Special Report: How WELL Got Green Building’s Groove Back
Too niche, too difficult, too bureaucratic, too pricey: complaints about building certifications seem to get louder by the second. In this market, it would be crazy to introduce a new rating system that’s less broadly applicable than LEED, harder to achieve, certified by the same third party, and more expensive.
But that’s exactly what the WELL Building Standard is—and it’s apparently having wild success. What’s the attraction?
“The absolute best aspect of WELL is that it exists,” according to Mara Baum, AIA. Baum, who is Sustainable Design Leader, Health and Wellness, at HOK, says she’s struggled throughout her career to bring health concerns into the sustainable design conversation.
“I got into healthcare design over a decade ago because it was almost the only realm in which I could have an intelligent conversation about health and well-being without getting laughed out of the room,” Baum told BuildingGreen. This “has obviously changed quite a bit in the last few years,” she added, with the emergence of health-related rating programs as well as the renewed prominence of human health, wellness, and safety in whole-building certifications. “I am thrilled that much of the rest of the world has started to catch up,” she added.
Others we spoke with had similar views, suggesting that a program like WELL—which pulls everything health-related together into one place—was long overdue. Without it, we risk committing “random acts of sustainability,” said John Mlade, Director at sustainability consulting firm YR&G. “Every architect, every designer, has good intentions but different perspectives,” he said. “Very few teams are equipped to address all the areas” covered by a comprehensive health-focused system.
With all that said, WELL certainly has its share of skeptics and detractors, too. (See our guest op-ed, which critiques the system in some detail.) In this article, we:
run through the basics of the WELL Building Standard
share feedback on WELL from users and outside observers
offer our own “diagnosis” of the system’s relevance, rigor, ease of use, and cost
Looking for other rating systems to get the same treatment? Check out our evaluation of Fitwel, and how we compared Fitwel and WELL with LEED v4 and the Living Building Challenge.
Real estate company Delos announced the development of WELL in 2012, and the first certifications began in 2014, after the creation of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) as a public benefit corporation that maintains and administers the standard.
The standard covers seven major categories, called “concepts” in the rating system’s lingo, where prerequisites are “preconditions,” and credits are “optimizations”:
Air—This category requires a broad spectrum of air-quality measures, such as low-emitting materials, moisture management, and onsite testing of indoor air. Other features, like air-leakage testing, operable windows, and advanced air purification, are optional.
Water—Onsite testing for a variety of contaminants is required. Allowable levels are tied to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits, with the exception of chlorine, which has a low reference value set by the Australian government as an “aesthetic” standard. Optional actions include quarterly water testing, improved access to drinking water, and specialized water treatment.
Nourishment—This section focuses heavily on onsite food service and vending machines. Requirements govern the proportions of fruits and veggies on offer, and include an emphasis on low-sugar drinks and whole grains. Options cover everything from food safety to plate sizes to the distance between people’s offices and the break room. (Projects without onsite food service don’t get penalized.)
Light—This feature has relatively few hard requirements, but the language of the preconditions will likely be quite unfamiliar even to lighting designers (the circadian lighting metric is one of the more controversial aspects of WELL). Daylight access, automated shades, and improved lighting color quality are among the options.
Fitness—Active design is a fairly low priority in WELL, with just a handful of requirements. These include promotion of stair use and monetary incentives for fitness-related activities. Optional optimizations include cycling infrastructure, onsite fitness equipment, and “active workstations” like treadmill desks and standing desks.
Comfort—With a huge emphasis on acoustics, the Comfort feature also governs ergonomics and thermal comfort (both required). Options build on the basics with optimizations like sound masking and radiant thermal comfort.
Mind—This is a miscellaneous category designed to promote aspects of wellness not covered in the other features. Integrative design, wellness education, post-occupancy surveys, and biophilic design are all required. Items relating to sleep, workspace flexibility, and work–life balance round out the section.
