This story was originally published in Architectural Lighting.
In June 2013, New York Times journalist Robin Finn previewed a residential trend then emerging in New York City: “Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: an empathic multimillion-dollar home that passively treats the occupant’s body like a temple,” she wrote in her article “Health-Centric Homes, for a Price.” “The second coming of sustainable real estate, it will fuse green technology with nourishing all-about-me amenities and direct them indoors.”
The article goes on to examine the then relatively new company Delos, branded as a “wellness real estate” enterprise founded by former Goldman Sachs executive Paul Scialla. Just a few months following The New York Times article, Delos launched a subsidiary company, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) which unveiled the WELL Building Standard (WELL) in October 2014—a program six years in the making.
In the three years since the program’s debut, more than 120 million square feet of real estate across 31 countries has been registered or certified by WELL standards. Yet, most design practitioners do not understand what WELL is or how it will impact design and construction.
What is WELL?
According to Delos, WELL is “the world’s first building standard focused exclusively on human health and wellness.” The program positions itself as a new standard in responsible construction, with benchmarks and guidelines for the design of buildings that promote the physical, emotional, and mental health of the inhabitants.
Scialla’s interest in developing such a standard came about when he noticed a gap in the certification market when his employer—Goldman Sachs—was seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its office building. IWBI chief product officer Rachel Gutter recounts, “When he encountered that certification for the first time in the new space, he thought, ‘This is really great, but where are the people in all of this?’ ”
Coupling this interest with his research on healthy buildings, Scialla opted to retire early from Goldman Sachs to focus on the creation of the New York–based Delos. The main goal of the wellness consultancy and real estate development company is “exploring the intersection between people and the built environment.” The company’s mission statement proclaims: “We see the built environment as an asset to maximize human potential, and we envision environments that enhance us—that are both proactive and reactive—to live better by cultivating healthy lifestyle choices and helping prevent health problems before they begin.”
With the IWBI in place to implement these initiatives, the WELL team set out to create the standard, primarily through “extensive literature review of the existing research,” Gutter says. “The version that’s currently being utilized by the market went through a three-phase peer review process [by] design practitioners, medical practitioners, and scientists.”
One of these peer reviewers was Chad Groshart, lighting design practice leader of global environmental design consultancy Atelier Ten. “I was motivated by this idea that someone was trying to build a standard that incentivized good lighting for humans and laid out a framework for how to create a better visual environment for people,” Groshart says.
The current iteration of the standard, WELL – version 1, prioritizes seven key features: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort, and Mind. Each of these categories is organized into subcategories—air, for example, is subdivided into 29 “features” including air filtration, microbe and mold control, and cleaning protocol. (See breakdown of Light category below.)
While the current WELL standards are still considered part of version 1, peer reviewers have made recommendations based on individual expertise, some of which have been translated into amendments. Version 2 will hit the market sometime in 2018. “The standard is a living, breathing thing,” Gutter says. “It undergoes changes on a quarterly basis.”
The Certification Process
Like other non-code (meaning not required) certification standards, WELL necessitates multiple steps to attain certification at one of three levels—Silver, Gold, or Platinum. Applicants must first register their project (for a fee) and submit documentation including design drawings, operations schedules, and other project narratives and materials, as well as letters of assurance from architects, contractors, engineers, and owners to confirm that WELL feature requirements have been met. (Based on WELL’s online pricing calculator, the registration fee for a hypothetical 100,000-square-foot new building would be $6,500 and the program and support fees would be $47,500 including an 18 percent early adopter discount, bringing the cost-per-square-foot to 54 cents.)
Once a WELL Assessor—third-party certifiers from Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI)—reviews and approves the documentation, applicants schedule an on-site performance verification, but not before meeting certain occupancy requirements, which vary based on building type. Only then can a WELL Assessor visit the project for on-site measurements and inspections.
Once all these steps have been completed, WELL creates a feature-by-feature assessment report—scoring each of the seven categories individually. If the pursuant team accepts the report findings, certification is complete.
Projects must seek re-certification after three years under the initial standard, but must make applicable changes at the six-year mark to comply with the most current version of WELL. “They don’t go through a full certification effort,” Gutter says. “They’ve got to attest to anything that’s changed in the project, and also demonstrate that they’re able to meet our performance measures.” Given the costs associated with attaining and retaining WELL certification, as well as the goal of “driving the market toward a state of continuous monitoring,” the IWBI is considering a subscription-based payment model for future versions—but no plans have been confirmed at press time.
