LEED, WELL and Fitwel: Navigating rating systems

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Considerations for determining the ideal sustainability program for your office property.

Rachel Bannon-Godfrey
Discipline leader, sustainability-buildings, RNL, now part of Stantec, Denver

Rating systems are the language – the secret code – of sustainability. The right system can serve as a framework for creating spaces that are mindful of their environmental impact and support the health and well-being of the people they serve. Third-party verification increases the accountability of the project team and owner, and the inevitable plaque on the wall serves as a visible reminder of that achievement. Done right, the subsequent branding can bolster the return on investment for the strategies it took to get there.

The U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating system, for years, has been the default definition of everything sustainability encompasses. Today we stand at the intersection of a growing awareness of the crisis in public health, social inequity and communities that are not resilient enough to face our climate future. As a result, we are seeing a divergence and specialization in rating systems.

An indication of this sea change is the rise of human health and wellbeing-focused rating systems, of which the International Well Building Institute’s WELL Building Standard and The Center for Active Design’s Fitwel are two of the most common.

Both translate scientific and medical research examining the impact on human health of our built environment, behavior and societal norms into actionable, evidence-based design strategies, building operations and corporate policies. However, there are some fundamental differences.

At a high level, Fitwel, a one-time certification, predominantly focuses on creating active workplaces in existing buildings. Credit thresholds generally are lower, with no prerequisites to certification, and flexibility where reasonable obstacles to meeting credit requirements exist. It costs significantly less to certify, and verification relies solely on documentation and photos uploaded to the online portal. A key feature is the ability to easily track scores across a portfolio of properties using the online portal.

WELL requires recertification every three years and goes much deeper into the link between physical and mental health, the design and operation of indoor environments, and even human resources policies. It also has significantly more design-related opportunities and impacts; offers a choice of project types; requires preconditions be met in order to achieve certification and involves third-party, on-site verification in addition to documentation uploaded to the online portal. There is a degree of overlap in credit requirements between LEED and WELL, increasing as the LEED goal increases, which leads many LEED Platinum projects to pursue both.

When guiding our clients as to which rating system to pursue, rather than start with the criteria of the rating system, we start with each client’s motivations and goals, asking many questions.

What is the Goal of Certification? 

Will the certification be used for external or internal messaging and recognition; recruitment and retention; or as an expression of core business values? The answer is likely to determine the comfort zone of financial commitment and help make the business case for any associated costs premiums. For example, consider the following:

• Goal: You want to put a greater emphasis on health and well-being in existing spaces, but are not necessarily willing to commit financially to significant design changes or upgrades. You manage or own a portfolio of properties and want to be able to quickly assess the impact of any changes.

• Consider: Fitwel for its ability to compare and easily update scores across a portfolio.

• Goal: Health and well-being are an important part of your branding and value system, and you are willing to commit financial resources to strategies that support it. You understand the value on investment of strategies that impact your personnel costs and want to leverage certification for talent or tenant recruitment and retention.

• Consider: WELL or Fitwel, or both!

• Goal: You are motivated to go above and beyond. Sustainability, health and well-being are essential elements of the culture you are cultivating and a key driver of your business case. You will leverage certification for talent or tenant recruitment and retention.

• Consider: WELL (and while you are there, consider LEED Gold or Platinum, too).

• Goal: You need to meet a state or federal requirement, and/or want to holistically address a wide range of topics under the umbrella of sustainability rather than focusing on just one.

• Consider: LEED, which is the longstanding generalist in a world of specialists.

What is Your Focus? 

With the proliferation of ratings systems covering everything from occupant health to energy use, it’s important to consider where you are most willing to expend your efforts. For example, the WELL Building Standard is the gold standard of health and wellbeing, and Fitwel focuses on physically active lifestyles, but neither one addresses the energy use of a space or building.

One final question to ask yourself is how will you define the return on investment of strategies needed to achieve a certification?

Will the investments be assessed purely on a financial payback basis or a triple-bottom-line basis that considers the social and environmental impacts? Potential cost premiums associated with increased air filtration of WELL’s air feature, for example, looks a lot different when you consider the positive impact on cognitive function, and, by association, worker productivity and morale.

Yes, there are sometimes challenges to financially justifying the strategies needed to achieve a certification. Starting by examining your specific goals and looking holistically at the value on investment will lead to alignment with a rating system that positively impacts your triple bottom line.

Featured in the December issue of Office Properties Quarterly.

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