Rating system mechanics
To achieve the lowest level of certification, Silver, a project must meet all preconditions. For whole buildings, there are 41 of these. After that, you can pick among 61 optimizations to go for Gold or Platinum.
But you need to do more than design for the features and document your efforts: a WELL assessor must come to the site to ensure compliance. Even the design phase calls for coordination with human resources, building operators, and possibly upper levels of management. Third-party testing of air and water are also required, and spaces must be recertified every three years.
Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI)—the same nonprofit that reviews LEED projects—is the third-party certifier for the system.
Comprehensive but Expensive: User Feedback
Though enjoying some success, WELL is really just getting started, and users offered feedback on a spectrum from high praise to hesitation.
Pros: LEED-compatible ice-breaker
There’s a lot to love about WELL, based on our conversations with early adopters and the WELL-curious. Here are six of their favorite things about the rating system.
1. Does it all
“Health has been around for a while,” noted YR&G’s John Mlade. “Before WELL pulled it all in and created a platform for it, it just wasn’t penetrating.” Having a comprehensive system that covers one topic in depth really helps designers ensure they’re making inroads across a wide spectrum of health-related design decisions. It also gets a vital dialogue going, he said, adding that its mere existence is already “elevating the conversation around health.”
“Health has been here all along,” agreed Steven Burke, sustainability manager at Symmes Maini & McKee Associates. “It’s really refreshing to have it be catalogued and provide an opportunity for discussions. People are beginning to discuss things they innately knew were already there but didn’t have the framework to discuss.”
2. Makes certification fun again
Although some people we interviewed reported long sighs about yet another rating system, that was not the norm. Instead, the emergence of WELL seems to be getting people excited about green building rating systems—much like BREEAM and LEED did in their early days. “WELL is breathing much-needed new life into what it means to have a sustainable design besides energy conservation,” said Burke.
“We were starting to see certification numbness,” reported Rachel Bannon-Godfrey, Assoc. AIA, Director of Sustainability at architecture firm RNL. “Now that we’ve got more options, I feel like there is renewed interest,” with clients saying, “Let’s think about this again; which one is the right one for me?”
But does this competition threaten to foreground individual human health at the expense of broader rating systems?
“LEED and the WELL program are meant to complement each other,” argues Nathan Stodola, Vice President at IWBI. And that’s been the official WELL position from day one, but how’s it playing out in practice?
“LEED has definitely helped us on a couple projects to say, ‘You are getting this far because of LEED,’” said Bannon-Godfrey, so achieving WELL on top of it is only a few more steps.
Mlade had a more nuanced story about the relationship between LEED and WELL. A project he’s working on right now is pursuing both LEED v4 and WELL, and “they are fantastic together,” Mlade told BuildingGreen. But what if you choose to only do WELL?
Mightn’t that lead to abandonment of basic green building principles, which WELL doesn’t cover in depth? Just the opposite, in Mlade’s view. “The industry has a grip on the LEED requirements,” he said. “We already have that stuff.” (Not everyone familiar with the mainstream building industry would agree, certainly.) So, if you have to pick one rating system for budget reasons, it might make sense to pick the one that provides detailed guidance on less-familiar achievements. Still, choosing between the two hasn’t really been an issue for most projects so far, based on our conversations with green building professionals. And “pursuing LEED already made WELL not too significant of a burden,” Mlade confirmed—suggesting that those clients who are able and willing to pay for certifications may wish to achieve both to get more bang for their buck.
3. Answers new questions
After years of being siloed in healthcare projects, conversations about health and well-being are “moving into everything we do,” according to Paula McEvoy, FAIA, Co-director of the Sustainable Design Initiative at Perkins+Will. Rating systems like WELL and Fitwel, she said, “are increasing awareness of the people who are occupying, designing, and managing these spaces” about how the built environment can affect the health and well-being of occupants.
