Understanding the WELL Building Standard: A comprehensive guide

January 21, 2024

Navigating the green building landscape, the WELL Building Standard has emerged as a pioneering rating scheme championing both sustainability and occupant wellbeing. Although a relatively recent arrival, its adoption has skyrocketed, particularly since 2019. 

In this article, we explore the origins of the WELL Building Standard, its underlying principles and unpack the certification process. We delve into its importance in the modern world, the costs associated with achieving certification, and how it compares to other popular standards like LEED. Whether you're a building owner, designer, occupant, or just curious, this guide provides a comprehensive overview of the WELL Building Standard and its significant impact on how we perceive and create our spaces.

Quick access:

What is the WELL Building Standard?

Why is the WELL Building Standard important?

The main principles of the WELL Building Standard

What are the WELL certification levels for buildings?

What is WELL v2?

What is the WELL Performance Rating?

The importance of indoor air quality for WELL Performance

What is the process to getting WELL certified?

The difference between the WELL Building Standard and LEED

How much does the WELL Building certification cost?

How can building analytics help achieve WELL certification?

What is the WELL Building Standard?

The WELL Building Standard is a pioneering building standard focused on enhancing human health and well-being through the built environment. Launched by the  International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) in October 2014, WELL is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellness, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Since its launch, it has grown to now being incorporated in over 4 billion square feet of building space in 120 countries.

WELL is grounded in evidence-based research that demonstrates the significant impact that buildings can have on the health, satisfaction, and productivity of their occupants. It sets benchmarks for everything from air quality and water purity to lighting, acoustics, and materials that do not release harmful chemicals. The standard also considers aspects like mental health, community engagement, and policies that support a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance.

By implementing WELL standards, buildings and organizations can create environments that actively contribute to the well-being of those who use them, enhancing physical and mental health while promoting sustainable practices. WELL certification offers a tangible way for organizations to demonstrate their commitment to the health and well-being of their occupants.

Why is the WELL Building Standard important?

To truly appreciate the significance of the WELL Building Standard, we need to understand that humans, on average, spend approximately 90% of their time indoors. This startling statistic underscores the need for healthy, supportive environments, be it at work, school, or home.

The WELL Building Standard is the first building certification process of its kind, focusing explicitly on the health and wellness of building occupants. The standard provides a framework for enhancing health and human experience, not just reducing harm. It uses a holistic approach, integrating aspects of building design, operations, and policies to promote healthier living and working conditions. This isn't just about environmentally friendly buildings; it's about people-friendly buildings.

Adopting the WELL Building Standard doesn't just benefit individual health and wellbeing; it has broader societal and economic benefits too. Healthier employees tend to be more productive and take fewer sick days, children in healthier school environments often perform better academically, and healthier homes can reduce healthcare costs.

In the wake of global health concerns, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the WELL Building Standard has even greater relevance. It's not just about creating sustainable buildings anymore; it's about creating healthier, more resilient communities.

What are the main principles of the WELL Building Standard?

The WELL Building Standard is based on a holistic framework that aims to improve human health and well-being through the built environment. Its principles are organized around ten core concepts, each targeting different aspects of the physical and social environment to optimize health, comfort, and cognitive performance. These concepts are:

  1. Air: Focuses on optimizing indoor air quality with strategies to reduce air pollution sources, enhance ventilation, and filter air to remove contaminants. This ensures that building occupants breathe cleaner air, which is crucial for health and well-being.
  2. Water: Aims to provide access to clean and safe water through proper filtration and regular testing. Ensuring the quality of drinking water within a building supports hydration and overall health.
  3. Nourishment: Encourages the availability of wholesome foods, supports healthy eating habits, and aims to minimize the presence of processed ingredients. This concept promotes physical health and well-being through diet.
  4. Light: Prioritizes access to natural light and designs artificial lighting systems that enhance occupant mood, energy, and sleep quality. Proper lighting can significantly affect circadian rhythms, productivity, and comfort.
  5. Movement: Encourages physical activity among occupants through design strategies and policies that integrate physical exercise into daily routines. This includes providing access to fitness facilities, promoting the use of stairs, and designing spaces that encourage movement.
  6. Thermal Comfort: Focuses on creating environments that are comfortable for occupants, taking into account factors such as temperature, humidity, and airflow. Personal control over thermal comfort is also emphasized.
  7. Sound: Addresses acoustic comfort by minimizing noise pollution and enhancing sound quality within environments. This includes controlling background noise and designing spaces that support concentration and communication.
  8. Materials: Involves selecting materials that minimize exposure to toxins and pollutants. This concept is aimed at reducing contact with harmful chemicals in the built environment.
  9. Mind: Promotes mental and emotional well-being by incorporating design elements and programs that help reduce stress, enhance mood, and support mental health. This includes access to nature, spaces for relaxation and socialization, and policies that support work-life balance.
  10. Community: Aims to create environments that foster social connections, community engagement, and a sense of belonging. This includes designing inclusive spaces and supporting community programs.

