How the WELL certification is pushing buildings to care for their people

Most building certifications focus on things that are pretty easy to quantify. They measure things like water use, energy efficiency, and access to public transit options. By contrast, the International WELL Building Institute aims to measure something a little more elusive: How well are the people who live, work, and play in a building being served by it?

Creating a numeric measurement in answer to this question isn’t an easy task. The notion that a building can affect its inhabitants’ well-being has been around for decades, whether through air quality, toxic building materials, or overcrowding, but assessing all of these factors is complex. Even more complex is considering how buildings can go further than not harming their residents and into actively improving their lives.

The IWBI attempts to solve this problem by breaking it down into seven sections, each of which breaks down further into specific elements that buildings can pursue.


The Certification

The WELL Certification’s seven sections are air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.

The air and water sections assess the purity of each resource and suggest the implementation of filtration techniques for each. To explain their focus on air purity, the IWBI cites research stating that air pollution indicators can be two to five times higher indoors and that polluted air contributes to 200,000 premature deaths in the U.S. every year. For water, it notes that dehydration can result in cognitive impairment.

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The nourishment section of the certification examines the availability and type of food provided in or around the building. IWBI justifies this focus with the fact that over half of the world is overweight or obese, and that poor nutrition contributes to chronic disease. It also cites research that associates fruit and vegetable intake with increased productivity in the workplace.

Under the light section, WELL encourages buildings to minimize disruptions to occupants’ circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythm refers to the body’s light-based ‘internal clock.’ This clock is meant to go off the position of the sun, and it helps to explain why being in a dark room makes us feel sleepy during the day or exposure to bright, especially blue, lights before bed can negatively affect our sleep. IWBI notes that exposure to windows, in particular, has a positive impact on productivity.

Fitness is becoming a major concern, especially in younger companies, and so it’s no surprise that it is included in the WELL certificate. The guidelines included in the certification are intended to integrate physical activity into everyday life inside the building and to facilitate an active lifestyle for tenants in their outside lives. IWBI cites research stating that a ten percent reduction in physical inactivity could avert 533,000 deaths every year.

The comfort section of WELL focuses on thermal, acoustic, ergonomic, and olfactory comfort. There is a raft of research indicating the benefits of ergonomics and comfortable temperatures, and IWBI notes that distracting research has been found to contribute to a decline in work performance of up to 66 percent. The impact of bad smells in the workplace isn’t clear, but one can assume that it isn’t positive.

Under the mind section, the WELL certification seeks to improve building users’ cognitive and emotional well-being using design, technology, and treatment strategies. The characteristics that affect mental health are closely tied to other sections, and IWBI explains that tracking metrics like crowding, noise, light, and the quality of indoor air is essential for maintaining a space conducive to mental health.


Gaining momentum

The WELL Certification is one of the newest in a crowded field that includes LEED, GRESB, Energy Star, and several others, but its unique focus on the well-being of the people inside the buildings it rates has resulted in real momentum in the commercial real estate industry. Launched in late 2014, the IWBI has over 400 projects registered, pre-certified, or certified across 28 countries to date. Rick Fedrizzi, Chairman and CEO of IWBI, thinks that his company’s increasing momentum is the result of common sense.

“Just as LEED was once viewed as uncommon and has now been adopted by thousands of projects worldwide, we expect that putting people at the center of design decisions will become the new normal,” Fedrizzi told Aquicore. “Rather than look toward a future of buildings that support wellness, we’ll look at the past and say, ‘remember when we didn’t consider the people when designing these spaces that we spend 90 percent of our lives in? What were we thinking?’”

According to Fedrizzi, business leaders are finally waking up to the positive effects that a better built environment can have on their workforce. The vast majority of the costs incurred inside a building relate to the people in them, and so, he claims, it only makes sense that leaders would take interest in creating an environment that helps them to attract and retain employees, increase their productivity, or reduce the cost of caring for them.

As knowledge about the impact of our built environment on our health and productivity continue to diffuse throughout the professional world, Fedrizzi expects that businesses will continue to invest in the WELL certification and those like it. He stated that a 10 percent increase in productivity can account for a savings of $30 per square foot per year, which, if true, would absolutely make efforts like this one worthwhile.

“There seems to be a varying degree of awareness about just how profound an impact different building and design factors can have on our health and wellness,” Fedrizzi said. “For example, many are aware of the importance of physical activity and nutrition; however, fewer are aware of just how much of an impact indoor air quality can have, even though studies have suggested a well-ventilated office can double cognitive ability. WELL is the culmination of seven years of rigorous research in collaboration with leading physicians, scientists, and industry professionals … to harness the built environment as a tool to support occupant health and wellness.”

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