Health & Wellness in the Built Environment.

The WELL Building Standard

By Michael Munn, LEED AP, WELL AP, CPHC

The WELL Building Standard v1 is organized into 7 concepts: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort, and Mind.  (Image: Courtesy of IWBI)

The Green Engineer operates on the principle of the triple bottom line – balancing social, environmental, and financial impacts in our work. When we collaborate on a project, we begin our discussion and analysis with these principles. We find this often leads towards addressing occupant health and wellbeing in the design.  A useful tool in  this discussion is the WELL Building Standard.

The WELL Building Standard was developed after years of input and peer review from scientific, practitioner, and medical communities. As described by its developer, Delos Living, LLC, “WELL is a performance-based system for measuring and certifying features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. It marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research – harnessing the built environment as a vehicle to support human health and well-being.”  

Delos also established the public benefit corporation in charge of administering the WELL standard, the International WELL Building InstituteTM (IWBI)TM. IWBI partnered with the Green Business Certification, Inc. (GBCI) for 3rd party verification of a WELL building’s performance. Similar to the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for buildings, projects seeking WELL certification must pass their muster through the GBCI. 

Buildings have a big impact on our health and well-being - on average people about 90% of their time indoors.  There is also a significant financial stake in healthy buildings – salaries, benefits and recruitment costs are the single largest cost for most companies, and on a square foot basis may be 100x the cost of energy.  So even small improvements in productivity and employee retention will have a large impact on the financial bottom line. These factors make a strong case for the WELL standard.  


The WELL Building Standard

WELL v1 is organized into 7 concepts: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort, and Mind. WELL follows a familiar approach as LEED; some things are mandatory (Preconditions), and others are optional (Optimizations). In similar fashion as LEED, achieving a certain level of optimizations earns a project a higher level of certification (Gold, Platinum).

WELL stands apart in that it is performance based.  It is one thing to design a project to meet optimal indoor air quality, but it is another to pass a mandatory air quality test. Air Quality Standards are one of several preconditions within the Air category in WELL.  It aligns with another precondition, VOC Reduction, which dictates project designs have low VOC content and emissions from furnishings, finishes, and building products used within the weather barrier. This criteria ultimately serves the purpose of passing the air quality test. During the GBCI review, the design team submits documentation for approval that confirms proper materials were used. Once the documentation review phase has been approved, an approved design then undergoes its performance verification - the definitive test for WELL certification.

The Green Engineer recently worked on a project for EMD Serono Inc. – a biopharmaceutical R&D company – that achieved WELL Gold certification – the first WELL Gold certification in the US. The design and construction team for EMD’s Project SagaMORE understood that the products and materials specified and installed would eventually need to pass performance verification to achieve WELL. Every decision bore an impact on the project’s ability to become a WELL certified building. The project’s passing of the performance verification was an accomplishment not only for the entire design team, but also for the occupants who would move into a space officially verified to have healthy indoor air.

But, who notices a building’s indoor air quality when admiring a building or interior? The truth is we only notice when we have major problems. However, a WELL CertifiedTM project, such as EMD Serono’s Billerica, MA campus, also provides more traditional and tangible hallmarks of beauty and sustainability. A precondition in the Mind category, titled ‘Beauty and Design I’, guides teams to “create unique and culturally-rich spaces.” The WELL reference guide goes on to explain the importance of a beautiful building and the impact a beautiful environment can have on occupants; that “integrating aesthetically pleasing elements into a space can help building occupants derive a measure of comfort or joy from their surroundings. The incorporation of design elements and artwork to a space can create a calming environment able to improve occupant mood.”

Another precondition, titled ‘Biophillia I – Qualitative’, incorporates design elements into a project to provide for a connection to natural patterns and elements as a means by which to “nurture the innate human-nature connection within a project.” The objective, as stated in the WELL standard, is “to address our psychological need to be around life and life-like processes. Exposure to views and images of nature can help to speed up healing and recovery time, boost positive feelings and reduce negative ones. Interior environments that are cold, sterile and devoid of life, on the other hand, can diminish our experience, mood and happiness.” The result of these preconditions is a distinctly pleasing environment that is good for your health.

WELL goes beyond designing healthy spaces – it drives building operators to facilitate occupant exercise and behavior. Projects that provide outdoor gardening space and support, or provide alternative commute facilities (i.e. bike storage and showers) and organizations that incentivize physical activities are just a few of the ways WELL works to improve building occupant health. WELL pushes the envelope on how buildings can, and should, provide for their occupants in categories such as Light and Nourishment.  For example, the Nourishment category prohibits the provision of food or beverages containing trans. fats or a high sugar content (looking at you, can of soda) onsite in the facility or in the building’s vending machines or food service vendors. WELL also encourages healthy sleep cycles through the Light and Mind categories, which encourage the industry to consider an individual’s circadian rhythm – the body’s 24-hour internal clock that cycles between being asleep and being awake – through the use of prescriptive lighting level standards in an interior’s lighting design. WELL aims to drive health and wellness home, far beyond the boundaries of the certified environment.

The complicated nature of building construction is full of contrasting ideas, methods, and means. It is the role of building standards like WELL to make sure occupant health and wellness remains a priority through the ebb and flow of the construction process to completion. Likewise, it is the role of a sustainability consultant to voice these priorities to the wider design and construction team, and to help building operators and owners align wellness goals with the day-to-day operations of a facility. 

Interested in learning more about WELL as it applies to your next project? Contact us.


- Michael Munn is an Assistant Project Manager at The Green Engineer.

International WELL Building InstituteTM, IWBITM, and the related logo are trademarks used with permission from the International WELL Building Institute.

Photography:  Images 1&2 © Ellenzweig | Images 3&4 © EMD Serono, Inc.