In the 21 years since LEED was introduced, certification programs have played a major role in transforming the architecture, engineering, and construction marketplace, largely in the area of sustainability. Take a look at the lobby of any new building or extensive retrofit and you’ll likely see a LEED Gold or Platinum plaque adorning the walls.
But the flagship program of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is not the only game in town. Over the past several years, new certification programs have emerged that go beyond overall green building to focus on more specific areas like resilience and health.
Back in 2012, a team of architects at Perkins and Will were discussing the lack of options to properly benchmark just how resilient a building or community could be. It went beyond the need for a rating system; there was a general unfamiliarity in regard to language and knowledge among designers everywhere.
“We felt a need for broader education in terms of how we talk about resilience,” says Jon Penndorf, FAIA, senior associate at Perkins and Will. “It wasn’t really part of the public lexicon until Superstorm Sandy came to New York. When one of the largest cities in the world was suddenly hit by a debilitating storm, the design community started to sit up, take notice, and say, ‘This is going to impact all parts of the built environment in ways we hadn’t previously thought about.’ ”
The initial plan was not to create a checklist or to bring Perkins and Will into the business of certifying projects. “Our goal was to create something that could be used as a design tool to bring up resilience with clients and help inform the design process,” Penndorf says, “and to really fill that gap in understanding how climate risks and disasters were going to continue to impact our buildings.”
The initiative was spearheaded by Doug Pierce, AIA, director of the Perkins and Will Resilience Research Lab, and developed by the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability. The RELi 1.0 standards were published in 2014. In 2017, the USGBC acquired RELi and added it to their suite of certification products, launching RELi 2.0 in January 2019. But regardless of the umbrella under which it resides, its goals remain the same.
“The bottom line is, if you’re already considering the social, environmental, and economic pillars of sustainability, resilience has overlap with all of them,” Penndorf says. “A tool like RELi is going to give you the information and the ammo you need to go into a project meeting and help developers and clients understand why it makes sense to design a resilient structure, and to better grasp the growing risks of climate change.”
For Your Health
When it comes to health-based certifications, Fitwel has quickly become a leader in reinforcing the connections between a building’s design and the well-being of its occupants. Created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA), it was designed to take advantage of the CDC’s research and the GSA’s stewardship of more than 9,000 buildings by reinforcing practical and implementable design solutions that could be adopted on a broad scale.
“One of the real motivators, as I understand it, was public health researchers seeing the impact and success that LEED was having in terms of market transformation,” says Joanna Frank, president and CEO of the Center for Active Design (CfAD).
In 2016, the CfAD was chosen as the operator of Fitwel. “The CDC needed someone to take what they created and bring it to the private sector, continue working with the public sector, and really build and run with it,” Frank says. The involvement of architects was paramount; as a former developer who’d studied architecture in college, she also perceived a gap in knowledge that needed filling.
“The researchers all knew that design impacted health; the evidence base there was pretty substantial, even a decade ago,” she says. “But there wasn’t an understanding on the architect and building side that we were part of the equation.”
Fortunately, architects and engineers were quick to embrace the research. This freed up Frank and CfAD to focus on clients and the developer community, building demand for the certainty that Fitwel provides.
“Beyond individual demand among millennials and the like, there is a growing momentum around what’s called environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment trends,” she says. “Studies have shown that investors will be putting as much as $20 trillion into companies and real estate that meet these ESG goals. And because Fitwel has been so comprehensively peer reviewed and factors social metrics into its criteria, it can be used in planning ESG investments.”
It’s big business, and the Center for Active Design is indeed thinking big.
“We are looking to bring about market transformation around health; we are not looking for just one or two fantastic buildings,” she says. “We want every building to be optimized for health.”