What’s the Buzz about Buildings being WELL

What’s the Buzz about Buildings being WELL™?

WELL Buildings are suddenly the rage among designers! Once upon a time, you could barely get LEED from their lips.  So this is good news in some ways; and a little odd in other ways.  Are you part of the movement to incorporate health and well being in your design and development decisions? Are you getting questions from your clients and tenants and potential partners about wellness initiatives? Engagement in personal health issues is popular with the millennial and the “Z” generations, and the boomers are interested in fitness, nutrition, food quality, and transparency (show me).
This is a nation of amazing contradictions, paradoxes and ironies. In the United States, there is an extreme hyper consciousness about allergies to foods and food groups that did not exist 40 years ago – for example, allergies to peanuts in the 1950’s and 60’s was rare, yet today the concern about it is very present; but it is present in less than four tenths of one percent of the US population. On the other hand, nearly one fourth of all deaths and causes of diseases across the globe can be attributed to environmental factors. The Healthy People 2020 Environmental Health Objectives focus on 6 themes – outdoor air quality, ground water quality, toxic substances, homes and communities, infrastructure, and global environmental health to address issues and make an impact.

The topics below are where groups will need to convene and collaborate to make an impact.

1. Exposure to hazardous substances in the air, water, soil, and food
2. Natural and technological disasters
3. Physical hazards
4. Nutritional deficiencies
6. The built environment

The built environment is our purview. People spend 90% of their time in buildings. Why are they doing that? Does everything they do require them to be in the building? Are there other ways to do what needs to be done?

“Sick building syndrome” was coined to point to conditions in which the health effects appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. A 1984 World Health Organization report suggested that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide were the subject of complaints related to poor indoor air quality – flaws in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Other causes were attributed to contaminants produced by the outgassing of some types of building materials, volatile organic compounds (VOC), molds, improper exhaust ventilation of ozone (byproduct of some office machinery), light industrial chemicals used within the building, or lack of adequate fresh-air intake/air filtration.

Healthy Bath House

Healthy Bath House

The ailments from sick building syndrome, such as headaches, asthma, malaise, difficulty concentrating, sensitivity to odors, fatigue, and other illnesses resulted in unprecedented absenteeism and lost productivity that rendered the buildings, typically large office spaces, uninhabitable. Don’t you have a memory of a building in your town that was shut down for a long time and then rehabbed completely?

Around 1990, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification system developed by the US Green Building Council witnessed an uptick in utilization.  Many States and local jurisdictions made it mandatory for new construction or public buildings, sometimes alongside other green building standards. In addition to improvements in energy and water efficiency, LEED promoted benefits for the building occupants through improved indoor air quality. This is achieved through improved ventilation and the selection of materials that limit or prohibit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that produce off gassing. With the birth of the Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) in 2005 and its prohibition of the use of red list materials, the conversation the impact of the building on the health of individuals was elevated.  The role the designers/architects, manufacturers and builders in mitigating potential health problems was established.

Last year green building advocates across the country were introduced to another building certification standard – the WELL™ Building Certification.  WELL™ has ignited the conversation about integrating well-being into the design of  buildings.  It has generated enthusiasm among designers and architects, and some developers and owners. One would not argue the interest given our earlier statistic about the amount of time people spend inside buildings – whether at home, work or play. Furthermore, real estate development firm, Delos, launched the WELL™ building standard in 2014, with the backing and support and collaboration of colleagues from the US Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute. The allies have circled the wagons.

Similar to other green building standards, WELL™ has Seven (7) Concept Categories – some are familiar, some are not: Air, Water and Light have some familiar requirements to other green building standards though the air and water requirements exceed those of LEED. Nourishment, Fitness, Comfort and Mind offer requirements that will be new to the design team, and may feel overly prescriptive.  For example, in the Nourishment category, the size of the plates, serving portions and communications about nutrition is specified within the standard. For example, artificial substance labeling is required for such things as artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, potassium bromate, and other items.  Detailed nutritional labeling is required along with nutritional messaging encouraging the consumption of whole, natural foods and cuisine. In the Fitness category, a facility is encouraged within the building and WELL™ provides guidance for aesthetics and design to encourage participation. Incentive programs to further encourage attention in one’s personal fitness are rewarded including transportation fringe benefits, token reimbursements for gym memberships, or subsidized training programs.  Access to stairs is specified, and other space features are specified.

WELL™ Certification requires a minimum passing score, and has a complex grading system and formula with the Preconditions (prerequisites), Treatment and Optimization requirements. The WELL™ Building Certification Standard processes its certification through Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), the same organization that certifies LEED buildings.

We are intrigued by the use of “evidence based design” (EBD) to justify a number of the requirements and to evoke a sense of confidence in the WELL™ standard. The term “evidence based” in most research oriented disciplines means that decisions can be made based on qualified or peer reviewed research with supported and accepted data to support the results. In science and health, there are standards for the design and conduct of research, for the expectation of the study being repeatable, and for the way results are reported. The building design industry has been looking for evidence of the impact of buildings on health and human performance for a long time.  Ten years ago, there were fewer than 100 relevant studies nation wide. Today, there are more than 1,300[1].  Evaluating the WELL™ building standard as an opportunity for building design will be interesting when there are several buildings to evaluate and compare.  Determining the business case for its use will require a variety of research tasks.  This standard is full of non-quantifiable data. This consultant simply recommends that where EBD is cited, one looks for or requests the research. Sometimes a state of well being cannot be tied to a number – but it may be worth a fortune.

Lorraine Doo, Partner, holds a Master of Public Health from the John’s Hopkins School of Public Health and has completed the WELL Certification Program.  The partners at DooConsulting would be happy to help you evaluate the options and assess the pros and cons of today’s building certification standards, including WELL™  based on your business goals. We will help to frame the full story that’s right for you, your clients and your tenants.


US Green Building Council (Grant from Google to catalyze transformation of building materials industry and indoor health; Health Product Declaration and Health Product Collaborative; International Living Future Institute; WELL Building Standard; Healthy People 2020 Objective; National Institute for Health; Environmental Protection Agency – Living Sustainability.

[1] Evidence Based Design/Evidence of the impact of buildings on health: The Built Environment, Climate Change and Health: