Wellness: WELL Building Standard

The WELL Building Standard focuses solely on a building’s impact on people. Alinea, in conjunction with Cundall and WSP, gives an overview of the standard

01 / Introduction

Wellness is a term that covers a wide spectrum of issues, from the physical and environmental to the occupational and spiritual. It is much more than being free from illness, as the World Health Organisation definition suggests: “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”.

It has entered the public’s consciousness in recent years, with bookshelves well served by publications on mindfulness and healthy eating, and corporate organisations increasingly aware of the need to look after their employees’ states of mind as well as their physical safety. The too frequent stories of high profile public figures suffering from mental health issues are reminders that no part of society is immune.

There is an oft-quoted statistic that modern society spends an estimated 90% of its time inside: a startling number which reinforces the importance of buildings in shaping our lives – not least our health and wellbeing.

Wellness has become a $3.7trn (£2.86 trn) global industry, and the global wellness real estate market was one of the fastest growing wellness sectors between 2013 and 2015, rising 19% to a $118.6bn (£91.7bn) market (measured by commercial real estate transactions that incorporate wellness elements into their design, construction, amenities, services, and/or programming).

These may be meaningless numbers, but there is no doubt that the growing awareness and interest in our personal wellbeing means that the importance of providing a healthy and productive environment for building occupants is now more appreciated by employers and therefore developers.

Research indicates that by analysing and enhancing our workplace environment, the economic impact could be quickly realised. The health and economic consequences of our air quality (40,000 deaths in 2015 and a £50bn cost to the NHS), lack of physical activity (£500m cost to the NHS) and poor lifestyle such as smoking and diet (78,000 deaths in 2014 and £11bn cost to the NHS), has led to a relatively recent change in attitudes.

It was reported by PricewaterhouseCoopers that in 2013 the cost of sickness absence to employers stood at £29bn and according to the Labour Force Survey, in 2014–2015 over 23 million days were lost due to work-related ill health. “Presenteeism” – turning up for work when unwell – is common, and the costs are at least twice as much as those for absenteeism.

Surveys suggest that up to 70% of the workforce do not feel engaged and hence are working at a reduced performance. Clearly, the environments we create have a significant bearing on our health and wellbeing, which translates into an enormous economic impact on organisational effectiveness and competitiveness. It may be going too far to relate the above figures to the UK’s relatively poor productivity levels amongst advanced nations, but a healthier and happier workforce can only produce a positive effect on such metrics.

02 / The WELL Building Standard?

There are, of course, established regulations – notably BREEAM and LEED – covering the sustainability of buildings, and to an extent their effect on our environment and us. However, there has been no guidance which focuses solely on a building’s impact on people, until the WELL Building Standard came along.

The WELL Building Standard was pioneered by US consultant Delos Living. Delos Living is managed and administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation. The WELL Building Standard was developed by integrating scientific and medical research and literature on environmental health, behavioural factors, health outcomes and demographic risk factors that affect health with leading practices in building design and management. The WELL Building Standard also references existing standards and best practice guidelines set by governmental and professional organisations.

It is a weighty tome, well over two hundred pages long, and is the world’s first performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing.

It addresses seven concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and the mind, by including well over 200 requirements organised in 102 features.

Similar to BREEAM and LEED, WELL includes mandatory as well as optional features. WELL certification is administered through IWBI’s collaboration with Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which also administers LEED certification.

There is a growing level of interest in the WELL Building Standard, and in how to design and construct buildings to be “WELL certifiable”. It is a relatively new standard, of course, but currently there are over 400 projects registered or certified with IWBI across 28 countries worldwide.

Together with the cost of registration, documentation and performance certification, certified buildings should be reassessed every three years, with an associated fee, to ensure continued accreditation. All these costs vary depending on the project, but Table 1 gives an idea of the levels involved.

Table 1: WELL Standard certification costs (converted from $ and rounded)

03 / Alternatives to the WELL Building Standard

There are alternatives to the WELL Building Standard, the most prominent competitor in the workplace market currently being Fitwel. Introduced in 2016, the Fitwel Standard is based on 63 evidence-based design and policy strategies that enhance building environments by addressing a broad range of health behaviours and risks.

Each strategy within the Fitwel Standard is linked by scientific evidence to at least one of Fitwel’s seven key health impact categories, namely:

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA) led the development of Fitwel, garnering input from experts in public health and design and reviewing over 3,000 scientific studies. The Center for Active Design (CfAD) is a non-profit organisation and the operator of Fitwel, leading its adoption and future development.

Unlike the WELL Building Standard, Fitwel does not include mandatory requirements and offers much lower rates for registration and certification, particularly for a larger development. It also does not include performance verification through third-party testing.

It might be possible, and beneficial, to combine Fitwel with a robust performance monitoring regime such as NABERS or RESET. NABERS measures the energy efficiency, water usage, waste management and indoor environment quality of a building or tenancy and its impact on the environment. It does this by using measured and verified performance information, such as utility bills, and converting them into an easy to understand star rating scale from one to six stars.

