Designing healthy buildings with WELL

The WELL Building Standard was designed to provide guidance to projects on how to prioritize human health and wellness.

By Hannah Walter July 27, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Know the intent and goals of the WELL Building Standard. 
  • Understand the potential impacts to a building design for project pursuing the WELL Building Standard. 
  • Be able to speak knowledgably about the WELL Building Standard and what resources a project will need if the certification is pursued. 

Now, more than ever, the industry and consumers are realizing that where we live and work has a significant impact on our health and wellness. But how does a building project know what to do to make their building “better”? The WELL Building Standard from the International WELL Building Institute was created to bridge that gap and guide teams to prioritize human health and wellness as part of their design process.

The WELL Building Standard v2 was created as a means to address the increasing concerns and issues related to human health and how buildings and the indoor environment affect the building occupants in numerous ways. So, they gathered industry experts in public health (World Health OrganizationCenters for Disease Control and PreventionHarvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, etc.) to help create a performance-based, third-party verified building certification standard. Pursuing this certification could help prove to the public which buildings are “healthier” for them than others.

The WELL Building Standard is focused around 10 concepts that guide human health related to the built environment. The concepts include:

  • Air.
  • Water.
  • Nourishment.
  • Light.
  • Movement.
  • Thermal comfort.
  • Sound.
  • Materials.
  • Mind.
  • Community.

WELL Certified buildings can address many aspects of building occupants’ wellness through increased indoor air and water quality, access to natural light and nature, education and promotion of company health and wellness benefit, policies and programs. Additional background and suggested reading can be found in the IWBI article WELL Tip: Key Strategies for Making the Business Case for WELL.

How WELL overlaps with LEED

WELL is focused on how the built environment has been proven to affect human health and wellness. Therefore, it is focused on air and water quality versus energy and water efficiency.

Due to the overlap in some of the requirements, it is common for WELL projects to also pursue U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification. There is an economy of scale in pursuing both certifications due to overlap in the required documentation.

In addition, WELL incentivizes projects by awarding five innovation points to pursue other pre-approved Green Building Certification Programs such as LEED, BREEAM and others. WELL provides detailed guidance on crosswalks between LEED v4 and LEED v4.1 and WELL v2 to make it easier for projects to pursue simultaneous certifications and minimize documentation.

How is WELL structured?

WELL offers a scorecard  that projects can use to help track project certification. Projects use the WELL online portal to register projects, upload project documentation, confirm optimizations pursued and communicated with IWBI technical support. Once a project is registered, each project is given a direct contact with WELL coaching support team, who will work directly with the WELL project administrator and project team to answer any technical questions that come up along the way. The IWBI wants every project to achieve certification that wants to and will work with project teams to address any gaps in feature scope and alternative adherence paths or equivalency proposals.

Each of the 10 concepts is broken down into different features that are then split up into parts. Each feature is classified as either a precondition, which is a mandatory prerequisite for the project to achieve base level of certification or optimization, which are worth different points based on the feature’s impact on regular building occupant’s health and wellness. Projects must achieve all preconditions, as well as a certain number of points toward different levels of WELL certification.

Projects may pursue no more than 12 points per concept and no more than 100 points total across the 10 concepts. Projects can also pursue an additional 10 points in the innovation concept.

Because WELL is a performance-based standard, ongoing maintenance and monitoring reports are required to be uploaded at least annually to WELL online for review. Additionally, to maintain their WELL certified status, a project must undergo recertification every three years.

What if the project scope is limited?

The WELL building is structured for two certification paths: WELL certification (whole building/owner-occupied, tenant interiors, existing buildings) and WELL core certification (developer/property management).

The WELL core certification takes into account the limits in scope a core and shell projects will have and has different scopes for the features accordingly. Also, for WELL core certification, the features have different point weightings for different optimizations based on how the base building scope can potentially affect the tenants of the building when occupied. For instance, light optimization for daylight design Strategies is worth four points for standard WELL certification, but is weighted higher at six points for WELL core certification. Providing access to daylight as part of the core will directly affect tenant satisfaction and health and therefore carries more weight for a core project.

A breakdown of the scoring and certification levels for WELL and WELL core certification is shown in Table 1.

