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Buildings that care: 6 things to know about WELL certification in hospitals

May 12, 2022

By Paulina Czajkowski and Megan Leslie

The WELL Building Standard is a great fit for healthcare. If you’re considering it on your upcoming project, here’s what you need to know

Can buildings care for people? Setting aside the fact that buildings are inanimate, picture yourself working in a space that’s constructed with your comfort in mind. Imagine the hundreds of decisions made to establish this wonderful place—a building that supports mental health, a good night’s sleep, and an environment where you can do your best work.

There’s a standard for this approach: the WELL Building Standard. The standard, which spans 108 features across 10 concepts, is a toolbox for the design and operation of buildings that care for their occupants. It’s rigorous, evidence-based, and holistic. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) developed the standard.

To target WELL certification, organizations need to prioritize superior indoor air and drinking water quality, healthy food choices, opportunities for physical movement, mental health and community supports, as well as thermal, acoustic, and visual comfort.

While the WELL Building Standard has a long history of use in commercial buildings, it’s relatively new to hospital buildings. We’ve spent the past few years exploring WELL in a healthcare setting with Niagara Health in Ontario, who have announced that their new South Niagara Hospital will be the first WELL-certified hospital in Canada.

Designing to the WELL Building Standard will prioritize the health and well-being of South Niagara’s care teams, patients, and visitors by focusing on 10 concepts: Air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community. Niagara Health plans for the hospital to be operational in 2027.

Curious about WELL for your project? We think it makes a lot of sense for healthcare. Here are six things to know for hospital systems who are considering WELL on their upcoming development projects.

The beneficiaries of a healthier, happier healthcare workforce? Patients, and society at large.

1. It benefits patients by supporting care teams

Many features of the WELL Building Standard focus on regular building occupants. In the case of healthcare buildings, the regular building occupants are mainly staff—the nurses, doctors, technicians, custodians, and administrators—who spend much of their lives in hospital buildings.

In an era of unprecedented burnout among care teams in the healthcare sector, WELL serves as an exceptionally good fit for healthcare projects. The beneficiaries of a healthier, happier healthcare workforce? Patients, and society at large.

2. There’s a big operational focus

Unlike the LEED rating system for new construction projects—where you achieve certification for design and construction measures only—more than half of WELL covers operational and maintenance policies and practices. These must be demonstrated on an ongoing basis to maintain WELL certification.

So, a project’s WELL steering committee should include representatives from nutrition and food services, cleaning and maintenance, human resources (HR), infection prevention and control (IPAC), and senior executives—in addition to the engineering and architecture design teams.

Healthcare providers may find that WELL will push them to update certain HR and operating policies. This could benefit staff across their organization. WELL’s Mind category, for example, includes features that require stress management planning, minimum time off, and minimum advance notice of shift changes for shift-workers. It also requires restorative programming such as mindfulness training.

Daylighting is essential for the WELL Building Standard. WELL sets criteria for minimum daylight access for regular building occupants and it offers several acceptable approaches.

3. There are impacts on engineering systems

WELL’s strict quality specifications for lighting systems, air quality, and water quality mean higher capital and operating costs compared to standard design. However, healthcare building systems are typically already upgraded compared to non-healthcare buildings, owing to increased focus on infection control and associated required compliance with standards (such as CSA Z317 in Canada). Certain WELL features considered upgrades in non-healthcare buildings—like MERV 14 filtration—are already standard practice in healthcare buildings.

You’ll notice a departure from standard healthcare design in other WELL design features. For electric lighting, WELL addresses glare control and uniformity, calls for a very high color rendering index (CRI), and endorses circadian lighting.

Uniquely, WELL also sets maximum permitted threshold concentrations of individual volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in indoor air. It also sets maximum thresholds for chemical concentrations in supplied potable water. This translates to a requirement for careful specification of ultra-low VOC-emitting interior finishes and fixtures, and provision of treatment systems for drinking water, among other measures. 

In an era of unprecedented burnout among care teams in the healthcare sector, WELL serves as an exceptionally good fit for healthcare projects.

4. You need adequate daylighting

In healthcare buildings, the need to meet critical departmental adjacencies tends to drive deep floorplates, with a lot of area far away from the perimeter. Large segments of building programs can end up without a window in sight.

And that can be a problem. Natural daylight drives our circadian rhythm, and it leads to better sleep and increased productivity. Access to daylight helps to establish a healthy work environment.

WELL sets criteria for minimum daylight access for regular building occupants—mainly hospital staff—and it offers several acceptable approaches. Accommodating this prerequisite requirement may force design teams to rethink a project’s program and building plan.

Natural daylight drives our circadian rhythm, and it leads to better sleep and increased productivity. Access to daylight helps to establish a healthy work environment.

5. Expect to make some necessary adjustments

Here’s an important point: The currently available versions of WELL are not written with healthcare facilities in mind. So, project teams will occasionally have to interpret how some features should apply in a hospital context.

Consider the Sound concept, for example. This concept is currently tailored to the commercial and residential building sector. Healthcare providers should involve an acoustic consultant in developing alternative compliance pathways based on industry best practices that meet the WELL Building Standard’s intent.

6. Not just ‘one and done’—it’s an ongoing commitment

WELL certification must be maintained annually, and recertification must be carried out every three years. So, WELL is an ongoing commitment.

WELL certification—and ongoing recertification—involves independent, third-party testing of air quality, water quality, thermal comfort, acoustics, and lighting levels, among other checks and balances. Certain parameters must be tested annually and self-reported between recertifications.

This testing introduces additional operating costs. But it should be considered a small additional investment in maximizing the health and wellness-related returns on the investment in the healthcare building.

The WELL Building Standard, which spans 108 features across 10 concepts, is a framework for the design and operation of buildings that care for their occupants.

It’s a compelling vision

The WELL Building Standard presents a compelling vision for the future of healthcare design. At a minimum, healthcare systems’ development teams should download and review the latest version of the WELL Building Standard before they embark on planning new development projects.

We’re thrilled to see Niagara Health’s new WELL-certified hospital take shape, and we’re intrigued to watch as other healthcare clients consider WELL on new projects. Imagine a future hospital where care teams, patients, and families feel a powerful sense of well-being flowing through the facility. When buildings care about their occupants, good things happen.  

  • Paulina Czajkowski

    Paulina helps clients reduce the environmental impact of their buildings, meet sustainable development standards, and design for occupant wellness.

    Contact Paulina
  • Megan Leslie

    Megan has more than 20 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry and is one of our first WELL accredited professionals.

    Contact Megan
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