When I first heard about the WELL building standard, in a New York Times article, I was both amused and offended, and trashed it appropriately in a blog. Since then, WELL has created the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), affiliated with both the Living Futures Institute and USGBC, and has released Version 1.0 of the WELL Building Standard.
Given that there is now an official document rather than a journalist’s interpretation to review, I think it only fair that I give the standard another look.
I recently sat down and dug into the 218-page document and was amused, surprised, and confused — and ultimately decided that while it has some good things in it, I can’t see where it makes much sense in the real world of building development and construction.
According to the executive summary, “The WELL Building Standard focuses on the people living in the building.” It claims to be “The first standard of its kind that focuses attention solely on the health and wellness of building occupants.”
I accept that this is a worthy goal, but I am having trouble believing that another comprehensive program, designed to work “alongside” LEED and the Living Building Challenge (LBC) is necessary. We need to think about reducing the different options for the building industry instead of creating even more of them. We are rapidly approaching “green fatigue,” a term coined by my friend Jim Hackler, and while more programs make give green geeks the jollies, I think they only serve to alienate the average building professional.
Enough complaining — down to the nuts and bolts of the standard
The WELL Building Standard Version 1.0 is applicable to new construction, major renovations, tenant improvements, and “core and shell developments.” Pilot programs are available for educational buildings, multifamily residential buildings, sports facilities, retail stores, and healthcare facilities.
The standard is a set of 102 individual metrics, sorted into seven categories: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort, and Mind.
Depending on the building type, there are between 27 and 41 requirements (called “preconditions”) for certification. The remaining items (called “optimizations”) provide points to move up to silver, gold, or platinum certification. I guess everyone has to stake a claim, but why does each program use different terminology? Is there really a difference between a prerequisite and a precondition or a credit and an optimization?
There is a rather obtuse calculation to determine your certification level, but I won’t worry about that unless I end up working on a project.
Things I like about it
First off, I appreciate that in the official standard they did not include aromatherapy, vitamin enrichment of water, and posture supportive flooring.
Much of what is in the new standard refers to well established criteria in LEED, LBC, and common air quality, HVAC, and lighting standards documents. They have put forth some interesting ideas, many of which are, to use the correct terminology, “preconditions.” Smoking, including use of e-cigarettes, is banned indoors and restricted outdoors.
Only safe pesticides that meet the San Francisco integrated pest management criteria — including coyote urine — can be used. (Oh, those Californians!)
Building-wide plumbing leak detection system are required. Potable water must be tested and be within limits for numerous pollutants. Projects that have four stories or less must encourage stair use through stairway location, stair width, and amenities such as windows, artwork, and lighting.
The Nourishment section really pushes the envelope, and while I truly appreciate their goals here, I am skeptical that it will gain much traction. If food is sold in the building, fresh, non-fried, fruits and vegetables must be featured; flours must be whole grain; food cannot contain trans-fats; added sugar is limited in drinks; all food containing a long list of allergens must be labeled; and there must be an express checkout line for healthy foods.
As I said, great goals — but this is ’Merica, folks. What are you expecting?
Things I don’t like about it
One precondition that I think is a lost opportunity is moisture management. Buildings must have either a free-draining space (vented rainscreen) between the WRB and the building cladding or a capillary break between the foundation and walls. These are both good practices, but in wet climates, the rainscreen will make a huge difference; the other option gives builders an easy out that shouldn’t be there.
And although WELL requires a continuous air barrier, air leakage testing is optional. Many buildings struggle with envelope leakage issues, often leading to air quality problems. If WELL wants to be a real leader, the standard should require testing and set strict limits.
One requirement requires a 10-foot-long walk-off mat at building entrances; that’s a good idea, but maybe a bit excessive. They do, however, allow installation of carpet tiles inside. I would think that a program devoted exclusively to air quality and wellness would have the guts to keep all carpet out. Tiles are definitely better than wall-to-wall, but still pose a challenge to air quality.
Things I don’t quite understand
The requirements for lighting and glare control make sense, but when they started talking about circadian lighting and “equivalent melanopic lux” being present for four hours, I was clearly above my pay grade. I expect that some highly paid lighting consultants will get a lot of work out of WELL building projects.
And not being an acoustical engineer, I was somewhat lost trying to decipher the acoustical requirements, leading me to believe that those consultants will also benefit from WELL projects.
And yet more letters to put after our names
The IBWI is planning to create a professional accreditation program, the WELL AP, scheduled for launch in 2015. They are “committed to designing the WELL AP program to work harmoniously with AIA, ASID, LEED AP and other credentials.” People working on the current class of WELL buildings will be the first APs. Then, I assume, there will be a training and testing process to obtain the accreditation. I disliked the LEED AP Homes test enough that it’s not likely that I will seek out WELL AP certification for myself — although if opportunities arise, I may change my mind.
Overall, I am pleased that the WELL standard got rid of some of the wacky things that were noted in the original article. The standard is reaching very high, and we may find that the standard both makes inroads into construction and has a lasting effect on building practices.
I remain skeptical that it will gain much traction, either as a stand-alone program or “alongside” other programs. Time will tell.
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