The RESET Air Standard prioritises on-going results and long-term occupant health. Indoor air quality data is gathered through permanently installed air quality monitors that measure carbon dioxide, particulate matter, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), temperature, and relative humidity. Results are streamed and can be viewed in real-time from any computer or mobile device.

NABERS and RESET can be applied to both commercial fit-out and shell and core buildings, and implementation can be used to verify aspects of air quality performance for ongoing monitoring.

04 / Enable or certify?

Developers face the decision to either “enable” their building to meet wellbeing standards (laying the foundations for future tenants, or owners of the building, to certify), be that the WELL Building Standard or an alternative, or opting to obtain certification themselves as part of the base building development.

Obtaining certification can prove costly for larger buildings if complying with the WELL Building Standard, as certification costs are linked to floor areas – and not all tenants will necessarily intend to fit out their floors to achieve certification.

This is tending to prompt developers to “enable” their buildings for the time being, allowing tenants to proceed with obtaining certification at a later date, if they choose to.

This also avoids a tenant having to undertake gap assessments of the base build to determine if its fit-out will meet the requirements of the WELL Building Standard in a WELL certified base build.

05 / Two particular issues: Air and light

On a global scale, London is more polluted than many people appreciate. In the capital, 9,000 premature deaths are linked to exposure to excessive air pollution and more than 800 schools, nurseries and other educational institutions are in areas breaching EU legal air pollution limits.

With these statistics in mind, could we see in the not so distant future legal challenges by building occupiers demanding demonstrable good building indoor environments? Robust data collection and transparent communication of performance will surely become crucial for asset managers, something that is already implemented in China with voluntary standards such as RESET.

While air quality is one of the seven WELL Building Standard concepts, the features do not cover some of the deadliest pollutants in major cities such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur oxides (SOx) (NOx emissions were addressed in the pilot version of WELL, but removed due to difficulties in obtaining reliable and scalable real-time measurements during performance verification).

In some areas of London, the World Health Organisation’s annual recommended limit for these pollutants was breached just five days into 2017.

Cundall’s advanced research using its own environmental monitoring system (IEQubeTM), has indicated that many modern HVAC systems are not designed to filter these out. Measures may need to be adopted, ranging from an upgrade of the air filtration system to positioning the inlets away from the source of the pollutants.

Lighting covers a number of areas, including visual lighting design, brightness management, glare control, colour quality, daylight management and circadian lighting design. As an example of the technicalities and complexities of some of these issues, the lighting industry is involved in a debate about the right metric for measuring circadian lighting and its effects on occupants.

The WELL Building Standard uses melanopic lux levels as a proxy for controlling our circadian systems, but some current medical evidence indicates that it is only one of many factors and that circadian stimulus may be a better measure.

WELL’s view is that circadian stimulus is yet to prove itself as the definitive metric, so it would seem that further medical research is required before decisive measures are implemented.

06 / Is there more to be done?

International standards such as the WELL Building Standard provide a positive starting point to integrate health and wellbeing principles into the design and construction of a building. WELL, and other standards and guidelines, are welcome and encourage better design and healthier buildings.

These tools, however, are relatively young; they are being fine-tuned and developed to account for feedback from relevant experts, such as issues surrounding air quality and lighting metrics as noted previously.

Standards help to promote best practice, but culture is just as important: for example, WSP finds that many modern commercial buildings in Sweden are likely to meet most if not all prerequisites and many optional features of the WELL standard, primarily due to its employee-focused outlook and standards. Some countries are already ahead of us, and ahead of these regulations. Perhaps increasing awareness will help to adapt our attitudes, best practice and standards together.

The focus on healthy lifestyles has led to an industry catering to healthy food, exercise, sleep, mental health and more, and this is being supported by wearable technology that lets us monitor every step taken, minute slept or calorie consumed. With technology entering the market that lets us monitor our immediate surroundings, including air quality, noise and lighting quality, people may soon start to analyse the quality of their habitats, be it their home, workplace or outdoors, to understand if it is an environment that advocates a safe atmosphere to support a healthy lifestyle. This will not only make the individual more aware, and better informed, but it will increase the pressure not only on employers but also developers and facility managers, to respond to concerns, and make them alert to their corporate, legal and moral responsibilities.

Initial empirical evidence suggests that designing with wellness in mind, and using the WELL Building Standard to do so, has a positive impact on the workplace. Cundall has started to monitor and measure the effect that WELL measures have had on staff engagement and productivity. The early findings from a WELL certified office in London shows that, post occupancy, both absenteeism rates and staff turnover have reduced significantly. Further study will be required to strengthen correlations, but the signs are good.

Together with greater interest from corporate clients – especially the banking sector, which includes wellbeing aspects in location and investment decision making – the public sector is also starting to take notice, with instances of public-sector organisations analysing a building’s performance against WELL criteria when selecting new office locations. Residential developers are beginning to take a closer look too.

Much has been achieved in a relatively short space of time, with the best-known standard, WELL, providing a comprehensive set of metrics that for the most part ask the right questions. Greater use and engagement from both private and public clients, in response to tenants (and employees) requesting WELL-enabled buildings, will no doubt boost the further development of WELL and other standards, hopefully encouraging a more cost-effective certification system.

