How health factors into green building rating systems: Fitwel

Fitwel certification - Hord Coplan Macht Denver office

The Denver office of Hord Coplan Macht, an architecture firm that recently certified its offices using Fitwel.

The fourth in a series on green building rating systems and human health—following LEED v4, LBC, and WELL—examines the newest rating system on the block

The first three articles in this series show how awareness of health issues is permeating prominent green rating systems. LEED addresses elements of occupant health and comfort by advocating for strategies such as daylighting and access fresh air. The Living Building Challenge stretches the boundaries further with their Health + Happiness Petal. And both the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel explicitly focus on occupant health by looking at both building operations and owner policies.

Although Fitwel is the newest rating system to address health in the built environment—it had its “beta launch” in 2017—it is the product of a five-year partnership between the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA), with insight and engagements from experts in public health. The Center for Active Design now operates Fitwel.

Unsurprisingly, coming from the partnership with GSA, the Fitwel system focused initially on workplaces. As the Center for Active Design notes on their website, “…the expected improvements [from implementing Fitwel] in employee wellness may result in lower health care costs, lower rates of absenteeism, and increased revenue from enhanced employee performance.”

Fitwel is now applicable to workplaces and multifamily residences.

An evidence-based approach to health impacts

Fitwel has identified seven Health Impact Categories to guide their structure:

  • Impacts community health
  • Reduces morbidity + absenteeism
  • Supports social equity for vulnerable populations
  • Instills feelings of well-being
  • Provides healthy food options
  • Promotes occupant safety
  • Increases physical activity

These categories provide a foundation for a point system that rewards projects for implementing strategies that have been found, through more than 3,000 studies, to most positively impact health and well-being. The point value of each strategy within the Fitwel system is based on the strength of evidence and its associated impact on one, or more, of the Health Impact Categories.

The scorecards can be downloaded, showing the allocated points for each strategy.  

In contrast to other systems that use conceptual categories like “energy” or “water,” Fitwel groups strategies into overarching Sections that relate to the design and operation of a building. These Sections vary somewhat by project type; they emphasize location, access, outdoor spaces, entrances, stairs, indoor environments, shared spaces, water supply, food, and emergency procedures.

Within these Sections, over sixty possible strategies are addressed. Like other systems, projects achieve ratings from one-star (with a base of 90 points) to three-stars (between 126 and 144 points). However, unlike the other systems we have reviewed thus far, there are no required points. No strategies are required as a baseline to participate in the Fitwel system, eliminating upfront barriers and immediate costs. The flexibility and rigor of the system means it is as applicable—and impactful—in existing buildings as in the design of new construction.

The certification process is marketed as both user-friendly and cost-efficient. After registering the project online through Fitwel’s Digital Scorecard process, self-assessed information about the building can be submitted online through a web or mobile device. This results in an immediate calculation of the rating. Once the project is ready for certification, documentation is uploaded for a timely review. One deliverable is a gap analysis, designed to easily help ownership and facility managers improve the environment and health of the occupants bit by bit.    

Modeling health leadership in practice

To get involved with Fitwel, you can engage at the individual or the organizational level, as Ambassadors or Champions, respectively. Ambassadors are individuals that have taken an online training course, acting as leaders in Fitwel education, adoption, and certification. Champions, on the other hand, are companies that have committed to employing the Fitwel system in at least a portion of their project portfolio.

Hord Coplan Macht employees gathered in front of their recently Fitwel-certified Denver office.

Hord Coplan Macht (HCM), an architecture firm with offices in Baltimore, Denver, and Alexandria, Virginia, is a Fitwel Champion. In 2017, they certified all three of their offices using the Fitwel system.

“Getting Fitwel Certification for all three of our office at once demonstrated Hord Coplan Macht’s commitment to creating a healthier workplace for our employees and raised awareness on how we can better advance human health and wellness in the built environment for our clients,” says Ara Massey, director of sustainability at HCM.

As clients and design firms increasingly look to stick their toes into the conversations growing about health and the built environment, Fitwel may be a good starting point.

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.

Image credits

Fitwel certification - Hord Coplan Macht Denver office

Hord Coplan Macht

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