Editor’s note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to better reflect the changes that have occurred under WELL v2.
Well-being in the workplace is not the equivalent of a fad diet or fitness craze, according to its advocates. The trend is here to stay, they predict. More than that, it will continue to grow.
“They’re expecting human health and wellness to be the next trillion-dollar industry,” said Andy Delisi, architecture and design rep, Envirotech Office Systems, speaking earlier this year at an IFMA Toronto event.
As countries such as Canada and the U.S. grapple with the prevalence of chronic diseases, the places where adults clock 40 hours or more during their work week have come under increased scrutiny. The research bears out that various features of corporate interiors can profoundly affect the people within, for better or for worse. For example, the typical floor plan today locates workstations within view of the windows so that occupants have proximity to natural daylight, which is now understood to influence the sleep-regulating circadian rhythm.
This explains the arrival and growth of building certifications that recognize work and other places that support occupant health. As more and more organizations look to whip their corporate interiors into shape, they have at least two certifications paths to choose from.
Different paths to workplace wellness
The pioneering WELL Building Standard has just launched its second version, v2. When it arrived on the certification scene more than three years ago, WELL created a blueprint for developing healthy new and existing commercial and institutional buildings and interiors, as well as core and shell projects.
“I like to think of WELL as this nutritional label for your building that essentially provides transparency for the built environment for your employees and for your clients who spend time in that space,” said Delisi.
WELL v2 adds three new categories of strategies for boosting occupant well-being: materials, sound and community. These categories, referred to as ‘concepts,’ join the original roster, which featured air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.
Strategies, referred to as ‘features,’ are distinguished as either a pre-condition (mandatory) or an optimization (voluntary). To become certified, projects must satisfy the mandatory pre-conditions, as well as the points-minimums to achieve silver, gold or platinum status. Under WELL v2, the voluntary optimizations that help add points to a project’s scorecard are designed to offer greater flexibility.
The introduction of WELL v2 follows the arrival of Fitwel in Canada. The relatively recent entrant to the field of building certifications comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and General Services Administration. Fitwel is designed to combat chronic disease by targeting avoidable risk factors, such as lack of physical activity, in workplaces, among other environments.
Strategies under Fitwel are broken down in two ways: 12 categories describing focus areas, including entrances, stairwells and work spaces, and seven categories describing intended outcomes, such as reducing absenteeism.
Each strategy is assigned points based on the size of its impact, for a total of up to 144 possible points. Projects that meet the minimum 90 points to become certified are rated one, two or three stars under Fitwel, depending on their score.
Speaking prior to the launch of WELL v2, Delisi, who is both a Fitwel ambassador and a WELL AP, said which wellness certification path to choose really boils down to what an organization is looking for. On the one hand, he said, WELL may demand a higher level of effort and investment to achieve, but it’s also held in commensurately high regard. On the other hand, he said, Fitwel may not be as exhaustive, but it’s also more economical and offers more flexibility.
Delisi observed that the ability to choose which points to chase under Fitwel give it particular appeal to existing buildings, where he said the air-quality requirements under WELL have been a barrier to uptake.
“The biggest value of Fitwel is all of the strategies are voluntary (no pre-conditions, no pre-requisites), which makes it a fantastic solution for existing buildings,” said Delisi.
WELL v2 offers customization in an effort to make the certification process more accessible and equitable, including for existing buildings.
Fitwel reveals undetected need
That doesn’t mean achieving Fitwel certification is easy, especially not a high score. Jon Douglas, director of sustainability for Menkes, said he was pleasantly surprised by its rigour.
Even at the celebrated 25 York St., which already had BOMA BEST Platinum and LEED Platinum bragging rights, it took some effort to achieve Fitwel certification. When it completed the process last summer, it became the first office building in Canada to do so.
Menkes’ path to Fitwel certification began with the property management company considering what it could do in its capacity to promote wellness in the workplace. Douglas pointed out that its influence is limited compared to tenants, who have the ability to adopt HR policies and track vital statistics.
“Tenants have access to data that is amazing — they can look at absenteeism rates, hiring rates, all those things,” he said. “None of that data is really ever going to be available for a property manager, so we realized we needed some way of measuring our progress and really seeing how we can benchmark ourselves to the tenants with a third party to make sure we’re credible.”
