The Evolving Sustainable Building Standard

Well building standard[Editor’s Note: Below is a guest post from Jessica Glicker. Currently a Brooklyn resident, Jessica is the Special Projects Coordinator at COOKFOX Architects and a LEED Accredited Professional.]

As environmental standards for the built environment continue to become increasingly relevant and more frequently pursued, the once small pool of available building certifications has grown into a plethora of tools each with slightly different goals and degrees of intensity. This surge in options can help broaden the lens of sustainability and allow many different groups of professionals to simultaneously research, pursue and refine criteria for sustainable improvement. At the same time, a growing breadth of acronyms, ratings, points and authorities can run the risk of confusing potential participants from understanding the benefit of such certifications and also keeping the pool of programs transparent and legitimate. The tempering of market recognition with innovation is a careful yet important balance that needs to be explored with new systems that help keep our methods on pace with our capability.

With the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Building Standard as the most well known choice for building certification in the United States, its growth in popularity in the recent years has highlighted how beneficial certification can be for a building owner to pursue a greener building. Lowered operating costs, a more enjoyable work environment, and decreased tenant turnaround can all improve a building owner’s portfolio and bottom line while helping to begin the fundamental transition for how we construct and manage our built environment. However, one aspect that has arguably been a secondary focus of the LEED rating system is an emphasis on the holistic health of building occupants. The new WELL Building Standard is one proposal seeking to address this gap.

The WELL Building Standard

WELL is the first rating system focusing solely on human health and wellbeing. WELL instituted a pilot program in 2013, and officially launched in Fall of 2014. The young program has certified about 10 projects ranging in scope and size, and is piloting several more versions. This continued growth could indicate a latent desire for this type of certification. Similar to LEED, it is split into different categories: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort and Mind. While it is a building certification, office programs and initiatives outside the realm of the physical building can achieve many of the performance requirements. Also similar to LEED, certification levels include Silver, Gold and Platinum.

Although in line with many LEED principles, there are distinct and somewhat diverging ideas at play in the WELL Certification shifting focus away from environmental benefit, and are often not applicable to many project types, such as several categories pertaining to what foods are offered – if a company does not offer food to employees, several categories are skipped. One compelling aspect of WELL is the rating system’s ability to connect to people. As a program for people, it is more relatable than LEED to those outside of the design and construction community. While LEED is improving its transparency (the development of the LEED Dynamic Plaque being a notable example), for people outside of the building industry it can be difficult to follow the certification’s effects. WELL leads to a much faster realization of what the certification achieves, bridging the gap between occupant/end-user and the aims of the program. It is more compelling to support a system that is more accessible to decision-makers.

The fact that a vast majority of WELL features are also LEED credits (VOCs, air flush thresholds, operable windows, glare control, conducting a stakeholder charrette) can question the necessity of pursuing the entire certification when you achieve all the same credits through LEED. Furthermore, there are many aspects of LEED that benefit human health (access to quality views, community connectivity) that WELL certification has yet to incorporate if its goal is to be a standalone system. The intense overlap begs the question of whether or not a separate system needs to exist, or if WELL is simply an innovative start-up waiting to be harvested and integrated into a part of a more mature system like LEED.

Can WELL Stand On Its Own?

Many of WELL’s most impactful credits (concerning VOCs, construction pollution management, air monitoring and ventilation- and even specifics like building entryway requirements) are shared directly with LEED credits, which could make a harvesting parts of WELL easy and eliminates the need for a separate system. On the other hand, WELL encourages programming and initiatives outside of a construction and design scope, targeted directly at occupant health. With LEED’s rating system focused primarily on design, initiatives such as food programs involving trans fat restrictions, employee time off and a “step count” may be difficult to incorporate and confuse the clarity LEED has achieved in its focus.

In April 2014, the International WELL Building Institute (the original administrators of the WELL certification) and the Green Building Certification Institute, the current administrating body of LEED, announced a collaboration. A key aspect of the collaboration included GBCI becoming the third-party certifier of the WELL Building Standard certification. Within the same timeframe USGBC updated from LEED 2009 to LEED v4, an upgrade that included many improvements in the areas of tenant health. With LEED recently adopting more measures for human comfort and well being, is a complete alternative like WELL necessary?

With WELL now under the certifying body of GBCI it will be interesting to see if the program will remain on its own or eventually merge with LEED to create a more robust “health and well being” LEED category. WELL has continued to grow in its two short years, clearly demonstrating  potentially uncovering an interest in occupant well being certification and tracking. However, it seems a small focus to merit its own certification process, especially considering the commonality between environmental health in design and construction and the health of the people using those spaces.

Managing the Herd

Of course, there is still a long way to go to improve both occupant health and environmental building practices. With WELL being the most prominent health and well being certification, whether on its own or adopted by LEED, it stands as a more accessible certification with greater visible outcome to the building occupant. As the first of its kind, WELL trailblazes into a new facet of the broad pursuit of sustainability as it relates to holistic quality of life and while it may not push the environmental envelope, its goals and findings still have the capacity to help isolate and test aspects of indoor environments even if the final place for those strategies remains unclear. The certification does not raise innovative “green” strategies and therefore might stand to dilute the focus and perception of LEED if merged incorrectly. While WELL is certainly an unique certification to strive for, its youthful appearance still operates in limbo between becoming a more innovative and robust certification vs. serving as a testing bed for sustainable criteria to be fused with other existing systems.

For LEED to maintain its integrity it would be best to refrain from association or an incorporation of WELL. For WELL to last and to demonstrate any compelling benefit to remain an independent certification the program will need to create a more separate set of conditions from LEED’s existing framework. How is the general public supposed to understand the significance and importance of a system like LEED when the smallest/least consequential types of programs enter the market so loosely?  Adding an unproven system like WELL, that does not have enough unique credits to stand fully outside of LEED, still runs the risk of convoluting the pool of potential certifications available, but this confusion is precisely what needs to be weighed against continuing to foster innovation in the industry—even if some of those pursuits come up short of expectations.