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WELL, What Is It?

Posted on May 9, 2018, by Michael Eckert

If we were to take a trip to the ancient, dust-covered days of the modern sustainability standard — by strapping ourselves into the time machine that’s been sitting in the back of the garage, and cranking the power up — we’d be going on a long, arduous journey all the way back to . . . 1993. Yep, just 25 years. When the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC ) was founded. Also when the development of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard began. Let’s say you accosted a random badge-holder with edgy glasses at the nearest design conference, then demanded they immediately shout out the name of the first sustainability-friendly building standard that popped into their head. If you did that, “LEED!” would probably get yelled the most.

But the fact is — even though LEED’s origins go back just 25 years — current thinking about sustainability has evolved tremendously since 1993. Just last year, Rick Fedrizzi (one of the USGBC’s founders), wrote an article called Riding the Second Wave: From Environmental Sustainability to Human Sustainability. In it, he refers to LEED as being part of the “First Wave” of sustainability, and he reminisces about what things were like back in those “early days.”


He’s not wrong, though, and if you’re in the architecture or design business —  or really anything related to the building industry —you know that’s true. Think for a second about lighting, to dredge up a fast example. Compact fluorescent (!)  was the energy-saving source of choice in the mid-90s. When was the last time you got excited about new developments in CFL technology? 

Like technology, standards also evolve. And it’s interesting to see how they have. Because in many ways — despite the fact that plenty of people would perhaps claim the present as a post-modern, cynical era — the fact is that current thinking in building standards is precisely the opposite. It’s all about possibility. So, let’s talk about WELL.

WELL is aspirational, which gives it plenty of power to inspire — in ways beyond what standards like LEED were trying to do. What do we mean? Here’s another quote from Rick Fedrizzi (who, by the way, is currently the Chairman and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute — the IWBI). In the same article noted above, he says: “the First Wave was all about protection and minimization — protecting the environment, protecting people, and minimizing the negative impact of buildings on both. But today, the conversation has evolved. Indeed, we’re witnessing the exciting, early days of the Second Wave, which is all about promoting and enhancing.”


Certainly. LEED was a standard designed to address what kinds of building materials should be used, how best to acquire them, and the types of systems that should be put in place to make them comfortably habitable. The bulk of its attention was aimed at the building. As in, “what will this building be like?” In contrast, WELL moves the emphasis away from physical structures as ends in themselves, instead placing its full focus directly on the people inside.

The WELL Building Standard is “an evidence-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the performance of building features that impact health and well-being.” That language comes directly from the IWBI website. On it, WELL is further described as exploring “how design, operations and behaviors within the places where we live, work, learn and play can be optimized to advance human health and well-being.”


Definitely. The standard is divided into seven sections: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort, and Mind. Each section is subdivided into a series of “Features,“ and each of these describes a set of physical specifications designed to achieve the intended result. Let’s take a close look at a single Feature. Again, from the WELL website:

 Air — Feature 08, Healthy Entrance

Intent: To minimize the introduction of pollutants into indoor air at building entrances.

The next section is called “Background,” which we won’t quote here in full. It contains a short summary of the issue, reading in part: “Occupants often track harmful contaminants indoors . . . [and once they do,] potentially polluted air can enter the building.” It then goes on to highlight “the need for measures that minimize or prevent the introduction of potentially harmful substances to indoor spaces.”

Entryway Walk-Off Systems

To capture particulates from occupant shoes at all regularly used entrance(s) to the project, one of the following is installed and is maintained on a weekly basis:

  1. Permanent entryway system comprised of grilles, grates or slots, which allow for easy cleaning underneath, at least the width of the entrance and 3 m [10 ft] long in the primary direction of travel (sum of indoor and outdoor length).
  2. Rollout mats, at least the width of the entrance and 3 m [10 ft] long in the primary direction of travel (sum of indoor and outdoor length).
  3. Material manufactured as an entryway walk-off system, at least the width of the entrance and 3 m [10 ft] long in the primary direction of travel (sum of indoor and outdoor length).

Feature 8 also has a Part 2 (Entryway Air Seal) and Part 3 (Playing Field Staging Area) — each with their own sets of options to fulfill the requirement. You’ll notice that all of this is not about the particular materials used, but rather a set of physical structures designed with the intent to achieve a specific health-related result: In this case, better indoor air quality.

For this first example, we’ve picked a Feature that adheres more closely to familiar building standards, in that it describes an architectural element. But what’s interesting about WELL is that some Features can go pretty far afield (entire categories, really — if you go back and scan the list). For example, under Nourishment you’ll find features dealing with such topics as Food Allergies (feature 40), Artificial Ingredients (feature 43), and Mindful Eating (feature 52).

Part of what WELL is interested in doing is to create a public forum where architects and builders, doctors and other health professionals, and business people — all of whom have different backgrounds, goals, and agendas — can be coaxed into a kind of cooperative thought process leading to workplaces where people find themselves: a) in improved working environments, b) becoming healthier and happier — and thus c) as a result, generate economic improvements for both themselves and for the entities who employ them. The ultimate objective here is to create a win-win situation for everyone. Like we said, it’s aspirational.


How is one awarded WELL certification? The standard generally works as follows: Features are categorized as either Preconditions (all of which must be met to achieve certification at any WELL Standard level), or Optimizations (which are not required to be certified WELL Silver, but can be used to get to the higher certification levels: Gold and Platinum).

Another relevant distinction between WELL and LEED, is this: Rather than being primarily a document-driven certification system like LEED, the bulk of WELL certification must be field-verified. WELL requires on-site assessor visits, and not only at the beginning — there’s a re-certification process every three years. It’s an ongoing, organic program.

And as we’ve noted above, there are Features that stress more “traditional” workplace design (traditional, in the sense of “classic” green-building standards) and architectural criteria — such as the color temperature of lighting, an emphasis on sit-to-stand, or circulation design that promotes the use of stairs to increase physical activity during the day. But others deal with wide-ranging health and wellness concerns, like paid maternity leave, acoustics, water testing, injury prevention, materials and policy transparency, or the promotion of healthy sleep. It’s an impressive and comprehensive standard.


You may have heard about the WELL Living Lab, which is a joint venture between Delos (who launched the IWBI in 2013) and The Mayo Clinic. This is not the same as the WELL Building Standard — the WELL Living Lab is a distinct entity, although there is some shared oversight between the two. To clarify the distinction: The WELL Building Standard is what we’ve described in this story — a set of criteria intended to create a better blueprint for the built world. The WELL Living Lab, on the other hand, is a working business operating inside the Mayo Clinic where new technologies, design ideas, and methodologies for improving health in the workplace can actually be implemented, tested, and studied. To get deeper into this topic would best be left for another post.

Our final comment: There’s no way to understand the full breadth of what the WELL Building Standard attempts to achieve by simply reading about it on a blog (even one that strives to be as entertaining as we do — and thanks by the way! if you think that). The best way to get a feel for what WELL is about is to go directly to their website and have a look around.

You’ll find it here: www.wellcertified.com


The A-Z of Health & Wellness in Interior Design

Topics: Sustainability, Health & Wellness

Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert