Understanding the WELL Building Standard: A comprehensive guide

July 26, 2023

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.

What is the WELL Building Standard?

The WELL Building Standard is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being. Underpinned by a holistic framework, the WELL Building Standard considers aspects such as air and water quality, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind in the design, development, and management of buildings. The goal is to create built environments that enhance the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns, productivity, and performance of the occupants. It is applicable to many types of buildings, including offices, schools, homes, hotels, and healthcare facilities.

When was the WELL Building Standard created?

The WELL Building Standard was launched by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) in October 2014. Since then, it has grown to now being incorporated in over 4 billion square feet of building space in 120 countries.

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 7 principles of the WELL Building Standard/features

The WELL Building Standard is structured around seven core concepts that address various aspects of the built environment and how they impact human health and wellbeing. Each concept is then divided into features, some of which are prerequisites for achieving the certification, while others are optimizations that can earn the project additional points.

Here are the seven concepts of the WELL Building Standard, briefly explained:

  1. Air: Focuses on optimizing and achieving indoor air quality. Strategies in this concept focus on reducing indoor air pollutants, improving air quality and ensuring proper ventilation. 
  1. Water: This concept encourages safe and clean water through regular testing, filtration, and other treatment strategies. The aim is to ensure water is free of contaminants and is readily available within the building.
  1. Nourishment: This concept encourages healthier eating habits and better food culture. This might involve providing fresh and wholesome foods, minimizing processed foods, and promoting healthier choices and eating habits.
  1. Light: The lighting conditions in a building can have a profound impact on occupants' health, influencing sleep patterns, mood, and productivity. This concept encourages exposure to natural light, proper indoor lighting design, and minimizing disruption to the body’s circadian rhythms.
  1. Fitness: This concept aims to promote physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviors. This might involve the design of active spaces like staircases and gyms, promoting active transportation, and integrating physical activity into everyday life for occupants.
  1. Comfort: This concept aims to create distraction-free, productive, and comfortable indoor environments. This includes acoustical comfort, ergonomic design for minimizing strain, and thermal comfort.
  1. Mind: This concept recognizes the significant impact that mental health has on our wellbeing. The features in this concept aim to promote mental health through design, policies, and programs. This can include providing spaces for relaxation and mental breaks and supporting social connections.

What are the WELL ratings for buildings?

The WELL Building Standard awards certifications at three different levels based on the number of features that a project can achieve. The three certification levels are:

  • WELL Certified Silver: This is the baseline level of certification, indicating that a building has met all the mandatory health-based prerequisites in the WELL Building Standard and has earned a minimum of 50 points.
  • WELL Certified Gold: To achieve Gold certification, a building must meet all the prerequisites and earn a minimum of 60 points.
  • WELL Certified Platinum: The highest WELL rating, Platinum certification is achieved when a building meets all prerequisites and earns a minimum of 80 points.

What is WELL v2?

WELL v2 is the updated version of the original WELL Building Standard, incorporating feedback from the community of WELL users and the latest scientific research to refine and expand upon the original standard.

This updated version aims to be more flexible and adaptable to different types of buildings and projects, more focused on performance outcomes, and more comprehensive in its approach to health and wellness. 

In WELL v2, the original seven concepts have been expanded to include the additional concepts of Materials, Sound, Community and Innovation. Visit the WELL v2 website for more information on the additional concepts.

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.

What is the importance of indoor air quality?

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 Standard 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
July 26, 2023