Documentation for review

Different types of documentation and/or on-site performance testing and verification are required based on the feature and part attempted by the project. Examples of documentation include the following:

  • Letters of assurance: Signed letters by the owner, architect, engineer, contractor or other responsible party.
  • Annotated drawings or technical documents: Highlighted design or construction documents, reports, calculations or other documentation.
  • Project narratives: Detailed descriptions specific to the project.
  • Company policies/programs: WELL takes a deep dive into the policies, programs and procedures available to regular building occupants for the project space. This may include documentation of the types of food and beverages provided on-site by the employer on a regular basis for the nourishment concept or looking at the health insurance coverage an employer provides to all eligible employees under the community concept.
  • Operations schedules/maintenance records.
  • Performance verification testing: Projects will have a third-party testing agent come to the project site after occupancy (construction is complete, at least one-month post-certificate of occupancy and at least 50% occupied) and perform testing and site verification for all of the required preconditions and optimizations attempted for the project. Multifamily residential and core and shell projects have adjusted requirements for minimum occupancy and construction completion thresholds. These agents will confirm that the minimum levels for air and water quality, interior lighting levels, background noise levels and break room foods are within the required thresholds for a WELL certified building.
  • Photographs.
  • Education materials: The certification process should be documented to educate building occupants on what was done to promote their health and well-being.

More details on the types of documentation required can be found in the WELL Certification Guidebook.

Performance verification testing

First, pretesting is not required. The performance verification testing requirement occurs during occupancy to confirm indoor air and water quality, light levels and other optimizations pursued by the project are providing quality.

However, it is highly recommended that air and water quality be researched as part of design to determine local factors that may require remediation such as higher-level air or water filtration be included in the project design to make sure that the minimum thresholds can be achieved once the project is occupied. If the project is part of a tenant improvement or existing building background, sound and lighting levels also should be reviewed.

In general, mitigation strategies are must easier and less costly to include at an early phase of design than if the project fails a performance test once occupied. Therefore, pretesting is recommended for projects, specifically those with known local air and water quality issues or where exterior sound intrusion is known to exist.

It should also be noted that as part of the annual maintenance requirements for a project’s WELL certification, testing of fundamental air and water quality data is required. This maintenance testing does not require a Green Business Certification Inc.-approved WELL performance testing organization and the results are only used to confirm that the project is maintaining the thresholds previously documented.

Table 2 outlines WELL certification and core pricing. Discounts are available for emerging markets or certain sector types and IWBI cornerstone, keystone and portfolio members.

As mentioned before, the WELL building certification is a performance-based and verified standard, therefore the costs will be reoccurring at least every three years, with an additional cost for performance verification testing. On-site performance testing starts at $6,500 per project. The testing can be performed directly through the GBCI, which is the third-party reviewing system in place for multiple rating systems, such as LEED, SITES, PEER, RELi and others.

Or, a project can contact other certified WELL performance testing agents who work for a WELL performance testing organization that has undergone the training and has been qualified by the IWBI to perform the required performance verification testing. The IWBI has compiled a directory of WELL performance testing organizations, which a project team can then contact directly to obtain a quote for WELL performance verification testing.

Selecting a WELL performance testing organization outside of the GBCI allows the option for the project to retest if any tested parameters do not meet the required criteria before submitting through WELL online for review. Neither the GBCI nor performance testing organization can provide guidance on corrective action during the testing, as they are only to document current conditions. Therefore, it is imperative that the project WELL accredited professional is part of the testing process to provide that guidance, if required.

WELL design requirements

The following is a list of most of the precondition requirements that a project would have to consider when deciding whether to pursue WELL building certification. This list is not exhaustive and it is recommended that each project be reviewed with a WELL AP or sustainability consultant to determine the potential impacts based on actual project design and scope.