Legal liabilities will increasingly focus corporate minds, but employers will equally want to provide spaces that work for their particular staff, responding to the things that are important to them. A key part of the next steps in the development of guidance will be demonstrating that buildings do work in these respects, and that measures prompted by regulation really do make improvements.

Collaboration between relevant bodies who are each seeking better buildings in their respective domains would be welcome; indeed this is apparently already happening as IWBI has recently announced alignments between the WELL Building Standard and green building certification standards such as LEED, Green Star and BREEAM. The logical conclusion would be the certification that a building is sustainable, healthy and fit-for-purpose through the joined-up application of these and other tools like Soft Landings.

07 / WELL Building Standard costs

There are various pre-conditions and optimisations that need to be assessed across three rating levels: Silver, Gold and Platinum. These vary for three project types: core and shell; new and existing interiors; and new and existing buildings.

Whichever project type is used, the number and nature of the items in the standard means that considerable time and thought needs to be devoted to assessing how the design may respond (or does in fact address them already) and the cost of the design enhancement, or other measures. Table 2 shows the number of items involved.

For any of the rating levels, it is mandatory to achieve all of the preconditions (Silver); Gold and Platinum require a percentage of the overall optimisations as follows:

All the pre-conditions and optimisations are centred around putting people at the heart of the building, as each feature is linked to a human body system. An example of this would be interior fitness circulation. This particular pre-condition promotes stair use through design and is ascribed to the cardiovascular, muscular and skeletal system.

To test the potential cost premiums for a typical commercial office building in central London (and using our experience from real projects) we have taken a theoretical new shell and core office scheme of 100,000ft2 gross internal area (GIA), over four floors high and assumed the developer will finish it to a Category A open plan fit out, and assessed each and every item across the different categories in the WELL Building Standards.

These figures, which represent current day fluctuating prices, are necessarily indicative and will of course depend on the actual building and its design, but they do give a sense of the possible level of costs, and in which category they are likely to fall.

The following assumptions in particular are worth noting:

Table 2: WELL Building Standard: number of preconditions and optimisations

Addition to total base build cost

In summary, we anticipate an additional £2/ft² – £3/ft² GIA to the total base build cost, to achieve the mandatory (Silver level) preconditions for the shell and core typology. Our findings align with a number of WELL feasibility studies that WSP have recently carried out on speculative office developments in the UK.

It is possible that larger commercial buildings could benefit from some economies of scale, as the cost of meeting certain requirements will not rise in proportion to gross floor area increases, thus diluting the total cost per ft2 GIA to an extent. As WELL is still in its infancy, cost assessments are also likely to improve as an increasing number of projects progress, feed back and publish data in order to analyse and better understand the impacts of WELL and in turn contribute to future guidance.

Many of the pre-conditions that are required to achieve the Silver rating can potentially be achieved through good design practice, although there are a number which attracted some cost premium, according to our interpretation. There are others that fall within other budget categories, such as operational costs and leases requirements.

The features that have attracted the principal cost premiums are in the air, fitness and mind categories. The fitness and mind categories have an allowance for “artwork” and the air category requires low volatile organic Compounds (VOC) in some of the finishes and fittings items. Without any detail on the base building finishes, we have assessed this by increasing the relevant part of the likely finishes budget by a relatively small percentage.

We have assumed that the usual design team fees are unaffected, but there are certain preconditions which call for specific design-side tasks to be completed, such as the requirement for point by point narratives to be completed for moisture management.

It is feasible for a developer to obtain a Silver accreditation for the shell and core, with the end user enhancing this to achieve a Platinum fit out award. We have not attempted to assess any additional costs of enhancing the design to meet either the Gold or Platinum standards because these have a number of impacts that are not easy to gauge, particularly for a theoretical model.

For example, one recommended optimisation is the inclusion of physical activity spaces, meaning the incorporation of exercise space and either local parks or complimentary access to sports gymnasiums. It is very difficult for us to give any meaningful cost ranges as it would be entirely dependent upon the site and developer’s approach.

08 / Adding value

The fact that there is value in buildings that provide a healthier and happier environment for their occupants is obvious, but how can this be enumerated? It is probably too early to state with confidence that a WELL-enabled building will attract higher rents (though that must be possible), but it should provide a differentiator, and one that perspective tenants will be increasingly adding to their decision criteria. Certain enlightened developers are appreciating all these values, such as those behind 22 Bishopsgate, who are incorporating WELL features into their tower. For empirical data, CBRE recently published the results of its EMEA 2017 occupiers’ survey, and there were some strong responses showing market appetite for WELL certified space. For example, 72% of occupiers expressed a preference for WELL-certified buildings. Further afield, in a survey of 200 Canadian building owners, 38% of those who reported increased value said healthy buildings were worth at least 7% more than “normal” ones, 46% suggested they were easier to lease, and 28% responded by saying they commanded premium rents (from Building the Case: Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Green Offices, October 2016, Canada Green Building Council).

There will come a point, surely, when these things become an expected ingredient of all new buildings.


Particular thanks to Natasha McNamara and Chris Lalies of Alinea, together with Simon Wyatt of Cundall and Meike Borchers of WSP.

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