Recap: WELL Building Standard Version 1.0 Released

Does your employer pay an outside inspector to come to your office and ensure that street construction noise isn’t disturbing you? Does it provide “workplace sleep support” through sleep pods, fully reclining chairs, or hammocks? Has that outside inspector verified the quality of your office lighting to make sure your lunch doesn’t appear “dull and unsaturated?” If you answered yes to these questions, you either work for a billion dollar tech company, or your office space has been certified under the WELL Building Standard.

WELL Version 1.0 for Offices (available on their website, but they request some personal information before allowing you to download it) was released on October 20, and Urban Green’s Emerging Professionals brought in Jessica Cooper (Delos) to explain it. WELL covers some topics addressed by LEED, but adds on a lot of new material, and the market will determine if there is a demand for another building rating system. Future standards for multifamily residences, retail and restaurants, sports facilities and convention centers, schools, and healthcare facilities are still in the pilot phase.

At the very least, the WELL standard is obsessively detailed, and its 102 requirements thoroughly cover air, water, light, food, and physical and mental health. There’s a maximum number of grams of sugar allowed in cafeteria muffins and a minimum requirement for refrigerator crisper drawer space per occupant. Those refrigerators must maintain separate temperatures in different compartments so that each food can be stored at its optimum temperature to maintain its taste and nutrient content. But don’t worry if you’re not sure what temperature you should be storing individual foods at; WELL provides a helpful appendix of individual food requirements.

The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which maintains the standard, has relied heavily on outside research, referencing 97 external standards. To validate their work, Cooper says IWBI engaged in  “extensive peer review, with some subject matter experts giving a deep dive to a specific section, while others did a more holistic review.” IWBI chose to contract out this work to “make it quicker than public review with hundreds of comments, given the complex science and medicine behind each feature intention,” said Cooper. It worked – outside peer review on the standard was completed in just five months.

The high-end residential projects used as a test bed for developing the standard led Green Building Advisor, Treehugger, and others to wonder if only the rich will be able afford WELL buildings. Cooper says those projects aren’t representative of their target market, and as a B Corp, IWBI will direct half its post-tax profit toward “charitable contributions and impact investment focused on health, wellness, and the built environment,” though whether this will make a dent in the real estate market at large is debatable. But as Cooper pointed out, everyone who attended her talk had to use the elevator to get to the second floor, because there was no accessible stair in the Midtown building where the talk was held. Why shouldn’t stairs be accessible and inviting for all? (And if you think the suggestion to encourage stair use by playing music in the stairwell is a WELL concept, note that it comes directly from NYC Department of Design and Construction’s Active Design Guidelines.)

WELL isn’t just a design standard; each project requires a dedicated onsite inspection by an authorized WELL “assessor” to demonstrate compliance. And a Silver, Gold or Platinum certification won’t last forever. Since healthy building features require ongoing maintenance and verification, buildings will have to reapply every three years to keep their certification. Onsite inspections and recertification add costs beyond what developers may be used to from LEED, but it may not be a barrier for upscale early adopters.

The WELL project registration and certification process will be implemented through a new collaboration with USGBC/GBCI. Fees are broadly similar to LEED and are probably small compared to the cost of the projects that will initially use the WELL standard. GCBI will perform third-party document certification, and IWBI has aligned its credit calculations so that where there is overlap with LEED, projects won’t have to redo work, but can submit the same calculations for both credits.

Unlike other common rating and standards organizations such as ICC, ASHRAE, ANSI, and USGBC, IWBI isn’t independent, nor is it a membership organization that drives decision-making. IWBI is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delos, a for-profit company that provides healthy building design and construction services. Only IWBI can accredit the required onsite assessors, and it maintains complete control over the content of the standard. Basically, Delos is keeping the keys to both standard development and the crucial bits of the certification business model, giving them an advantage over competitors trying to enter the WELL field. There’s nothing stopping anyone from using the standard as a guidebook to make their office healthier, but for some, the for-profit control may compromise the value of accreditation. In the future, perhaps IWBI will become fully independent and separated from its corporate parent. Until then, the close ties to GBCI may help.