Introduction to Health and Wellness in Building Certification Systems
The green building certification movement began with a focus on environmental sustainability. Addressing core environmental issues related to energy, water, and waste was the foundation for early green building rating systems like LEED, a program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Human health wasn’t ignored, but it also wasn’t the focus. This is changing as the industry shifts its focus to the impact that buildings have on human health and well-being. This evolution—from green building certification systems with health components to dedicated health and wellness certifications—can be attributed to the growing understanding of how important the issue truly is.
People spend the overwhelming majority of their time indoors, so the characteristics and quality of the indoor environment hold a lot of power to support or detract from human health. A good example of this is indoor air quality, which is only one component of the indoor environment, but it’s one that has been studied extensively. A Harvard Business Review article states that “workers are 5%-6% more productive when air pollution levels are rated as good by the Environmental Protection Agency (AQI of 0–50) versus when they are rated as unhealthy (AQI of 150–200)”. But many other factors in our built environment—such as access to daylight, opportunities for mental relief and physical movement, and availability of nutritional food options—all contribute to human health. And these factors together have a huge impact on our physical, mental and emotional health, not to mention our productivity.
There are two important certification frameworks that have emerged within the past five years to respond to the need for healthier buildings: the WELL Building Standard (WELL) and Fitwel. These certification programs can help organizations address health and well-being at the asset and fund levels, and contribute to GRESB scores. Both systems are seeing adoption by a range of leading global organizations. This article summarizes key information about the WELL and Fitwel programs, including their unique perspectives and approaches for meeting health and well-being objectives.
An Overview of WELL and Fitwel
The WELL Building Standard was created by Delos and the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) in 2014. The IWBI is responsible for the administration of the rating system. Once projects have submitted their certification documentation, an independent third-party called the Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI) reviews the materials to confirm compliance with the program requirements. GBCI also serves as the certification body for other sustainability programs such as LEED, IFC Edge, SITES, PEER and others.
Fitwel was created jointly by the Center for Disease Control, the U.S. General Services Administration, and the Center for Active Design in 2017. The rating system is both managed and reviewed by the Center for Active Design, a non-profit organization based in New York City.
The systems have many similarities in applicability and structure. Both rating systems can be used internationally. Both can be applied to different building typologies, including office and residential. Both systems can work for whole buildings, partial buildings, or tenant improvements. Both have a structure where accumulating more points results in higher levels of certification. Both programs have three tiers of certification (Silver, Gold and Platinum for WELL, and 1, 2 or 3 Stars for Fitwel). Lastly, both systems require recertification on a three-year cycle.
As of October 2019, a total of 229 buildings have achieved certification under the WELL Building Standard since it was released in 2014. Fitwel, which was launched three years after WELL, has over 290 certified or pending certification projects as of October 2019.
Selecting the Right System
While there are similarities between the rating systems, there are also significant differences. Understanding these differences can help fund owners determine which program is most appropriate for each asset.
The total cost of certification is much higher for WELL than Fitwel. Both programs assess fees based on building size, but both registration fees and certification fees are set higher for WELL regardless of a building’s square footage. The required onsite performance testing for WELL carries additional costs. And consulting fees are estimated to be roughly twice as expensive for WELL than Fitwel. The higher cost is a major reason why WELL is generally perceived as “high-end” in the marketplace but also can make it unattainable for many assets.
Complexity and Ease of Use
Program complexity is often cited as the biggest hurdle to implementing the WELL program. Its complexity and documentation burden is comparable to the LEED program, whereas Fitwel was designed to be simple to implement and document. Additionally, Fitwel does not have any prerequisites. This allows some additional flexibility for Fitwel users to choose the mix of strategies that best apply to their project. However, the straight-forward requirements and low barriers to entry have caused Fitwel to be perceived as “too easy” for some properties.
Applicability for Existing Building Portfolios
Both programs claim to work for both new construction projects and existing buildings. However, Fitwel’s healthy building strategies are scalable and replicable across an existing building portfolio in a way that WELL’s strategies are not. Because it is better suited for existing buildings, Fitwel provides increased opportunities for engagement with facility managers around health and wellness in the assets they oversee. On the other side, WELL is more familiar to design and construction firms, and may be a better option for organizations that are looking to incorporate health and wellness principles into newly designed buildings.
The WELL program requires an onsite visit by an approved WELL Assessor. This person conducts a visual inspection of the building’s health features, verifies documentation provided in the application, and completes targeted performance testing for specific items, such as acoustics. This onsite validation step provides asset owners with additional assurance that healthy outcomes are being achieved. The Fitwel program does not have an onsite verification component.
Contribution to GRESB
Both WELL and Fitwel provide opportunities for increased GRESB scoring. There are several questions that tie into health and well-being where these programs can be leveraged, and both rating systems score points under the Building Certification Aspect. While LEED has historically been the typical response for that section, the updates to GRESB enables funds to use either healthy building certification to score points.
For GRESB power users, take note that there is no longer a dedicated GRESB health module. This module was downsized to four questions (two of which are scored) and integrated into the primary assessment this year under the Stakeholder Engagement section. However, this is certainly an area where Fitwel and WELL certifications are applicable and contribute to higher scores.
A Final Look
While the programs share many similarities, including their contributions to GRESB reporting, WELL and Fitwel take different approaches to tackle the issue of human health.
Supporters of WELL praise its complexity and onsite performance testing as a measure of quality, and suggest that these offer confirmation of health outcomes that other systems cannot provide. However, others believe its high cost, complicated documentation process, and focus on new construction narrow its reach to a limited segment of the built environment (and therefore a small number of humans).
Fitwel’s advantages include its comparable simplicity and replicability, its usefulness for existing buildings, and its lower cost. However, common criticism cites the lack of onsite performance testing, lack of prerequisites, and a certification threshold that is too easily obtainable (and therefore isn’t raising the bar on health and wellness beyond common practice).
So which program is right for you? It depends on several factors that include your goals, the specific assets you’re targeting, and the size of your portfolio. But the good news is that there are now certification programs, methodologies, and science-based health research, all of which can be leveraged to improve the health and wellness outcomes for the people living and working in your buildings.
This article was written by Trista Little, Senior Consultant, LEED AP O+M, BD+C, Fitwel Ambassador and Sebastiano Danino Beck, Senior Consultant, LEED GA