What are the WELL certification levels for buildings?

The WELL certification levels are as follows:

  1. Bronze: This level recognizes a foundational level of commitment to prioritizing health and well-being within the built environment.
  2. Silver: Achieving Silver certification indicates that a project has met all of the WELL Building Standard's Preconditions, demonstrating a significant commitment to supporting human health and wellness.
  3. Gold: Gold certification is awarded to projects that have met all Preconditions and a substantial number of Optimizations, showcasing a more advanced commitment to health and wellness practices.
  4. Platinum: The highest level of certification, Platinum, signifies that a project has met all Preconditions and a majority of Optimizations, reflecting leadership in health and wellness in the built environment.

These levels allow buildings and organizations to aim for progressively higher standards of health and wellness practices, demonstrating their commitment to the well-being of their occupants.

What is WELL v2?

WELL v2 is the second and latest version of the WELL Building Standard, a comprehensive framework designed to improve human health and well-being through the built environment. Launched by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), WELL v2 builds upon the foundations of the original WELL Building Standard by introducing a more flexible, inclusive, and optimized approach to health and wellness in buildings and spaces.

Key Features and Improvements of WELL v2 include:

  1. Comprehensive Framework: WELL v2 consolidates previous pilot versions into a unified standard, making it applicable across all building types and sectors. It provides a more streamlined approach to certification with a set of universal features relevant to all projects.
  2. Flexibility: WELL v2 offers increased flexibility through its scoring system, allowing projects to pursue and earn points in ways that are most relevant to their specific context, goals, and occupant needs. This flexibility ensures that a wider range of projects can participate and achieve certification.
  3. Optimization: The standard encourages continuous improvement and innovation in building design and operations. WELL v2 includes a dynamic set of optimization strategies that projects can implement to exceed baseline requirements and achieve higher levels of performance and certification.
  4. Evidence-Based: WELL v2 continues to be grounded in the latest scientific research, incorporating evidence-based strategies to enhance health and well-being. It covers ten core concepts: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind, and Community, each backed by a robust body of research supporting its impact on health.
  5. Global Applicability: Recognizing the diverse global context of buildings, WELL v2 includes considerations for cultural and geographical differences, making it more accessible and applicable worldwide. It aims to promote health and well-being across different climates, cultures, and communities.
  6. Technology Integration: WELL v2 integrates technological advancements to promote health, well-being, and sustainability. It leverages technology for better building performance monitoring, occupant experience, and management of environmental factors.
  7. Engagement and Policy: Beyond physical and environmental factors, WELL v2 emphasizes organizational policies and programs that promote wellness. It encourages engagement in health and wellness programs, community service, and social equity.

What is the WELL Performance Rating?

The WELL Performance Rating is based on a subset of features from the WELL Building Standard that encourages organizations to use performance metrics to validate and improve indoor environments and occupant health and wellbeing. 

The main feature of the WELL Performance Rating is that it focuses on measurable performance metrics that are verified through on-site testing, sensor technology and user experience surveys, so that organizations can make data-driven decisions.

The WELL Performance Rating differs from WELL Certification as there are no achievement levels for ratings, and the focus is largely on performance-based metrics. The WELL Performance Rating can be achieved as a stand-alone certification or a milestone on the path to achieving the full WELL Building Standard Certification.

The importance of indoor air quality for WELL Performance

Indoor air quality is a crucial component of the WELL Performance Rating and the WELL Building Standard as it has a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of building occupants. 

Indoor air quality can be affected by a variety of factors, including ventilation, moisture levels, temperature, and the presence of pollutants or contaminants. Poor indoor air quality can contribute to a range of health problems, including allergies, respiratory conditions like asthma, and even certain types of cancer. It can also impact comfort, productivity, and mental well-being, leading to reduced performance and satisfaction among building occupants.

By setting high standards for indoor air quality, the WELL Building Standard aims to create indoor environments that support good health and well-being, leading to benefits such as improved productivity, reduced absenteeism, and greater occupant satisfaction. 

