WELL Building certification sets new standard for comfort, safety and health for commercial building tenants

A new building management certification is changing the way architects, developers and employers look at health and wellness in the workplace.

The WELL Building Standard is a “performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind,” according to the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), the public benefit corporation that oversees the validation process.

While certifications such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) focus on the environmental impact of the facility itself, the WELL Building Standard is focused on the people within the building.

“This is just taking it one step further,” said Caroline Compton, interior design project manager and senior associate at Corgan, a Texas-based architectural firm. “It’s based on seven years of research developed by doctors, engineers and architects.”

WELL is an expensive standard, but it might help attract and retain employees, which creates a return on employers’ investments, Compton said.

Modern building codes are very similar to LEED standards because energy- and water-efficient systems are less expensive than they used to be and save tenants money on utilities and other related costs, Compton said.

Corgan is taking advantage of the opportunity presented by WELL, because it expects the standard to catch on, Compton said.

“We don’t see this as a trend,” she said. “We think this is the next billion-dollar industry… if people don’t do the actual certification, they’re still looking at ways to implement healthier programs and incentives into their tenant space and into their insurance.”

Scott Sowinski, an architect at Orcutt | Winslow in Phoenix, has been working in the industry for 15 years and said he has noticed changes in the industry.

“Within the built environment, or architecture in general, the main governing body of this is building codes,” Sowinski said. “And building codes, for the longest time, have been focused on health, safety and welfare. That’s it.”

LEED was the first time firms began to focus on the environmental impacts of architecture, and architecture as an industry has a large carbon footprint, he said. Architects are strongly encouraged to take both LEED and WELL into account, he said.

“The primary difference between LEED and WELL… is that LEED is responding to energy efficiency, but also mandates for that, and WELL does not necessarily focus on the building; it’s all about operations and policies,” Sowinski said.

WELL creates an environment that’s nurturing and healthy for building tenants, he said. It is intended to reverse the negative effects of being inside a building all day — including the symptoms of something called sick building syndrome — by closely regulating air quality, water quality and worker activity levels.

WELL is “trying to undo what we’ve done, which is put ourselves in a controlled environment, in a city, an urban condition, where we really just need to be out in nature, fresh air… [it’s] trying to recreate and re-stimulate those things,” he said.

Because it is operations-based and certification is ongoing — building managers must re-up every three years and keep records verifying standards are met — WELL is “significantly more expensive” in some aspects than a non-WELL building, Sowinski said.

“It does increase the bottom line, or the cost to the company,” he said. “But the flip of that is that right now, especially with the economy being good, attracting and retaining employees is the name of the game as far as being a successful company. Because otherwise your heart, soul, talent, etc. is walking out the door, and if you’re a revolving door just trying to keep talent, you’re never going to move anywhere forward.”

Some aspects of the WELL Building Standard are quite simple: reverse osmosis filters on the water fountain, changed out regularly; top-of-the-line HEPA air filters in the HVAC system; healthy snacks in the break room; and a fitness center or employee gym memberships. Other aspects are extremely — even ridiculously — specific, Sowinski said.

“For example, business travel,” he said. “You would never think that this would be part of a building system initiative.”

Employees might find constant business travel exhausting, but most know what they are getting into when they apply for such jobs, and employers are under no legal obligation to make travel easier on employees, Sowinski said.

WELL has higher expectations: “In order to get this credit, employees are provided the option to select non-red-eye flights or are given the option to work remotely on the day of arrival from a red-eye flight,” Sowinski summarized from the WELL Building Standard document.

He laughed as he continued, “During long business trips… domestic travel lasting more than two weeks… employees are given the time off and budget to fly home for at least 48 hours or fly a friend or family member to meet them so they can have that interaction.”

“That’s the kind of stuff where you’re like, what?” Sowinski said.

That is just one example of many WELL Building Standard objectives that go above and beyond basic facilities management. The standard is certainly attractive to employees, but employers might need some extra convincing to see the value, Sowinski said.

“I think the demand is definitely there, but the supply side of it needs to see how they’re going to get back their investment, because otherwise it’s not going to work,” he said.

Under the WELL Building Standard, the building is the “shell” while each suite is considered a “tenant improvement” space, each of which can be individually improved and IWBI-certified. That means it is difficult, though not impossible, to convert an older building into WELL, Sowinski said.

WELL and LEED also conflict in various ways, he said.

For example, under WELL, 75 percent of desks in an office must be sit-to-stand desks that allow workers to adjust their position as needed. Under LEED, however, it’s not recommended to get rid of existing furniture.

When Orcutt | Winslow upgraded their Phoenix office, they had to compromise: they kept the desks left behind by the previous tenant but bought sit-to-stand platforms to place on top. The result is not the most aesthetically-pleasing, but it is a health- and environment-conscious solution, Sowinski said.

The WELL Building Standard primarily applies to office buildings at the moment, but the IWBI has a pilot system that can be adapted for other building types, such as multifamily apartment complexes and schools.

With regard to commercial residential development, WELL is just the “next iteration” of an amenities package for living environments, Sowinski said. As consumers begin demanding the standard more often, it will become more widespread across development types, he said.

“I think that… the further that we look down the rabbit hole, it’s going to bleed out into every built environment, whether it’s a pawn shop, a gas station, whatever,” he said.

Compton, who works in Dallas but visits Phoenix for Spring Training baseball games and other activities, said Phoenix would be a “perfect candidate” for exploring the WELL option.

“If they’re not going to officially certify their building, they could have best practices,” she said. “Every time I’m there, I’m amazed by how much it’s grown.”

In order to make WELL work, a tenant or building owner must be passionate about its impact, Compton said.

“There’s this whole wellness push sweeping the nation, and I definitely think this is one step further,” she said.

Even if every aspect of WELL is not implemented, many of its practices will still become commonplace, she said. Major U.S. cities — Phoenix included — are focusing more and more on public transit, bicycle routes, clean air, clean water and a number of other factors that affect human health, she said.

“I think it’s all good for the environment in general and just the world in general,” Compton said. “I think there’s no denying that that’s not a trend; that’s just the reality.”

Graham Bosch

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