooring is pebbled instead of flat - to the shower.
The apartments use features that are easier to add on. They have aromatherapy dispensers and the Vitamin C filters, which Delos says neutralize chlorine in the water. They use the antibacterial coatings, but EMF shields are only if needed.
Like the more expensive units, the bedrooms have lighted alarm clocks that gradually brighten, simulating a sunrise. In the bathroom, bright lights in the blue spectrum are meant to tell the brain it's time to wake up. Living areas use LED lights in a different spectrum. The bedrooms have black-out shades because people sleep better in the dark.
Does science really support all this stuff? More than a skeptic would guess.
Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University, called EMF shielding and reflexology "nonsense." The only value to the Vitamin C filter, he said, would be "marketing." He did not see how a floor could provide lumbar support.
He added however, that air and water filtering can be helpful and that photo-catalytic coatings do inhibit germs.
Dana Pillai, executive director of product development at Delos, admits that aromatherapy and reflexology might help people relax, but won't make much difference to health. The Vitamin C filter could make hair or skin feel better, but "the impacts on life expectancy are probably nil." He called them "lifestyle elements" that people like.
Where health experts saw promise was the lighting.
Scientists have been learning that our circadian rhythms are involved in all kinds of metabolic processes, not just sleep. "There are clocks everywhere in your body that may be monitoring the local time," said Namni Goel, a biological psychologist in the University of Pennsylvania's division of sleep and chronobiology. Light is what helps the body set time and synchronize its many internal "clocks."
Poor sleep or shift work are associated with obesity along with heart and mood problems. Michael Grandner, another Penn sleep researcher, said people with disrupted rhythms may crave calorie-dense food and feel tired, blue and distracted.
"People underestimate how much their environment changes how they feel and how alert they are," he said. "Taking advantage of the body's natural rhythm is important."
Grandner said college students naturally have circadian rhythms that make them want to go to bed and get up later than older people. It's not biologically abnormal for them to feel comfortable staying up till midnight.
Both Grandner and Goel said there is scientific support for the dark shades and dawn-simulating alarm clock. To work properly, such clocks should probably be set to get light over at least half an hour. Researchers used even longer periods.
Bright light in the morning is used to help people with seasonal affective disorder. Blue light is what gives the brain the morning signal, so there is evidence that the bathroom lights might help students wake up. (They shouldn't use it at night.)
The lights are likely to be most effective in people who want a regular, somewhat normal schedule, the experts said. It's hard to know how helpful they would be for people who are up all night studying - or partying.
"People really aren't supposed to sleep until 2 p.m.," Grandner said. "We're supposed to get up roughly in the morning." Getting up later, he said, "throws everything else off."
Pillai said the company would love to study whether its package of features makes a difference in resident health, but its holistic nature - the many variables - makes it "not amenable to controlled study."