  • Local air quality: Projects located in Environmental Protection Agency classified nonattainment areas or other locations with historically high levels of air pollution should consider potential additional levels of air filtration or treatment when designing the mechanical system.
  • Annual reporting of minimum air quality thresholds for at least the following parameters is required:
  • PM2.5 and PM10: Amount and size of particulates in the air.
  • Total volatile organic compounds: Organics that evaporate and are emitted by a wide variety of building materials, paints and common consumer products.
  • Carbon monoxide: Formed by incomplete combustion processes.
  • Ozone: Created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds and is considered hazardous to humans.
  • Radon: If regularly occupied spaces at or below grade are not properly ventilated.
  • Local water quality: Projects should review the latest water quality reports from the local municipality to determine whether additional pretesting or filtration of the water intended for human consumption is needed.
  • Annual reporting of minimum water quality thresholds is required for at least the following parameters:
  • Turbidity: How cloudy the water is.
  • pH.
  • Residual (free) chlorine.
  • Total coliforms: Bacteria associated with E. coli.
  • Foods and beverages: The nourishment concept only applies for foods and being provided on a regular basis by the owner. This would apply to menu items as part of commercial dining spaces either provided by or under contract with the project Owner. As expected, based on scope, commercial dining spaces would need to meet more criteria than a typical office break room.
  • For an average office space that provides some type of third-party vending or owner-provided snacks (excluding just providing coffee, tea and water) the preconditions include:
  • Basic provision of two varieties of fruits and two varieties of nonfried vegetables as part of the foods and beverages provided as well as their prominent visibility.
  • Basic nutritional labeling for total calories, macronutrient content and total sugars.
  • Light exposure: Minimum amount of daylight documented through daylight simulation, interior space layout, building envelope glazing design or circadian lighting design. If a project cannot meet the daylight requirements through glazing, interior layout or current lighting systems, task lights can be provided to meet the minimum equivalent melanopic lux levels through circadian lighting design. Not all task lights would meet this criterion, so a detailed review of options with the WELL AP and potentially a lighting designer would be required, as well as pretesting to confirm the precondition requirements will be met before purchase.
  • Interior visual lighting design: Minimum amounts of lighting provided indoors that comply with illuminance (lux or footcandles) thresholds as specified in lighting reference guidelines, which will be confirmed during on-site performance verification testing.
  • Ergonomic furnishings: Minimum criteria for all workspace furnishings that address visual ergonomics, work surface height flexibility for at least 25% of all workstations, chair adjustability, support for standing occupants and provided orientation and education for workers to their workspace furnishings.
  • Thermal comfort design: Project mechanical system design meets thermal comfort criteria in accordance with ASHRAE 55-2013: Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy.
  • Sound mapping: Project must provide annotated map and acoustic design plan documenting how managing acoustical comfort for occupants will be achieved through design solutions.
  • Depending on existing site and/or building space conditions, pretesting by an acoustical consultant should be considered to provide guidance to the design team.
  • Material restrictions: Minimum specifications restricting any newly installed or applied products from containing asbestos, mercury and lead.
  • Existing building interiors will require site assessments to determine potential exposure to and required remediation of any asbestos-containing materials, lead and polychlorinated biphenyl hazards.
  • Existing building sites with existing wood structures will require assessments for chromate copper arsenate.
  • Existing sites with outdoor bare soil, artificial turf, playgrounds and playground equipment assessments for lead hazards.
  • Promote mental health and well-being: Minimum level of mental health promotion through the owner organization’s policies and/or through dedicated wellness space within the project.
  • Connection to nature: Project must integrate a minimum level of biophilic design through natural design elements and actual plantings or water features or nature views.
  • Connection to place: Project must integrate design elements to incorporate workplace culture, place, art and other features.
  • WELL feature guide: Document promoting WELL features achieved for the project both internally and externally to building occupants.
  • Integrative design: Achieved through at least two project stakeholder charrettes: the first early in the planning process and the second after the project is complete.


Keys to WELL success

There are many points to consider for WELL success.

Have the right client: About half of the available optimization points can be attributed to programs and policies in place or implemented by the project owner. These items are outside the design team’s scope and can only be provided through detailed coordination and communication with team members inside the owner’s organization. Example of required coordination would be with at least one corporate leader, human resources, office manager and project location leader. This coordination means that an engaged owner is crucial to achieving certification.

Start early and include everyone: A WELL charrette is not only recommended, it is required. The community precondition 02 for integrative design requires that at least two charrettes are performed for each WELL certified project: one at the concept/early design phase and one once the project is complete. The kickoff meeting helps engage all the design and facility stakeholders to get everyone on board with the WELL process and determine the project’s health and wellness priorities. The last meeting provides an opportunity to educate building occupants on the WELL design decisions that were made and why, as well as go over any lessons learned for the project with all members of the design team.

Hire an expert: Because of the shift in priority as it relates to building occupants and the design, coordinating all the WELL criteria is going to be an undertaking. Having a dedicated person to advocate and track all the pursued WELL preconditions and optimizations is critical to making sure the project is a success. This person would preferably be a WELL AP or at least someone that has detailed experience in coordinating the WELL design, construction, operation and certification process.


Hannah Walter is a project manager and building performance engineer at Smith Seckman Reid Incand has a passion for healthy building design.

Smith Seckman Reid Inc. are a CFE Media content partner. 

Author Bio: Hannah is a project manager and building performance engineer at Smith Seckman Reid Inc. and has a passion for healthy building design.