Douglas said Menkes ultimately decided to pursue Fitwel certification because it lined up with its goals and it was practical. The effort was guided through a tenant-engaging program called Healthy Spaces, which focused on promoting mental health, nutrition, physical health and preventative health.
Some strategies, such as encouraging occupants to choose the stairs over the elevators to boost their physical activity, were straightforward, but they nevertheless required careful consideration, said Douglas. He explained that the risk of an occupant getting injured in an area that was impractical to cover with security cameras called for safety rules. Not all of the rules were intuitive either, such as cautions about using the stairs while wearing bifocals, which can cause depth-perception issues.
Douglas recalled that the top points-scoring item on the Fitwel checklist, lactation rooms, was very nearly passed over until a survey conducted by tenants at the urging of Menkes revealed a startling finding: Mothers to infants were reportedly stealing away to the accessible washroom stall to find privacy to breastfeed. The property management company is now looking for spaces to locate lactation rooms.
“For us, that’s a very important well-being thing, but it’s also a very important women’s rights thing to have access to these kinds of spaces,” said Douglas.
One option may be to embed the amenity in fitness centres, he said. Another option may be to ask tenants who provide the amenity to open it up to their neighbours.
25 York St. easily racked up points on the Fitwel checklist for bike infrastructure and proximity to transit, but Menkes decided to go one step further to promote physical activity. It’s currently mapping out and timing routes to nudge occupants to travel beyond their lunch spot to discover new destinations within their work neighbourhood.
“I don’t get any points under Fitwel for that, but it came out of the process of us doing this,” said Douglas.
WELL v2 considers acoustics, materials
Tracy Backus, director of sustainability programs at Teknion, views Fitwel as a good launching pad for wellness initiatives in the workplace.
“In the States, there are a lot of conversations about the fact that Fitwel should be a basis of design; it should be become building code as it is the minimum the built environment should demand for employee well-being, where WELL is going a bit deeper,” Backus observed.
Backus said Teknion decided to make WELL its human standard when the issue of wellness emerged, much like it made LEED its building standard. LEED actually helps to pave the way for WELL, as there is some crossover between the certifications, which are administered by the same organization.
“Several of the credits within LEED V3 gave us the ability to meet similar features in WELL,” said Backus.
Access to light and connections to nature, which are known to produce cognitive health benefits and reduce stress, were already staples of Teknion’s spaces when it embarked on the path to WELL certification.
The contract furniture company began with its Toronto showroom (pictured above), where it earned silver-level certification in an existing building. Next, Teknion brought the lessons it learned through the course of the process to its Boston showroom, where it earned its now-standard gold-level certification, also in an existing building. Its new Dallas and New York showrooms are expected to achieve WELL certification soon, and its new L.A. showroom is also registered for WELL and considering v2 of the standard as a possible option.
“What you’re going to see happen in v2, is there are going to be 10 concepts,” said Backus. “They’re going to basically raise the bar on materials and they’re going to raise the bar on acoustical comfort.”
Backus said that Teknion has been reducing and educating others on the role of chemicals in raw materials and their impact on human health for several years now. In fact, the company already discloses the ingredients in its products using the Declare label, which meets the requirements of LEED, Living Building Challenge and WELL.
The WELL certification process also led Teknion to adopt some new initiatives. For example, its Toronto team now climbs the CN Tower biannually in an exercise that blends fitness and philanthropy. Backus said engaging employees in this type of effort, with support from HR and management, is just one of the ways to exceed the mandatory preconditions of silver-level WELL certification and set projects up to strive for gold or platinum status.
The future of healthy buildings
Whichever certification path organizations choose, staging the types of workplace interventions prescribed by Fitwel and WELL has the potential to deliver broad benefits across a range of stakeholders. For employees, there’s the promise of better quality of life; for employers, there’s the promise of higher productivity; and for society at large, there’s the promise of lower burdens on health-care systems.
With all these wins, it’s not surprising that Backus foresees wellness building certifications having an even farther-reaching impact than green building certifications, which she attributed to the comparative visibility of efforts to promote employee health.
“I think it’s going to eclipse what we did with LEED,” she said.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.