For example, WELL certification requires that buildings have adequate ventilation systems that meet or exceed certain standards. It also requires measures to limit the introduction of pollutants from outside, to control moisture and prevent mold growth, and to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and particulates.

For more information on the importance of indoor air quality, and for tips on how to improve indoor air quality, check out our blog “How to improve indoor air quality in commercial spaces: Insights and strategies.”

What is the process to getting WELL certified?

The process of getting a commercial property WELL Certified involves several steps. Here's a general guide:

  1. Registration: The first step is to register the project with the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). This involves providing some basic details about the building and the project, and paying the registration fee.
  1. Documentation and design phase: Next, the team responsible for the project will need to carefully review the WELL Building Standard requirements, and develop a plan for how to meet them. This typically involves collaboration between architects, engineers, designers, and other stakeholders. The team will need to document how the project meets each required feature, and potentially additional optimization features, in the WELL Building Standard.
  1. Precondition documentation and verification: After the design phase, the project must demonstrate that it has met all the required preconditions for its building type and certification level. This is done by submitting documentation, such as plans, reports, and test results, to the IWBI.
  1. Performance Verification: Once the building is operational, a third-party organization called Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) will conduct a performance verification. This includes an on-site assessment of the building and operations to confirm that they meet the WELL Building Standard's requirements. The verification process involves visual inspections, performance testing, and a review of documents.
  1. Certification: If the building passes the performance verification, it will be awarded a WELL Certification at the appropriate level (Silver, Gold, or Platinum), based on the number of points it has achieved. The certification is valid for three years.
  1. Recertification: To maintain its WELL Certification, the building must go through the recertification process every three years. This involves reassessing the performance of the building and verifying that it still meets the WELL Building Standard's requirements.

What is the difference between the WELL Building Standard and LEED?

Both the WELL Building Standard and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) are green building certification programs, but they focus on different aspects of sustainable and healthy buildings.

LEED, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is one of the most popular green building certification systems worldwide. It primarily focuses on the environmental impact of buildings, considering factors such as water efficiency, energy usage, materials selection, sustainable site development, and indoor environmental quality. The goal of LEED is to promote sustainable practices in design, construction, and operation to minimize the environmental impact of buildings.

The WELL Building Standard, on the other hand, was developed by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) with a focus on the health and well-being of the people in the buildings. While it also considers environmental sustainability, its primary focus is on elements of the built environment that impact human health and wellness. 

Overall, LEED concentrates more on reducing the environmental footprint of buildings, while the WELL Building Standard emphasizes enhancing human health and well-being. There's significant overlap between the two, and many buildings pursue both certifications to create spaces that are both environmentally sustainable and health-promoting. It's also worth noting that the two certification programs can complement each other well: a building that's good for the environment often has features that are good for human health, and vice versa.

How much does the WELL Building certification cost?

The cost of getting a building WELL Certified can vary greatly depending on several factors, including the size and type of the project, the level of certification you are pursuing, and the specific design and construction choices you make to meet the WELL Building Standard's requirements.

However, there are two fixed costs associated with the WELL Certification process:

  • Enrolment fee: This is a one-time fee of $2,500 paid at the beginning of the certification process
  • Program fee: This is a fee of $0.16 per square foot of the building pursuing certification, which starts at $6,500 and is capped at $98,000. 

In addition to these fixed costs, projects will also need to budget for the cost of any design and construction changes needed to meet the WELL Building Standard's requirements, as well as any necessary testing (for example, air and water quality testing). These costs can vary widely from project to project.

How can building analytics help achieve WELL certification?

Building analytics solutions, such as CIM's PEAK platform, can be crucial allies in the journey to achieve WELL Building Standard certification. These platforms use the power of data, analytics, and automation to optimize building performance in several key areas that align with the principles of the WELL Building Standard. Here's how:

  • Monitoring indoor air quality: PEAK can integrate with indoor air quality sensors to continuously monitor factors like temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, and particulate matter. This data helps building owners to identify issues and adjust HVAC systems for optimal air quality, aligning with the Air concept of WELL.
  • Promoting energy and water efficiency: By analyzing usage patterns, platforms like PEAK can help building owners identify opportunities for reducing energy and water consumption. Although this doesn't directly relate to a WELL feature, it's a component of sustainable building management that could support broader efforts to create a healthier, more sustainable built environment.
  • Facilitating preventive maintenance: Regular preventive maintenance is essential for maintaining optimal conditions in a building. Platforms like PEAK can predict maintenance needs based on usage and performance data, helping to prevent issues that could negatively impact indoor environmental quality.

Scott Beauman
January 21, 2024