How health factors into green building rating systems: WELL Building Standard
The third in a series on green building rating systems and human health, following LEED v4 and LBC, examines the International WELL Building Institute’s certification
While other green building rating systems consider health as a component of the larger holistic system, the WELL Building Standard is focused solely on the health of the building occupants. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which delivers the WELL Building Standard, was founded in 2013, becoming one of the newer players on the block in terms of green building guidelines. The WELL Building Standard itself launched in October 2014 and is making its stand with a laser focus on occupant well-being.
The WELL Building Standard focuses on the quality of the air over the energy it takes to move the air itself. Instead of worrying about the quantity of water used, it focuses on quality of drinking water. With this emphasis, we see a significant shift towards optimizing and enhancing building features that directly affect human health, making WELL the front-runner in addressing occupant health in the built environment. As noted by Paula McEvoy, FAIA, co-director of the Sustainable Design Initiative at Perkins+Will, “We have been very interested and proactive in designing for occupant health. We know materials play an important role but there are so many other aspects of occupant health that we, as designers, can help address. While LEED has always addressed some aspects of health, it really didn’t cover aspects of physical fitness, mental well-being, and policies that might improve health.”
The WELL system is rooted in evidence-based research from the healthcare industry, with feedback from leading institutions, medical experts, and building and design professionals. As such, it is connected foundationally to human body systems, with each feature linked to aspects of human health and wellness. Body systems referenced throughout are diagrammed and described in the Standard document, bringing most designers in the field squarely out of our comfort zones.
“We know materials play an important role but there are so many other aspects of occupant health that we, as designers, can help address.” - Paula McEvoy, FAIA, co-director of the Sustainable Design Initiative at Perkins+Will
Similar to other rating systems, the WELL Building Standard is organized into larger categories, called Concepts. Within the Concepts there are Preconditions, known in LEED as Prerequisites, and Optimizations, known in LEED as Points. All Preconditions in each Concept must be met for any level of certification. Some Concept categories stretch a bit beyond what project teams would consider in their scope for design and construction, requiring not only buy-in but active engagement on the part of the occupant. Concept categories include Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort, and Mind. Many of these should sound similar, or at least familiar, to project teams.
The Air Concept addresses familiar issues like Air quality standards, Smoking ban, VOC reduction, Operable windows and Healthy entrance. It also borrows topics from the LEED Operations + Maintenance Rating System, looking at Cleaning protocol, Pest management, and Cleaning equipment. WELL’s Water Concept speaks to the quality of water for human consumption, not quantity. Preconditions and Optimizations include Fundamental water quality, Organic contaminants, Public water additives, Water treatment, and even Drinking water promotion. The key here is how clean water can nourish and support the body.
The Light Concept tackles considerations of natural and electrical lighting, including Electric light glare control, Low-glare workstation design, Daylight modeling, and Automated shading and dimming controls. However, it also considers Circadian lighting design, providing credit to projects that work with the natural cycles of our 24-hour internal clock rather than against them. Color quality is another consideration, not just looking at the amount of light in a given space but the quality provided.
Some Concepts fall more into the management of the project than the design and construction process. The Nourishment Concept goes beyond the traditional role of the designer into facility management. This Concept addresses considerations like the availability of fruits and vegetables, along with the minimizing of processed foods. It also has Optimizations entitled Food allergies, Hand washing, Artificial ingredients, Serving sizes, Food advertising, and Mindful eating. These are very important considerations in leading a healthy lifestyle but often lie outside of what we can specify in the design and construction phases. The Fitness Concept includes Interior fitness circulation, Exterior active design, and Physical activity spaces, which need to be incorporated into the design early; other Optimizations such as Activity incentive programs, Fitness equipment, and Active furnishings will be more within the owner’s realm for oversight and implementation.
“Many of our clients are simultaneously pursuing LEED and WELL certification, focusing on strategies that benefit both the plant and people.” - Carlie Bullock-Jones, founder and principal at Ecoworks Studio
WELL’s Comfort Concept incorporates all manner of comfort—and opportunities for discomfort—outlining requirements for Accessible design, Ergonomics, Exterior noise intrusion, Thermal comfort, Sound masking, Olfactory comfort, and Sound barriers. Most of these can be incorporated by project teams through integrated design with consultants and experts, and should provide significant levels of user satisfaction in the final product. The Mind Concept leans significantly into the realm of company policy for the building occupant, looking at issues such as Healthy sleep policy, Workplace family support, Altruism, Organizational transparency, and Stress and addiction treatment.
As this basic overview shows, that there are significant differences between WELL and other green building rating systems. With WELL, there is considerable weight on the owner of the building—or the company operating within the building—to further occupant health benefits. Decisions related to choice of food, plate size, or travel policy will all have to come from company leadership, which encourages collaboration between the project team and occupants.
As Carlie Bullock-Jones, founder and principal at Ecoworks Studio, states, “Since personnel costs for an organization by far outweigh building operations and maintenance costs, we’re seeing a growing interest in the industry with WELL. Many of our clients are simultaneously pursuing LEED and WELL certification, focusing on strategies that benefit both the plant and people.” Being aware of these requirements can help design teams advocate for overall healthier workplaces and environments.
Traci Rose Rider, Ph.D., Assoc. AIA, is the research associate at North Carolina State University’s Design Initiative for Sustainability & Health and a research assistant professor of architecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design.