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Will Fitwel "fit well" in the building industry?

August 09, 2017

By Blake Jackson

Healthy building standard seeks to fill attainable, affordable niche

Health-focused rating systems exist because occupant health is gaining more attention from business leaders. They are responding to employee demands for healthier workplaces. Consider: As a “people cost,” employees represent an organization’s largest long-term overhead—greater than construction and operations combined. This metric considers not only productivity, but health, happiness, and branding impacts. The theory goes that if these factors can be positively impacted, bottom-line savings can be significant.

Interiors that encourage physical movement and access to natural light, such as Stantec's Winnipeg, Manitoba, office, have great appeal and offer health benefits to occupants.

Because we spend so much time indoors, the design of that space provides a critical path to enabling better health outcomes. How? Smart space design can encourage activity; improved indoor air quality can enhance cognition; diminished volume of toxins introduced into interiors reduces exposure hazards; and healthier food options promotes healthier consumption and eating habits.

Today, it’s common for top companies to attract and retain talent by showcasing physical workplaces and company culture, policies, and perks emblematic of health and wellness.  Beyond providing an optimal work environment, corporations are realizing the financial value of aligning their missions to environmental and human health within their buildings.

Since 2015, two building standards evolved to supplement the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) rating system, which primarily focuses on resource efficiency. WELL™and Fitwel systems both take evidence-based research and create actionable design strategies that positively impact occupant health. Fitwel was developed by the Center for Active Design (CfAD) over five years and draws from more than 3,000 peer-reviewed studies. During that time, Fitwel was piloted on 89 buildings owned and operated by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA).

CfAD, the accrediting body for Fitwell, is a leading non-profit using design to foster healthy, engaged communities through standards that transform practice and provide measurable outcomes. Their free Active Design Guidelines are wonderful references for accomplishing this for building and neighborhood design. The organization’s transition into the health and wellness space was natural, given its roots promoting physical activity at multiple scales.

Fitwel’s 7 health impact categories

On “on the go” certification

Fitwel is a free design and construction standard consisting of 63 unique “criteria,” each linking to one or more of seven health-impact categories. The program is managed through an online database where applicants submit documentation for CfAD review. Their goal was to create “on-the-go” certification from a tablet or smartphone by placing everything within the standard within their interface, showing each criteria’s intent, value, linkage to the seven health impact categories, and links to primary sources so designers can review supporting evidence themselves. This innovation promises a less cumbersome, more user-friendly experience, and it allows for a four to six-week review—much faster than WELL’s Performance Verification.

Fitwel has zero prerequisites. This differs from WELL, which has many. Certification requires that projects earn 90 points (1-star), 105 points (2-star), or 125 points (3-star) of 144 possible points. Moreover, it’s a one-time only certification, unlike WELL’s re-certification requirement every three years.  

A unique scoring structure is based on the strength of supporting evidence and the potential health impact of each strategy. For example, one of the highest scoring strategies—a dedicated lactation room—promotes equity by welcoming mothers into the workplace, and it is healthy for the mother and the baby.

While similar, many Fitwel thresholds are less stringent than its counterparts. For example, while smoking bans are required in LEED and WELL, they are not explicitly banned with Fitwel, although doing so will earn 3 points. Another example is the ability to earn points for developing a site with a WalkScore of 50, while WELL requires a minimum threshold of 70.

Another significant point of comparison is cost—Fitwel is notably less expensive than WELL or LEED certification. Project registration and certification total a maximum of $7,000. This price point makes Fitwel feasible for projects of all sizes, types, and budgets.

At Cleveland State University's Center for Innovation in Medical Professions, continuity between open, green space and the building's circulation is a major component of the building's physical design. 

By requiring a minimum, holistic level of compliance for all projects, WELL preconditions set the bar high. But it can also discourage and/or disqualify some projects from seeking health-focused certification. Fitwel eliminates such requirements, welcoming more projects but in a less holistic manner than WELL.

LEED and WELL are clearing houses for best-in-class referenced standards and Fitwel is organized similarly. However, Fitwel references far fewer standards. While points can be earned for having an Indoor Air Quality Plan or an Integrative Pest Management Plan, Fitwel does not specify which standard to use, such as ASHRAE’s for thermal comfort and ventilation. Fitwel does, however, reference Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) for lighting and the Health and Sustainability Guidelines for Federal Concessions and Vending Operations (HHS-GSA) for food and vending.

While LEED focuses on lighting efficiency and WELL on health outcomes of lighting, Fitwel prioritizes safety as an encouragement to more frequent use of outdoor amenities. LEED does not consider food within its scope. Fitwel’s use of HHS-GSA is a stepping stone, using prescriptive pathways, to WELL’s more rigorous approach of creating a unique healthy eating regimen from scratch.

Ultimately, Fitwel has 13 unique strategies not encompassed in LEED or WELL, including a section on emergency preparedness. While Fitwell does overlap with 27 WELL features, WELL is far more robust with 63 additional unique features. Fitwel also omits many relevant green practice topics: organizational transparency, comfort (thermal, visual, ergonomic, and acoustic), materials, etc. So, while an accessible standard, one could argue that Fitwel is not stringent enough.

Stantec’s office in Arlington, Virginia, fosters a variety of collaborative workspaces, healthy eating spaces, and sit-stand desking—all promoting evidence-based design approaches promoting better occupant health.

Who is using Fitwel?

Firms can support Fitwel by becoming Fitwel Champions and committing to certify some or all of their own offices or projects. Currently, four design firms, two Real Estate Investment Trusts, and the CDC are Champions.

One reason to consider early adoption is the ability for organizations or companies to make “blanket” commitments. This can be done retroactively, without massive retrofits or policy changes, if the building or space was designed in line with Fitwel requirements. Champions also receive preferential pricing per project. While WELL is currently utilized on one-off, highly committed projects, Fitwel is positioning itself for faster, broader adoption.

Individuals can become accredited as Fitwel Ambassadors, which grants access to self-paced webinars and a 50-question, open-book exam. Currently, reports 159 registered projects, 600 committed projects, and 200 Ambassadors across 12 countries. Fitwel has already certified more projects than WELL, proving there is market share for such a system.

“Fitness for all” approach

Fitwel is to WELL what Green Globes is to LEED, existing within a spectrum of stringency and outcomes. While less stringent and costly than WELL, Fitwel offers an entry-level, reputable certification most projects can use to prioritize occupant health—a “fitness for all” approach. Fitwel is not trying to oust WELL. Rather it fills a niche WELL’s stringency created. The Fitwel program provides the marketplace a standard based on evidence-based research that can be readily adopted. In fact, many projects pursue LEED, WELL, and Fitwel.

Fitwel and WELL both aim to be globally recognizable brands by offering standards suited for many types of buildings and spaces, all geared toward bringing health and wellness into the built environment.

Stantec architect Blake Jackson tells us how sustainable design became central to his philosophical approach to projects.

  • Blake Jackson

    Blake is a passionate architect who specializes in designing and implementing stewardship (sustainability, wellness, and resiliency) for a variety of projects and industries.

    Contact Blake
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