The Evolution of WELL Building Certification

The Evolution of WELL Building Certification

By Janet Morra, AIA, LEED AP & Lauren Maggio, NCIDQ, IIDA, WELL AP

What is WELL?

The idea of WELL started in 2013 with a question posed by Delos, a global wellness leader with a mission to enhance health and well-being in live, work, learn, and play spaces: “How do we merge real estate with health and well-being?”

One thing led to another, and a year later the first version of the WELL Building Standard® was launched; administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a subsidiary of Delos.

The WELL program (WELL) applies the science of how physical and social environments affect human health, well-being, and performance. Developed over 10 years and backed by the latest scientific research, the current WELL Building Standard contains 112 features organized into 10 categories called concepts. IWBI’s sophisticated digital tools allow organizations to implement the WELL Building Standard in a flexible and customizable way to meet specific health and well-being goals and drive desirable business outcomes.

In 2015, the Well Living Lab™—a collaboration between Delos and the Mayo Clinic—was founded on the premise that, “The only way to know how indoor environments can contribute to health and well-being is to scientifically study them.” By 2018, IWBI applied what it had learned from scientific research data, users, and practitioners to an update of the WELL Building Standard, referred to as the WELL v2™ pilot.

The Path to Certification

WELL is supported by three separate rating systems which allow participants to take a targeted approach to certification by focusing on a subset of strategies that address specific themes. These are: the WELL Performance Rating™, the WELL Health-Safety Rating™, and the WELL Equity Rating™. There is also a WELL Community Standard, which applies WELL principles on a neighborhood scale.

  • The WELL Performance Rating is a roadmap for leveraging building performance and occupant experience data to shift business decisions and organizational culture. Informed by the WELL Building Standard, it focuses on measurable building performance strategies that are verified through onsite testing and sensor technology. The seven performance themes are indoor air quality, water quality management, lighting measurements, thermal conditions, acoustic performance, environmental monitoring, and occupant experience. Strategies enacted through the WELL Performance Rating are automatically applied to a WELL Certification scorecard or WELL Score.
  • Launched in July 2020, the WELL Health-Safety Rating was in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. IWBI defines it as “an evidence-based, third-party verified rating focused on operational policies, maintenance protocols and emergency plans to address a post-COVID-19 environment now and broader health and safety-related issues into the future.” This rating system promotes indoor safety by providing a means to guide, validate, recognize, and scale management of health and safety issues in shared spaces. Directed towards facility operations and management, the rating is applicable to all new and existing building and facility types across an array of markets and large and small organizations alike.
  • Developed in 2021, the WELL Equity Rating’s purpose is to address the needs and priorities of the most marginalized populations in workplaces and the communities in which they operate. The rating system contains more than 40 features in six action areas: user experience and feedback; responsible hiring and labor practices; inclusive design; health benefits and services; supportive programs and spaces; and community engagement. The rating recognizes projects that have achieved innovative approaches to promoting the creation of equitable spaces.

WELL Certification is the highest pinnacle of achievement of strategies across all 10 WELL Building Standard concepts. Projects must achieve all preconditions as well as accrue a certain number of points towards the four available levels (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) of certification.

WELL Evolves

Since WELL’s initial launch in 2014, IWBI’s mission has been to “advance healthy buildings for all.” The organization listened, observed, and then channeled user feedback and scientific and medical research about how building environments affect human health and behavior into the creation of a more accessible, adaptable, and equitable product.

The program’s evolution is most evident in changes made within its four key structural components defined below:

  • A Concept is a category of wellness. Each concept consists of features with distinct health intents.
  • Features are either preconditions or optimizations.
  • Preconditions define the fundamental components of a WELL Certified space and serve as the foundation of a healthy building. All preconditions, including all parts within them, are mandatory for certification.
  • Optimizations are optional pathways for projects to meet certification requirements in WELL. Project teams may select which optimizations to pursue and which parts to focus on within each optimization.

