The WELL Building Standard: Not to be Used Alone

Promoting health is important, but a standalone certification might not be the best way to do it.

Simona Fischer

Photo: Drew Carlson
Many in the architecture and interior design community are excited about the WELL Building Standard, the first whole-building design guidance to focus solely on human health and wellness.

Background on WELL

Developed by New York-based real estate consultant Delos Living, LLC, and administered by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation, WELL includes seven Concepts composed of 100 performance metrics or Features, many of which overlap with health-related credits in LEED v4 and Imperatives in the Living Building Challenge.

Before the debut of WELL, other major whole-building sustainable design guides like LEED, Living Building Challenge, Green Globes, and Enterprise Green Communities included human health as one priority among many, taking a triple-bottom-line approach to elevating building projects in the direction of more sustainable practice. WELL differentiates itself by diving into human health more deeply and incorporating the latest science-inspired design thinking in greater detail. For example, in addition to providing good daylight without glare, WELL requires electric lighting to support circadian rhythms and includes performance metrics on the color rendering index of lamps and reflectance values of materials.

Some concerns

WELL is intended to make designing for human health easy by pulling the latest research together into a clear set of objectives, and I think design teams may find the specific guidance with regard to finer details in areas such as lighting, olfactory experience, acoustics, and sources of indoor air pollution enlightening. As a practitioner striving to eliminate toxic ingredients from materials in project work, I’m pleased by the groundswell of interest and support of this topic among designers and clients.

However, the first version of the WELL Building Standard is troubling on a couple of levels. I have a couple of concerns about specific guidance in the standard, and a question about the viability of this standard for a broader variety of project types than just upscale office environments.

More broadly, however, I have serious reservations about the concept of a human wellness standard intended for use separately from environmental building standards.

PFCs and antimicrobials

Perhaps to its credit, it doesn't take an extreme position on avoiding hazards: WELL Feature 25, Toxic Material Reduction, is actually less restrictive of perfluorinated compounds, halogenated flame retardants, and phthalate plasticizers than the Living Building Challenge Red List. But other items lack crucial clarity—for example, Feature 27, Antimicrobial Activity for Surfaces, which rewards selecting bathroom and kitchen countertops, fixtures, door handles, and light switches coated or made of a material that meets EPA testing requirements for antimicrobial activity.

The EPA protocol referenced in the WELL Building Standard appendix does not indicate what chemicals may or may not be used to create those antimicrobial surfaces. As a result, a non-chemist might read Feature 27 and specify antimicrobial surface treatments containing triclosan, thinking they are doing so in service of health, but in fact be doing the opposite.

Recent research questions the use of antimicrobial compounds at all in consumer products and building products. The common antimicrobial compound triclosan has been found in the dust of homes and schools, and is linked to a number of worrying health and environmental effects including compounded antibiotic resistance, and contaminated wastewater that is difficult to treat in wastewater treatment facilities and is destructive to aquatic ecosystems. In fact, triclosan was banned in consumer products in Minnesota starting in January 2017, and the rest of the nation will likely soon follow.

Instead of recommending an antimicrobial coating, IWBI might consider awarding points for effective methods of signage conveying Centers for Disease Control-recommended handwashing practices (20 seconds of lathering with a typical soap while the tap is turned off; turn on water to rinse). In forthcoming versions of the Standard I hope IWBI will review this Feature and others to make sure they dovetail—not conflict—with other healthy design guidance and scientific evidence.

High-end health?

The WELL Building Standard raises other concerns.

WELL Building Certification is in the works for a number of project types, but some wellness concepts presented in the current public standard seem exclusive enough that only high-end, white-collar office real estate is likely to ever achieve higher levels of certification.

Features such as advanced air purification, added onsite water treatment, and subsidizing wearable sleep monitors for all employees are likely to be incompatible with the programmatic demands and funding for schools, libraries, affordable housing, and most service or retail environments, which means few of these typologies are ever going to be eligible for WELL.

And even if a highly marketable office environment is our client’s goal on a particular project, as designers, it is our job to take those goals into account—and think bigger. Are expensive end-point interventions the best way to improve the well-being of all of the people who use and care for a building?

How to widen the impact

In the spirit of widening the potential positive impact of WELL, IWBI could consider scale-jumping options similar to those found in the Living Building Challenge. Instead of installing end-point water filters on taps and in showers and requiring testing at the tap, what if the design included an option to contribute funds toward water filtration at the neighborhood or city source, or help finance improved regular city-wide water testing at the water treatment plant?

If chemicals and heavy metals are an issue for residents of a tenant space, they are probably an issue for everyone in the building and maybe even the neighborhood. A system-wide solution would contribute more to health and wellness than providing perfectly purified water for a select group of occupants (who, if they are not poor, are statistically less likely to be experiencing a high body burden of toxicity than their lower-income counterparts anyway). It would also be doing something good for the community—a psychological benefit to building occupants, building owners, and the neighborhood all at once (see Feature 96, Altruism).

Are we compromising environmental goals?

The scope and rigor of the Standard are solvable issues. In practice, though, I question both the workability and the wisdom of separating human health from environmental sustainability without compromising one or both of these goals.

An indoor garden or water feature I designed to support biophilia won’t by default contribute to improved air quality or reduced cooling loads; in fact, I might be setting myself up for a higher energy load to maintain indoor plants and dehumidify, and I might now require more equipment, air filtration, air changes, and possibly the use of fungicides to keep the HVAC system free of mold.

Points awarded for increased ventilation and air exchange rates could essentially amount to points awarded for increased energy usage—unless the indoor air quality requirement is inextricably linked to a requirement to achieve lower energy use intensity at the same time.

