The WELL Building Standard was created as a voluntary third-party rating system, much like LEED, but this standard was the first to focus entirely on the health and wellness of occupants.

WELL Building Standard focusses on how the spaces where we spend our time impacts health and wellness

By Matt Chester

This article was published by Chester Energy and Policy Blog on August 8, 2018 and is the first in a three-part series.

At the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) forever changed the landscape of architecture by introducing the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification system, recognizing and rewarding buildings in every sector that managed to separate themselves as leading examples in energy efficiency and sustainable design.

Since that time, LEED has become a household name, with new construction projects proudly boasting their LEED status as a key selling point to prospective tenants and the surrounding community.

While there’s no denying the great impact the USGBC has had in promoting energy efficiency, the architecture and interior design industries have become poised for the next revolution– a revolution that has already begun.

Human-centred design has become a topic of growing investment in the sectors of real estate, architecture, and design, with the focus being on the health, productivity, and well-being of those who spend their days inside the buildings.

While this movement was borne of the sustainable energy practices that were pioneered by LEED, human-centred design focuses on the benefits that can be afforded to building occupants when their well-being is placed as the centre of the design process.

Design centered on providing human-centered benefits came after years of observation and study of certain phenomena in a wide variety of buildings. In particular, scientists began to find human well-being benefits when people were better connected with nature:

  • Surgical patients are discharged earlier, on average, when their rooms have an outdoor view.
  • Children with ADHD have their abilities to concentrate boosted when they can see nature out the window.
  • Doctors found their patients would have lower stress levels and blood pressure after spending time in nature.

Tapping into this inherent benefit of being close to nature is one key to enhancing the well-being of those confined to be indoors most of the day.

This practice is known as biophilic design, whichseeks to connect our inherent need to affiliate with nature in the modern built environment.” 

While the Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google or Apple boast about turning their buildings’ exteriors into adult playgroundsreal biophilic design is being integrated into whole buildings by innovators across the world, with TD Bank’s headquarters in Toronto and Cundall’s office in London serving as two great examples.

Such biophilic design is not just about installing a couple of plants and calling it a day. Rather, biophilic design is about approaching whole building systems smartly from the bottom up by integrating technologies and strategies that ensure healthy air quality, comfortable temperatures that foster productivity and well-being, carpets made without harmful materials, and more.

Cundall photo.

The WELL Building Standard

Until recently, such human-centred design elements were simply at the whim of builders in the know or office managers who sought to go above and beyond.

No central repository for strategies or methods existed, so the relevant information on human-centred design was scattered. The world of design focused on well-being was forever changed, however, when Delos established the WELL Building Standard in 2013.

The WELL Building Standard was created as a voluntary third-party rating system, much like LEED, but this standard was the first to focus entirely on the health and wellness of occupants. As described by Delos:

The WELL Building Standard (WELL) marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research– harnessing the built environment as a vehicle to support human health and well-being.

The International WELL Building Institute was founded by Paul Scalia to be the overseer and administrative body of the WELL Building Standard, as USGBC is for LEED.

Where LEED is based solely on measures to save energy and minimize environmental impact, though, the WELL Building Standard goes further to focus on how the spaces in which we spend our time impacts health and wellness.

Three different categories exist for WELL certification: New and Existing Buildings, New and Existing Interiors, and Core and Shell. Within these categories, a WELL-certified building can be rated as silver, gold, or platinum, depending on how many points on the official checklist are secured. This checklist is broken out into the following seven areas of achievement:

  1. Air– for example, ensuring air is properly filtered to minimize hazards in the air occupants breath
  2. Water– such as ensuring the drinking water is healthy and accessible
  3. Nourishment– which includes acts like providing wholesome food options for occupants
  4. Light– for example, installing the most efficient lighting while minimizing glare
  5. Fitness– the goal here is to integrate features that support an active lifestyle
  6. Comfort– key achievements include delivering a building occupancy experience with comfortable temperature and humidity control
  7. Mind– such as installing suitable biophilic design elements that bolster productivity and happiness

For each of the seven areas, any building seeking WELL certification must meet the precondition requirements (i.e., mandatory achievements) as well as a certain number of optimizations (i.e., optional achievements). Once each precondition is met, the level of WELL certification is determined by the number of optimizations met.

Additionally, the WELL certification scorecard has an extra category called innovations– this category gives building designers a chance to earn ‘extra credit’ by submitting up to five innovations that fall outside of the seven main areas, either going above and beyond existing requirements or relating to a wellness concept in a novel way that is not already covered by the WELL Building Standard. The full standard and set of metrics can be found here.

To achieve official WELL certification, an official WELL assessor must complete a performance verification. This process includes the initial registration and documentation, as well as in-person performance verification, certification, and recertification after three years to ensure the building has sustained its higher performance.

What can you do?

Given that the WELL Building Standard has been around for a few years, the concept has not penetrated the market nearly to the extent that LEED or other well-known standards have. However, the program is growing at a rapid clip and shows no signs of slowing down.

While most people have not heard of the WELL Building Standard, and many would not be able to define biophilic design concepts off the top of their heads, we can all recognize the innately cool and appealing installations that some buildings have utilized recently that make us say ‘wow’ and want to come back.

Whether it’s the numerous indoor treehouses installed in Microsoft offices, the carpets in the American Society of Interior Design that contain 100 per cent recycled nylon from fishing net recovered from coastal communities, or the lighting systems at McKesson that use LED fixtures to adjust throughout the day to match the natural lighting outdoors and allow adaptation to natural circadian rhythms.

If you’ve experienced any of the above, then you already know first-hand the benefits that come from a WELL-certified building. So, what are the next steps you can take?

  • Read up on the various aspects of the WELL Building Standard to learn for yourself and prepare to educate other people about the concept.
  • If you’re not in a position of designing a building to embrace the WELL Building Standard, you can still make a difference in the buildings in which you spend the most time. Talk to the building manager, landlord, or company executives and demand human-centric design be integrated, or even act yourself to add plants, embrace natural light in your space, organize to have fresh fruits delivered to the building, or any of the other WELL Building concepts.
  • If you are in a position to design a building, use this article as the first push to find out more about how you can ensure WELL concepts are built into the designs. Do more research on your own, and when ready reach out to professionals who are already certified in WELL and eager to share their expertise regarding the WELL Building Standard (So-Core is a great example of a company that employs WELL Accredited Professionals who can assess and steward the process to WELL certification).
  • If your interest is piqued and you want to hear more, check back to this website (subscribe to receive updates when new articles are posted) as this article is the first of three total articles coming on the WELL Building Standard. Stay tuned next for Part II that will focus on the costs and benefits of WELL, while Part III will analyze the global landscape of WELL Buildings today and investigate why the United States is not doing as much as it could in adapting WELL standards.

Sources and additional reading

Americans have a nature problem. Is ‘biophilic design’ the solution? NBC News

Biophilic Design: A Pathway to WELL Certification at ASID Headquarters

Designing with the WELL Building Standard in mind: Human Spaces

New practitioner’s guide explores nature’s role in creating positive spaces: International WELL Building Institute

The Power of Healthy Buildings: TLC Engineering for Architecture

WELL Building Standard: Delos

WELL people directory: International WELL Building Institute

WELL Projects: International WELL Building Institute

What Is and Is Not Biophilic Design: Metropolis

What You Need To Know About The Well Building Standard: Charge Spot

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About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.