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The emergence of health-focused rating systems

WELL and Fitwel meet growing demand for healthy workplaces

The planned 50-acre, 7 million square foot, mixed-use Channelside District in downtown Tampa, Florida, aims to be the first WELL certified district in the US.

By Blake Jackson, Architect, Sustainability Design Leader (Boston, Massachusetts)

When it comes to the world of sustainable buildings, more choices for building owners, developers, and designers are emerging. Until recently, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®), was the rating system of choice. For years, it’s been the lingua franca of sustainable design, providing a common language within which various design and construction disciplines, students, and even the public can use to engage in a dialogue around holistic aspects of sustainability.

Today, LEED exists within an ecosystem of rating systems representing a spectrum of sustainability outcomes, both “single-attribute” (focusing on energy, such as Passive House) or “multi-attribute” (holistically focused such as the Living Building Challenge).

Now, two multi-attribute health-focused rating systems—WELL™  and Fitwel—are gaining interest and traction. Both WELL and Fitwel represent a spectrum of health outcomes applicable to the built environment.

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WELL was the first health-focused rating system (2015), followed by Fitwel in 2016. While debuting in the market at the same time, they both had been under independent development for almost a decade. Both systems’ value comes from taking evidence-based design research, which typically resides in peer-reviewed journals and not within purview of design practice, and turning this body of knowledge into actionable design strategies that more positively impact the built environment for the benefit of the end users’ health.

Like the original version of LEED, both systems are written for application to workplace with the intent that each can be adapted to various building typologies (note: WELL currently has five “pilots” for specific building types: multi-family residential, education facilities, retail, restaurants, and commercial kitchens). Both systems have several overlapping themes, including provisions for making healthier food choices, limiting sedentary lifestyles, and for the design and construction of amenities to improve indoor and outdoor environments while promoting health.

WELL—Continual on-site performance verification
Of the two, WELL is the most stringent (a mixture of concepts from both LEED v4 and the Living Building Challenge). However, it is the most comprehensive, offering far more long-term value for projects pursing it because it is a long-term commitment requiring recertification to maintain. The administrative cost for registration and certification is higher than LEED, which can be a point of contention for some clients.

One factor behind the higher cost is that certification is based on an on-site Performance Verification, performed by a certified WELL assessor, starting one-year post-occupancy and continuing every three years thereafter to maintain certification. While a cost, the WELL assessor appointed by the Green Business Certification Inc. is a value to a project, as they are assigned upon registration, and they serve as a resource to support the team throughout the life of the project. This offers transparency in the certification process, as they are familiar with the project and stakeholders and have a vested interest in successfully certifying the project.

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WELL requires many “preconditions,” which like LEED’s “prerequisites” are “all-or-nothing” requirements to qualify for certification. The number of preconditions is based on whether a project is a new and existing building (41), new and existing interior (36), or is a core and shell project (26). These preconditions require a close partnership among the design and construction team, the tenant, and the landlord for the life of the project. The preconditions occur across all seven WELL concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. A Silver, or entry-level certification, is awarded for projects that obtain all preconditions. For higher levels of achievement, the standard offers “optimizations,” similar to points in LEED, for additional voluntary items pursued across all seven WELL concepts.

Fitwel—Drives down rating-system certification costs
Fitwell takes a leaner approach, applicable for mass market penetration. First, it costs substantially less than WELL and LEED, promoting a maximum registration and certification cost of $7,000 per project. It also requires no prerequisites or preconditions, meaning a project simply needs to accrue 90 or more of 144 possible points for entry-level certification (“1-star”) across any of the 12 sections: location, building access, outdoor spaces, entrances and ground floor, indoor environment, vending machines and snack bars, workplaces, shared spaces, water supply, stairwells, cafeterias and prepared food retails, and emergency procedures. Certification is one-time only, awarded upon approval of uploaded information to their online database with a four- to six-week turnaround time by the Center for Active Design. Generally, the standard is less stringent than similar strategies promoted within LEED v4 and WELL, and it is applicable for all new and existing projects.

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Certainly, both certifications can fit within the market: WELL is better suited for mission-driven clients, while Fitwel is poised to offer “fitness for all.” Each are designed to work in conjunction with other ratings systems, so they can be applied together, not to compete for market share (note: both LEED and WELL are governed by the GBCI). While LEED, and similar systems, have historically focused on efficiency, the new health-based standards put people first, which is something all licensed design professionals are required to do. This has reinvigorated the sustainability conversation with greater focus on more tangible, palpable everyday aspects of user experience. Stay tuned into this conversation for more on the specifics of both systems in the near future!

Blake is certified as a LEED/WELL Faculty and a Fitwel Ambassador. He has shepherded building projects through LEED® and the WELL Building Standard™ certification processes and is a leader in the emerging Fitwel certification system, developed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the General Services Administration. Blake works with allied design professionals and clients to apply these national standards and other best practices across all building sectors.  

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