WELL addresses issues that don’t get the same level of attention in LEED or even the Living Building Challenge (see the infographic for a comparison), and designers say their clients are excited to hear how these novel concepts can help their employees or tenants.
“One of the big ones right now is the tunable lighting,” said Amber Richane, Senior Associate Vice President, Performance-Driven Design at CallisonRTKL. “When we talk to clients about that, it seems like a no brainer to them.” (For more on this, see our coverage of tunable lighting and circadian rhythms.)
Acoustics is another biggie. Though addressed in other programs, acoustics is much more heavily weighted in WELL. “Spaces tend to be more and more open,” explained Dave Madson, Principal at CBT Architects. “There are a lot of things in the WELL standard to deal with acoustics. It’s about dealing with stress.”
The beauty and biophilia sections also stir up excitement for both clients and designers, according to Madson. In a recent strategy session for a project, the 35 participants were asked to bring in an image of a place they’d like to recharge in. “Almost to a man and woman, they brought some sort of image of nature,” he recalled. Madson likes how WELL highlights our “affinity with the natural world, which is proven to affect our mood and our happiness.” This has led teams at his firm to ask how they are reflecting nature in their designs, he said. “We are not putting tree trunks and rivers through our space, but we can use a natural color palette, plants, green walls, and water features to help with that connection to nature.”
Finally, the focus on air quality is particularly popular internationally, according to Richane. “Additional air filtration: a lot of people are agreeable with that one, especially in our overseas offices. It can be a good thing in areas where air quality is much poorer. How do I make the air better so people actually want to come to work and stay here and be productive? It makes a specific connection to productivity.”
That connection can seem tenuous to some observers (see below), but not all the evidence has to be in for things to be worth doing, Richane argues. “Even some [features] where it seems like anecdotal evidence, it makes so much sense,” she said. “Obviously, people would feel more comfortable working in an environment where the air quality is better than the air quality outside.”
And the onsite testing of air quality is a huge benefit regardless of where you live, noted Bannon-Godfrey. “None of us can walk into a space and know intuitively the VOC level. We engaged a company to do an air quality test” to have preliminary results before the assessor arrived for the onsite commissioning. “One of the readings was not great,” she admitted, and the team “put in a much higher level of air filtration than we would have designed to under normal circumstances. It’s forcing us to have much more rigor in our design process.” (How seriously that new rigor penalizes projects on energy is an equation that the industry may be working out for some time.)
4. Brings new people to the table
If you thought inviting the mechanical engineer and operations manager to the design process was a stretch, what would it be like to have the HR director, the food service contractor, and the vending machine company there? If you do a WELL project, you might get to find out.
“The WELL program brings everyone together,” said Vickie Breemes, Director of Advanced Building Technologies at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting. “It’s not just a design and engineering firm sitting down and checking things off. You’re making sure everyone’s around the table.”
5. Busts value engineering
With rating system rigor and more team engagement comes a bigger commitment to the goals of the rating system, some experts suggest—a big plus when value engineering looms.
“It’s really helped give an extra layer of meaning,” attested Bannon-Godfrey. “If something’s on the chopping block, we can say, ‘Let’s look at the WELL Building Standard’” and discuss the evidence-based reasoning behind the design feature. Even though “it doesn’t always work,” she added, the Standard helps make it clear that “We’re not just doing this design feature because we like it. There’s research to support it.”
For example, one project’s carpet choice came up for discussion: would something less expensive do? The team pulled out the sustainability narrative for the project and recalled that the finishes palette had intentional biophilic elements—not just to achieve points in the WELL Standard but also because the Standard explained how biophilia can increase well-being. “It was helpful for the client to remember this is why they chose that particular carpet pattern; biophilia was a part of the big story here,” Bannon-Godfrey explained.
