The last five years have seen a surge in interest in the link between the design of our physical surroundings and our health. And while many strategies that were developed to minimize buildings’ negative impact on the environment also improve health outcomes, there is a growing desire among architects and their clients to address health directly. Two recent certification systems, Fitwel and the WELL Building Standard, support doing just that.
Sources say that the two certification tools and the new interest in occupant well-being is a natural progression of the green movement beyond its earlier focus on building efficiency. “It’s sustainability’s second wave,” says Rick Fedrizzi, former CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council and now chairman and CEO of the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), which oversees development of the WELL standard. Joanna Frank, executive director of the Center for Active Design (CfAD), which administers Fitwel, explains this mounting momentum as a result of growing awareness. “The idea that design impacts health is now part of the public understanding,” she says.
WELL is the slightly more established of the two systems, with IWBI releasing version 1.0 of the standard in late 2014 after six years of research and development. So far, 63 projects have been certified or precertified, and 466 projects have been registered. All in all, buildings certified or on the path to certification total more than 100 million square feet. Although the standard can be applied to a variety of project types, 418 of the registered and certified projects are workplaces, with multifamily residential developments coming in a distant second at 82. Most of these WELL projects are in the U.S., but the standard is also gaining ground internationally, especially in China.
Fitwel is younger, having just been launched in February, with an updated scorecard scheduled for release this month. Although the nonprofit CfAD manages the certification process, two federal agencies, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the General Services Administration, developed the rating system. The workplacespecific standard aims to improve occupants’ health regardless of building size, age, location, or budget. To date, over 150 workspaces—mainly in the U.S. but with a handful of early adopters in Canada and Europe, affecting more than 165,000 occupants—have been certified under the standard, with another 600 projects committed through 2018.
WELL is organized around seven “concepts,” or categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Under each of these headings are 100 “features” or strategies for creation of a healthful environment. Some features, such as controlling glare from daylight and electric illumination, clearly fall under the purview of the design team; others, such as business travel policies intended to minimize disruptions to employees’ sleep and fitness regimens, are the responsibility of the client. The standard’s features include “preconditions” that must be satisfied for a project to earn a Silver rating, the most basic level of certification. “Optimizations” are optional features that project teams can pursue to achieve Gold or Platinum.
Similarly, Fitwel comprises 63 strategies affecting at least one of seven “health impact categories”: healthy food options, physical activity, sense of well-being, morbidity and absenteeism, community health, social equality for vulnerable populations, and occupant safety. The strategies, derived from a five-year survey of more than 3,000 peer-reviewed research studies, are allocated points according to a CDC-developed algorithm that accounts both for the strength of the research linking each measure to health outcomes and for the strength of the measure’s impact. For instance, out of a possible total of 144 points, projects can earn up 30 points for measures that encourage healthy eating and beverage consumption and up to 16.33 for a prominent, well-designed stair. As the research base grows, the standard will evolve in response to the CDC’s continuing input.
Those familiar with the two standards generally agree that achieving WELL certification is more difficult than Fitwel, especially if not considered from a project’s early stages. But they say WELL is not a huge stretch for organizations with sustainability ingrained in their culture. COOKFOX Architects recently achieved WELL Gold for its new offices in Midtown Manhattan, which have three terraces with vegetable and wild flower gardens and an apiary. Among the firm’s past projects is the New York skyscraper One Bryant Park, completed in 2009—the first LEED Platinum commercial high-rise. “WELL is consistent with our body of work,” says Zach Craun, a COOKFOX associate. Craun says that, without any modifications to its base concept for the new offices (which he describes as “LEED Platinum with biophilia incorporated”), the project would have qualified for WELL Silver. But by making mostly operational modifications, such as changes to the firm’s business travel policy and the inclusion of a bike-repair station (on top of bike storage and shower facilities already part of its LEED filing), the project earned the higher WELL rating.
Architects and designers say that, by and large, WELL and LEED are complementary, though it can be tricky to square some of the wellness standard’s lighting features with LEED’s energy credits. Ken Wilson, a principal at Perkins+Will and the lead designer on the recently completed offices for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) in Washington, D.C., points to WELL’s added air-filtration requirements. If ASID had not pursued WELL, it might have been able to earn one or two more energy points, he says. “But it didn’t hold us back.” The offices earned Platinum ratings for both WELL and LEED.
Davis Partnership Architects had a similar experience with a new three-story headquarters building it designed for the Colorado Health Foundation in the Uptown neighborhood of Denver. Principal David Daniel says it was tricky to find a balance between lighting levels and glare control while at the same time keeping the amount of glazing low in order to mitigate heat gain and loss. He expects the project, completed in 2016, to achieve Gold for both WELL and LEED.
One of the major factors in Fitwel’s ease of use is its suitability for existing workspaces. (This was a priority for the public agencies and the nonprofit organization behind the rating system.) With only about 2 percent of commercial floor space newly constructed each year, existing buildings represent the primary opportunity for improving health impacts in the workplace. Fitwel has no mandatory credits that could preclude existing buildings from seeking certification; a team may choose the suite of strategies most relevant to a project’s circumstances.