It’s not an insurmountable conflict. As I design the upgraded filtration system, I just need to keep updating my energy models, constantly verifying that I’m still on target to meet the 2030 Challenge and reaching for net zero (and thinking about how I’m going to offset the carbon footprint of the extra concrete structure I’m needing to hold all that water or wet dirt).

I appreciate the note in the introduction suggesting that the WELL Building Standard is designed to align with a sustainability standard like LEED or the Living Building Challenge, but I have doubts about the usefulness of adding a new certification to the mix. The issue is that, in practice, clients tend to only pursue one certification at a time. Energy- and water-use targets will most likely fall by the wayside if wellness features are the only measured performance outcomes on a project.

Sustainability is a human right

But it's not just a logistical problem presented by pursuing human wellness apart from ecological design; it’s the fundamental wisdom of considering them separately in the first place.

Designing for wellness in a vacuum is treading on dangerous ground. Globally, in all human industries, it is critical to:

  • start sequestering more carbon annually than we release
  • find innovative ways to conserve water and protect fresh water resources
  • invent non-toxic, zero-waste manufacturing life cycles

I worry that by focusing narrowly on a carefully controlled human wellness experience—a satisfyingly achievable goal, where success is defined by fixing everything to perfection within the boundaries of a site—WELL may inadvertently distract followers from the vibrant, compelling narrative of survival that underlies the struggle to build holistically sustainable buildings, communities, and infrastructure.

We need paradigm-shifting inspiration and creativity not just in designed spaces but also in policy and economics as they relate to the entire building industry. “Sustainable” remains an ideal. The fight for a regenerative future is not yet won.

Are we taking climate change seriously?

To me, it would seem that challenges like climate change would be driving humanity to achieve their greatest feats ever in the face of slimming odds. Instead, many of us feel trapped. Data suggests 1 in 6 American adults have taken or are now taking medication for anxiety and depression.

Designing well-daylit and biophilic spaces along with healthy lifestyle measures (such as the yoga, organic snacks, and wearable fitness monitors that WELL encourages) can help with those conditions. For those of us losing sleep about our future in a warming world with dwindling biodiversity, however, they're not enough.

Maybe it’s because we’re not really taking the fight seriously yet.

There is a disconnect that happens when you tell yourself you built a “green” building merely because it caters to human wellness. The creators of WELL should consider that feeling connected to one’s environment and to reality, even if it’s a frightening reality, is an essential component of feeling grounded, present, and empowered—concepts that are touched upon but not yet fully evolved in the Mind Concept of the Standard.

Don’t try this alone

We feel connected when we know we are making meaningful choices in alignment with the decrease in consumption and the circular economy we know we must create, for ourselves and for our neighbors, for those upstream and downstream in the cycle of resources, for healthy biodiversity and ecosystems, and for the health of the world we leave our descendants. I would submit that true biophilia is more than a view of the sky or a water feature. It is about feeling genuinely connected, to others and to the struggle and purpose of building it better, through making good choices that address real problems. It’s pretty hard to fool people in the long run.

My hope for the next iteration is that IWBI will review and broaden the WELL Building Standard based on updated research on toxic chemistry, consideration of scale-jumping options, and a more holistic view of the interconnection between meaningful performance-based regenerative design and human well-being.

To preserve the integrity of the environmental building movement on whose coattails it rides, and to support designers who are trying to balance human wellness with other objectives, I encourage the writers of WELL to be mindful and transparent about optimization for humans that may be at odds with energy, water, and material resource sustainability goals, and strongly encourage, if not require, compliance with those other goals.

It’s great to have a standard that specializes in tying the latest and best details of health research into design. Design teams and clients will find interesting food for thought in the details of each of WELL’s Concepts. But before the next version comes out, a note of caution for designers: WELL is not to be attempted alone. Humans have a history of optimizing their surroundings at the expense of natural ecosystems, and it would be a shame for this new design guide with good intentions to end up leading down that familiar path.

Simona Fischer is a designer at MSR in the Twin Cities. She works on sustainable design issues in practice with a special focus on the carbon footprint and health impacts of building materials.


Published March 8, 2017

Fischer, S. (2017, March 8). The WELL Building Standard: Not to be Used Alone. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/well-building-standard-not-be-used-alone

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March 30, 2017 - 11:14 am

Great article, and I agree about Triclosan but since antimicrobials make bugs stronger and may weaken our defenses, I prefer boosting my immune system to applying a pesticide all over my house and office. In addition, the Building Biology Guidelines (published in Germany in 1976 and introduced in the US in 1987 via  http://buildingbiology.net) consider electromagnetic fields and the whole range of ecological options promoted by LEED. It's about time we all applied its precautionary approach in all buildings. As Angela Tsiang <tsiangaw@gmail.com> wrote me yesterday : The California Medical Association, the CA branch of the AMA, wrote this in December 2014  “peer reviewed research has demonstrated adverse biological effects of wireless EMF including single and double stranded DNA breaks, creation of reactive oxygen species, immune dysfunction, cognitive processing effects, stress protein synthesis in the brain, altered brain development, sleep and memory disturbances, ADHD, abnormal behavior, sperm dysfunction, and brain tumors”  http://www.parentsforsafetechnology.org/california-medical-association-resolution-on-wireless.html 

March 30, 2017 - 6:56 pm

Today was my last lecture at the Ryerson University School of Interior Design, where we have spent the year looking at Well, and I spent the class reading your post, which just nails it.  I was really impressed with Well but the more time we spent on it this year the sillier it got. Not only that, its founders are building on its reputation to branch into over the top condos and now even hotels.