In addition to incentivising design that promotes human health, upon closer examination the practical outcomes of WELL divulge another benefit—in the current real estate market, WELL-certified buildings might be worth more. “The value of [a] brick-and-mortar [building] will always be measured against market comps,” says Tom Paladino, CEO and founder of Seattle-based green building consultancy Paladino and Co. “If buildings surrounding your property are selling at $500 per foot, everyone is going to expect your building to cost $500 per foot—unless it’s special. And one way it could be special is to be WELL certified.”
WELL-certified buildings can also be used by corporate tenants as a marketing tool to attract top talent. “The Fortune 500 companies think, ‘We’ve gone to great lengths to recruit, we want to engage and retain these people,’ ” Paladino says. “So it makes sense that if you’re going have a facility that you own and operate, it really has to be above average.”
According to Gutter, the current interest in WELL supports this fact. “Several dozen multinational corporations, including [a] substantial number of Fortune 500 companies, are really interested in exploring participation in the portfolio offering,” she says.
What About LEED?
Since the IWBI’s inception, there has been a great deal of cross-pollination between the LEED and WELL programs. In fact, IWBI CEO and chairman Rick Fedrizzi served as CEO and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)—LEED’s creator and administrator—for 15 years prior to joining the IWBI in 2016. (Rachel Gutter also served as the senior vice president of knowledge at the USGBC before joining the IWBI team.) Even though both programs use the same independent credentialing company—GBCI—the IWBI maintains that, although the entities are complementary and they plan to collaborate going forward, their ultimate goals vary. “The true north of LEED is about conservation of resources for the good of the planet,” Gutter says. “The north star of WELL is about enhancing human health and wellness.”
According to Gutter, at present there is a 25-percent overlap between the two standards, and the organizations are advocating for dual certification. “Buildings that pursue both LEED and WELL certification are socially responsible and encourage the best health, productivity, and longevity of the biggest investment made in the building over its lifetime—its people,” said Megan Sparks, USGBC program manager and GBCI director of integration strategy in a statement to architectural lighting. A dual certification process could make an already involved and often complicated process that much easier for both clients and designers.
WELL’s Lighting Impact
One of the greatest challenges in establishing new standards across industries is accurately conveying best practices for both the novice and the experienced practitioner. IWBI director of standard development Gayathri Unnikrishnan, trained in lighting design, is spearheading the effort to create well-informed protocols for the lighting category. “We have a practice of reaching out to our friends in the lighting industry,” she says. “In fact, we are building an educational resource for lighting designers to explain how they can implement the current WELL Building Standard and talk about the synergy that we have with LEED. A working group from the International Association of Lighting Designers was involved with that.”
Though some of the IWBI’s initial recommendations did not match current industry lighting standards, Groshart says, “once [the IWBI] got some feedback on how the design process works, they were able to make some changes and make it a little more user-friendly.”
Ultimately, it may be too soon to tell what kind of impact WELL will have on the design community. Given the current pricing configurations, the certification begs the question, is healthy design only attainable for the “one percent” of buildings? Regardless of the program’s ultimate goal of creating healthy environments for inhabitants—that, in some ways, should already be the result architects and lighting designers strive for—it is unclear if WELL will be accessible enough to influence the AE industry at multiple levels.
“The WELL building certification process is quite extensive, and there are some requirements that not everybody sees the value in,” Groshart says. “But there’s no reason that we shouldn’t start designing buildings with better visual environments today. We can take some of the good advice in the standard and apply it to our projects just because it’s better for humans, not because we’re chasing points.”
WELL’s LIGHT Category Features
According to WELL, the program’s lighting guidelines are intended to “minimize disruption to the body’s circadian system, enhance productivity, support good sleep quality, and provide appropriate visual acuity.”
Breakdown by Feature
- Feature 53: Visual Lighting Design
- Feature 54: Circadian Lighting Design
- Feature 55: Electric Light Glare Control
- Feature 56: Solar Glare Control
- Feature 57: Low-Glare Workstation Design
- Feature 58: Color Quality
- Feature 59: Surface Design
- Feature 60: Automated Shading and Dimming Controls
- Feature 61: Right to Light
- Feature 62: Daylight Modeling
- Feature 63: Daylighting Fenestration
- Feature P2: Light at Night
- Feature P3: Circadian Emulation
This article originally appeared in the 2017 Nov/Dec issue of Architectural Lighting under the title, "Alive and WELL."
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