6. Takes the brr out of bureaucracy
Perhaps one of the most popular aspects of WELL is the relationship between the team and its WELL assessor, who is appointed early in the process. “There is a relationship there of responsiveness,” according to Vickie Breemes, who said she has the same assessor for three different projects. “It’s still impartial and professional, but there are ways to communicate. That person is consistently responding to you,” so you never get two different answers to the same question, she added. “They’ve improved on that greatly from LEED to WELL.”
Also popular: WELL comes out with quarterly addenda based on changes made due to user feedback. “Every feature in the Standard is open to an AAP [alternative adherence path],” noted IWBI’s Nathan Stodola. “Users can make a case that it achieves the intent of the feature, and we will review all of those. If we deem that proposal to be sufficiently universal, then we will publish it in the addenda.” Although teams can choose to stick with the version that applied when they registered, many upgrade to the newer versions, he told BuildingGreen.
One big example of such changes so far? Initially, projects were required to include UV lighting on cooling coils. “That’s a pretty intense process,” according to Mara Baum. “It’s expensive and requires extra space in the system.” Teams came to IWBI with an alternative: regular mold inspections and, if needed, remediation. This more common-sense approach is now part of the Standard.
“Anytime a project feels like a specific thing is outside their scope, I’m encouraging them to contact us,” Stodola said. “We’ll be able to work out a solution.”
Not everyone reports consistent customer service, however. John Mlade says he requested an alternative to covered wastebaskets in offices since the project had no cafeteria. “You’re not going to get pests from a few Kleenexes and a broken pen,” he argued—and what’s more, he’s seen pictures of WELL-certified offices that have regular, open wastebaskets. He was told the pest-preventing trash cans are universally required.
Cons: Pricey plaque
The cost of WELL certification is probably the biggest complaint users (and those who can’t use it) have had so far, but we also heard some other critiques.
1. Costs a LOT
“The program is a little bit more expensive than people are used to,” Stodola admitted. “But it is definitely a small cost overall, and there is potential payback from attracting employees and enhancing productivity. There is a return on the investment.”
Just how much does it cost? The registration and certification fees are based on project size, so they can start relatively small for tenant fit-outs but can skyrocket for larger buildings. IWBI estimates the assessor fee at around $9,000. The minimum overall fee for all three is around $14,500. What about the cost of implementing WELL features?
“In some cases, incremental hard costs are an additional 1%,” says Stodola.
Soft costs may range wildly, however, as they once did with LEED, while practitioners get up to speed on how to meet the requirements.
Some people downplayed the sticker shock. “For the most part, if you’re pursuing LEED v4 at a decent level, getting a basic level of certification within WELL is not an overwhelming process,” argued Mlade. “It’s expensive in terms of registration and certification fees, but not capital costs. To add WELL is not going to break the bank.” Added soft costs may include documentation of biophilia and integrative design, he said, “but for the most part, it’s fairly straightforward, particularly if they don’t have food service.” With that said, he added, “My perception of this being pretty straightforward may be skewed” because the current project he is working on has no onsite cafeteria. (And his firm is used to working with complex rating systems whose nuances may not be so easily navigated by others.)
No matter how much it costs, users report that the sticker shock is much easier to manage when presented as a human resources expense in “cost per person” rather than a facilities expense in “cost per square foot.”
2. Is still dressing for prime time
The great customer service and responsiveness have a flip side: IWBI has to be this responsive while the rating system’s rubber starts hitting the road. Parts of WELL are effectively still in pilot, and as with any new program, some details are getting worked out on the fly.
“Some of the language in the very first edition was more open to interpretation than we are used to seeing,” said Rachel Bannon-Godfrey. “We pushed for more clarity. Does this feature apply to every floor, every space? Help us understand how these are going to be measured in the field. What equipment are you using?” With acoustics, for example, the team worried about how the onsite testing might be affected by ambient conditions out of their control. “If suddenly some delivery truck goes by the building randomly during your test, what impact will that have?”
