Is the WELL Building Standard the LEED of Tomorrow?

LEED certification keeps the planet in mind, but WELL puts building occupants front and center.  

Plants need air, water, nourishment and daylight. So do humans, who also need fitness, comfort and support for their cognitive and emotional health. These are the seven core concepts that influence the wellbeing of building occupants, according to WELL Building Standard guidelines.

The WELL Building Standard, a tool that provides advice on the how the design and operations of buildings can address each concept, aims to create buildings that sustain residents and workers the way LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) encourages building practices that sustain the planet. (The International WELL Building Institute, or IWBI, which administers the standard, recently announced an alignment with LEED that will make pursuing dual certification easier.)

Many companies like to boast that their employees are their most valuable resource. The WELL standard is designed to make workers’ needs a priority and reward them with a built environment that fosters lower stress levels, improved alertness and increased productivity.

According to Rick Fedrizzi, IWBI chairman and CEO, designing or retrofitting buildings to improve the wellbeing of occupants isn’t expensive if you think long term.

“The great thing about putting people at the center of design decisions is that the return on investment calculus changes,” he said. Constructing a healthy building environment can mean lower costs down the road if employees stay in better health — and increase their productivity and enjoy better moods — due to factors such as clean air, good lighting, comfortable temperatures, ergonomic workstations and access to standing desks, fitness equipment, bike storage and external walking spaces.

“Fortune 500 companies spend, on average, $700 per employee per year on fractured but well-intended wellness programs. A one-time investment in WELL of about $100 per employee will deliver immediate and measureable benefits for every employee,” he said.

The first project in New York City achieved WELL certification for incremental costs of less than $1 per square foot, Fedrizzi noted.

Jennifer Taranto, director of sustainability for Structure Tone, a global general contractor, sees the human benefits of systems like WELL as the future of the workplace. Structure Tone’s New York City headquarters recently achieved WELL Silver status.

Taranto said that while some WELL improvements, such as reduced noise levels and increased natural light, are easy to measure, other improvements are subtler. For example, designs, fabrics and flooring are chosen for their ability to satisfy the human urge to seek connections with nature, a concept known as biophilia.

“We have lots of wood grain elements, like the paneling in our cafe. We have views to the outdoors, plants and greenery. And small things like fractal patterns in fabric paneling, similar to nature,” she said.

A central staircase that links the company’s two floors contributes to fitness and also encourages “collaborative collisions” that get people from different departments sharing ideas.

Safer, more sustainable materials chosen for the benefit of occupants also benefit the construction crews installing them because they emit lower levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

Since the launch of WELL in 2014, more than 350 projects in 28 countries are either registered or certified.

Companies interested in WELL evaluation pay registration and performance verification fees that vary depending on the size and type of project. 

Fedrizzi said building occupants are recognizing what a healthy building can do for them. Commercial real estate services firm CBRE Group Inc., whose global headquarters in Los Angeles are WELL certified, surveyed its employees one year after occupying the new space, which boasts features such as circadian lighting systems to promote alertness. More than 90 percent of respondents reported that the new space had a positive effect on their health and well-being.