So, what are the changes, and why were they made? For starters, the latest version–WELL v2, unanimously approved by the IWBI Governance Council in June 2020—expands its predecessor’s original seven concepts of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind, to 10 concepts, adding sound, materials, and community, with modifications to fitness and comfort. As with the original version, each concept comprises features, preconditions, and optimizations. Whereas WELL v1 could be restrictive, WELL v2 strives to reward companies for what they accomplish rather than censure them for what they do not.

The evolved, current WELL v2 reduced preconditions and expanded optimizations allow for a customized project journey through the certification process. Its consolidated features reduce complexity and strengthen feature sets is a response to meet industry needs.

Project Application

For the architect and/or interior design practitioner, WELL v2 has consolidated previous iterations and pilots into a single rating system that is designed to accommodate all project types and sectors. The system is intended to grow in specificity and specialty over time, adapting to accommodate diverse project types and geographies and in response to new evidence and ever-evolving public health imperatives.

WELL v2 projects fall into one of two main groups, determined primarily by ownership type:

  • An owner-occupied project is owned or leased by the project owner, even if they are not the building owner, and regular occupants are affiliated with the project owner.
  • A WELL Core project is more closely aligned with core and shell buildings where an owner is seeking to implement features that will benefit tenants. Any building type can register for WELL Core, provided that at least 75% of the project area is occupied by one or more tenants and/or serves as common space in the building accessible to all tenants.

Both owner-occupied and WELL Core projects are eligible for WELL Certification at all four levels.

All parts of WELL v2 are designated for specific space types, which refer to spaces within a project and not the project as a whole. In addition to the classification of space types within a project, WELL v2 also distinguishes spaces based on their level of occupancy as either regularly occupied space or occupiable space. The former is defined as areas inside the project where an individual spends at least one continuous hour or, cumulatively, at least two hours per day, such as offices, conference rooms, and classrooms. The latter is defined as spaces that can be occupied for any task or activity, including transition areas or balconies, but excluding spaces that are rarely accessed, such as storage or equipment rooms.

Because WELL is a performance-based system, every project is verified through on-site testing. During the performance verification process, on-site measurements are taken for various air and water quality parameters, as well as sound and light levels. Different from the traditional building commissioning process, it must be completed by an authorized WELL Performance Testing Agent, whose goal is to assure that the building performs as intended according to WELL requirements.

Global Influence and Buy-In

Scientific and medical research has proven both the beneficial and harmful effects indoor environments can have on body, mind, and spirit, so it is not surprising that WELL has been embraced globally. Today, IWBI cites 21,268 projects certified and rated; 18,480 projects enrolled; projects totaling 4.33 billion square feet in 125 countries; and 11,295 WELL Accredited Professionals, with another 11,211 registered, in 123 countries. Participating companies are immediately recognizable across an array of market sectors: CBRE, Citi, JLL, Uber, Bloomberg, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, T-Mobile, Hilton, Four Seasons, and Hines, among others.

As with USGBC’s LEED rating system, there is a cost attached to WELL Certification. Consequently, some companies opt to have their facilities designed to various LEED certification levels without pursuing registration, and the same approach can be taken with WELL. Although we advocate participation in both programs, only an owner can weigh the value of either investment against their project goals and budget. One of our clients decided not to pursue WELL Certification because of the cost but had already achieved much of WELL’s criteria during design.

Benefits Make the Case

WELL is holistic. It influences design, operations, and policy, and presents a comprehensive approach to well-being. Put into practice, it is an equitable, global, evidence-based, technically robust, customer focused, and resilient program. Its flexibility is an asset for owners and design practitioners alike; after meeting required preconditions, you can select from optional optimization features to advance healthy building elements that are most important to you and your project.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on how companies link employee health and wellness with recruitment and retention. WELL Certification is an investment in a company’s most important asset and highest cost factor aside from real estate: its people. By prioritizing the health and well-being of employees through WELL Certification, an organization also benefits by integrating its mission and operations under a shared vision; enhances its brand equity through thought leadership; and creates a baseline for ESG (environmental, social, and governance) factors that will draw and keep top talent and provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

This article was featured in FacilitiesNet.