Boston-based CBT Architects’ renovation of Shawmut Design + Construction’s 75,000-square- foot headquarters in a historic brick and heavy-timber building, completed in 2016, provides an example. Although CBT and the client had prioritized health from the outset, prerequisites that are hard or impossible to satisfy after the fact (such as the preconditions in WELL for integrative design and construction-pollution management) would most probably have precluded certification. Under Fitwel, however, the project’s high Walk Score (a rating based on amenities within walking distance), new pedestrian-oriented entrance, prominent stairs, generous daylighting and views, attention to indoor air quality, and variety of shared spaces—among other credits—easily lift the project over Fitwel’s 90-point minimum for single-star certification.
The Fitwel tool also identified some manageable improvements, such as signage at decision points (to use stairs or to wash hands, for example) to bump the project up to the 105 points required for two stars. Going further, some operations decisions could bring the 125 points needed for three-star certification into range. Shawmut plans to pursue certification in the next fiscal year.
With existing buildings eligible for Fitwel, designing for health can also include a client’s whole portfolio. The tool’s benchmarking function allows owners to compare holdings and to evaluate possibilities for leasing or renovation.
Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a developer focused on science and technology campuses, has so far achieved five Fitwel three-star ratings. “In a demanding marketplace, these certifications validate what we’re already doing to create healthy conditions for our tenants,” says Vincent Ciruzzi, Alexandria’s chief development officer. Although Fitwel can also serve as a road map for construction, Alexandria intends to pursue LEED and WELL for its new buildings.
In keeping with the intention to make it accessible, Fitwel is the less expensive option. CfAD charges an annual $500 registration fee and $6,000 for certification, including a double-blind independent third-party assessment and any subsequent appeals. In contrast, IWBI registration fees vary with project type and size, and range from $1,500 to $10,000. For WELL certification, which is managed by Green Business Certification Inc. (the same entity that manages LEED certifications), costs start at $4,000. The process involves an on-site audit and measurements of water, air, and light quality, and acoustics, which entail an additional fee, as does recertification (required every three years). But as part of IWBI’s status as a public benefit corporation—a for-profit entity whose mission includes a positive impact on society—it will donate 51 percent of net profits from these fees toward philanthropy, once IWBI is profitable, which Fedrizzi estimates is about two and a half or three years away.
One of the reasons for Fitwel’s comparative affordability is the absence of on-site testing. But that doesn’t mean certified projects aren’t achieving results, says Frank. “The research is the verification,” she says. “If you implement these strategies, then, on a statistical basis, you’re likely to achieve these health outcomes.”
Advocates of the wellness standards argue that the added expense, even of the more costly of the two systems, is worth it. The construction manager Structure Tone moved into its Gensler-designed New York offices near Penn Station last summer. Robert Leon, vice president of global services, estimates that all hard and soft costs connected with the project’s registration and certification added about $1 per square foot to the 82,000-squarefoot interior renovation project. Going forward, he expects maintaining its WELL Silver status, including recertification and operational and organizational costs such as those associated with healthy food in the cafeteria or bike-share memberships, to amount to about $100 per employee each year.
Leon contends that the certification will easily pay for itself with increased productivity and better retention rates. Several sources point to an often-cited report by the consulting firm the Muldavin Company. It pegs the average corporate investment in wellness programs at $700 per employee per year, but puts employee participation at below 50 percent. “Much of this money is wasted,” says James Stawniczy, senior consultant for wellness at HOK. But the strategies in WELL provide a passive benefit to all occupants, according to the study, which estimates that superior indoor environmental quality can improve work performance by as much as 10 percent.
Beyond the corporate sector, the investment may be harder to justify. But both IWBI and CfAD are working on extending the reach of their respective standards. A Fitwel scorecard specifically tailored to multifamily housing is slated for a soft launch by the end of the year. IWBI, meanwhile, plans to create marketsector advisory committees, made up of experts and users who will help make sure the certification system is flexible enough to be applied to a variety of building types beyond offices and housing. For firms seeking to help their clients choose between these two certification systems, sources agree that it really comes down to a matter of fit. There’s a lot of overlap in the priorities of WELL and Fitwel and in the research they rely on, observes Paula McEvoy, a codirector of Perkins+Will’s Sustainable Design Initiative. “What’s important,” she says, “is making the changes and implementing the strategies.”
To earn one AIA learning unit (LU), including one hour of health, safety, and welfare (HSW) credit, read the "Continuing Education: Wellness in the Workplace," review the supplemental material listed below, and complete the online test. Upon passing the test, you will receive a certificate of completion, and your credit will be automatically reported to the AIA. Additional information regarding credit-reporting and continuing-education requirements can be found online at continuingeducation.bnpmedia.com.
Financial Support for Sustainability and WELL Building Standard Decisions by Scott Muldavin, President, The Moldavian Company
1 Discuss the goals of the WELL Building Standard and of Fitwel.
2 Outline the structure of both certification systems.
3 Explain how WELL and Fitwel help define the relationship between human health and the built environment.
4 Discuss the challenges to certification under both systems.
AIA/CES Course #K1709A