According to Vickie Breemes, finding a lab to test the water to the proper granularity has been a challenge. “We send out the requirements, and they say, ‘We never test for that. Where is that coming from?’” (Issues included testing for minute levels of turbidity and chlorine.) She joked, “That’s a good business idea for someone who wants to get into a startup!”
This is just par for the course with early adoption, though, according to some observers. “I think in creating the first rating system trying to focus exclusively on health and wellness, they have created parameters that had never really existed before,” argued Steven Burke. “As we put it into practice, we begin to see areas where things could be improved. But all in all, I think WELL is doing what it needs to do.”
3. Encourages cherry-picking
Many professionals we spoke with said clients are applying certain aspects of WELL—which they view as a good thing—but not going for certification.
“We are not currently working on a WELL space, but we are absolutely talking about it with our clients, and they are seeing the value” of designing to the Standard, noted Dave Madson of CBT. “What isn’t happening is the independent testing that happens in order to get something WELL certified.”
There are a couple reasons for this: the cost and the unknowns. Whether they want the project to be LEED certified “has become one of the first questions we ask,” Madson told BuildingGreen. “When we ask, ‘Will this be WELL certified?’ they don’t yet know what that is. They’re very interested in it,” but “many times, clients want it to be something that they know they can promote and use to attract talent”—as they do with LEED. Madson believes this is temporary and that WELL will gradually become better known and sought after by prospective employees.
“Whether or not we go through certification, the process is very educational for the client,” said Amber Richane. “Our job is not to get your project certified. Our job is to use [rating systems] as tools to make our work better. When you go through the preconditions and the optimizations, you can start to think, ‘Is that relevant to my project? Is there something I should bring up to my client? That’s the piece that I find super helpful.”
In the meantime, although it’s more affordable, picking and choosing from the system does increase the risk of the “random acts of sustainability” mentioned above by John Mlade of YR&G.
4. Plays fast and loose with science
Depending on whom you talk to, WELL might be praised for its thorough scientific backing or panned for its questionable application of the evidence. Which one is accurate?
They may not be mutually exclusive, as it turns out.
“This type of research is really hard,” according to Mara Baum, who’s spent a career trying to integrate scientific evidence into her work. “How much do you require before you make a sound determination?” Baum is one user who argues WELL is getting the science both right and wrong. She uses active workstations as an example.
“People should have some level of physical activity during the workday,” she acknowledges, “but it’s hard to try to pick a prescriptive or performance approach to achieve a specific goal, especially when there is a substantial human factor. Does having 30% of workstations be standing desks solve the problem?” Probably not, but it’s better than nothing, she suggests.
“I applaud them for trying and for putting something out there. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it’s a place to start. In general, the topics that WELL addresses are all on the money. The detailed aspects of execution are still evolving. Delos and IWBI know they are still evolving and have never pretended otherwise.”
Relevance & market demand: Mixed
WELL is in the limelight right now. Some clients are reportedly asking for it themselves, and many others are excited when it comes up. With that said, others are pretty skeptical of the value of having a health-only standard and think it’s outrageously expensive (see “The WELL Building Standard: Not to Be Used Alone”).
Ease of use: Mixed
Many basic preconditions should be fairly streamlined, especially if you don’t have to deal with onsite food service. However, the Lighting feature comes up frequently as an area of difficulty. Additionally, the onsite testing and three-year certification period, while raising the bar, do make it more difficult to achieve. And the kinks are still getting worked out in many areas. This is not a shake-and-bake rating system.
The creators did their homework here, adding and removing preconditions and optimizations during the pilot phase based on sound science. However, once they get into the details, many users have quibbled with how the science gets applied. This is an area IWBI is actively working to improve.
Cost: Very high
This is probably the biggest complaint about the standard, but many users also argue that owners get great value for the dollars spent.
Melton, P. (2017, March 8). Special Report: How WELL Got Green Building’s Groove Back. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature-shorts/special-report-how-well-got-green-building-s-groove-back