The Emergence of Health-Focused Rating Systems

WELL and Fitwel meet growing demand for healthy workplaces

by Blake Jackson

More choices for building owners, developers, and designers, when it comes to the world of sustainable buildings, are emerging in the marketplace. Until recently, Leadership in Energy and Environmental and Design (LEED), was the rating system of choice. For years, it’s been the lingua franca of sustainable design, providing a common language within which various design and construction disciplines, students, and even the public can use to engage in a dialogue around holistic aspects of sustainability.

Fitwel’s 7 Health Impact Categories

Today, LEED exists within an ecosystem of rating systems representing a spectrum of sustainability outcomes, both single-attribute (focusing on energy, such as Passive House) or multi-attribute (holistically focused such as the Living Building Challenge).

Now, two multi-attribute health-focused rating systems — WELL and Fitwel — each representing a spectrum of health outcomes applicable to the built environment, are gaining interest and traction

WELL was the first health-focused rating system (2015), followed by Fitwel (2016). While debuting in the market at the same time, they both had been under independent development for almost a decade. Both systems’ value comes from taking evidence-based design research, which typically resides in peer-reviewed journals and not within purview of design practice, and turning this body of knowledge into actionable design strategies that more positively impact the built environment for the benefit of the end users’ health.

Like the original version of LEED, both systems are written for application to workplace with the intent that each can be adapted to various building typologies. Both systems have several overlapping themes, including provisions for making healthier food choices, limiting sedentary lifestyles, and for the design and construction of amenities to improve indoor and outdoor environments while promoting health.

The WELL standard calls continual for onsite performance verification

Of the two, WELL is more stringent and most comprehensive, offering far more long-term value for projects pursuing it because it is a long-term commitment requiring recertification to maintain. The administrative cost for registration and certification is higher than LEED, which can be a point of contention for some clients.

One factor behind the higher cost is that certification is based on an onsite performance verification, performed by a certified WELL assessor, starting one-year post-occupancy and continuing every three years thereafter to maintain certification. While a cost, the WELL assessor serves as a resource to support the team throughout the life of the project.

WELL requires many preconditions, which like LEED’s prerequisites, are all-or-nothing requirements to qualify for certification and occur across all WELL concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.

Fitwel drives down rating system certification cost

Fitwell takes a leaner approach, applicable for mass market penetration. First, it costs substantially less than WELL and LEED, promoting a maximum registration and certification cost of $7,000 per project. It also requires no prerequisites or preconditions, meaning a project simply needs to accrue 90 or more of 144 possible points for entry-level certification across any of the 12 sections: location, building access, outdoor spaces, entrances and ground floor, indoor environment, vending machines and snack bars, workplaces, shared spaces, water supply, stairwells, cafeterias and prepared food retails, and emergency procedures. Certification is one-time only, awarded upon approval of uploaded information to their online database with a four- to six-week turnaround time by the Center for Active Design.

Certainly, both certifications can fit within the market: WELL is better suited for mission-driven clients, while Fitwel is poised to offer fitness for all. Each is designed to work in conjunction with other ratings systems, so they can be applied together, not to compete for market share (note: both LEED and WELL are governed by the GBCI). While LEED, and similar systems, have historically focused on efficiency, the new health-based standards put people first, which is something all licensed design professionals are required to do and which has reinvigorated the sustainability conversation with greater focus on more tangible, palpable everyday aspects of user experience.

Blake Jackson

Blake Jackson, AIA, is an architect and sustainability design leader at Stantec in Boston.