WELL or LEED: Choosing the best sustainability initiative

WELL and LEED certifications might seem different, but they complement each other and can help improve a building’s sustainability for the long term.

By Hannah Moskowitz April 5, 2022
Courtesy: RTS

U.S. Green Building Council‘s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is perhaps the best-known green building initiative. Introduced in 1993, it led to a transformation in sustainable construction. Today, more than 96,000 projects in 167 countries and territories hold this coveted certification.

The main purpose of LEED is to guide builders in putting up structures that are friendly to the environment. Among other factors, the LEED rating considers energy usage, water management, construction materials, indoor air quality, and waste control.

In 2013, the International Well Building Institute launched their own, similar initiative: WELL. The WELL Building Standard takes a slightly different approach to sustainability by validating measures that support and improve human habitation.

The WELL process is primarily concerned with the impact of building design on human beings. The performance-based system evaluates factors such as natural light, access to windows, physical space, and access to nutrition. According to the official WELL website, this certification has been given to more than 35,000 projects encompassing 3.37 billion square feet in 109 countries around the globe.

LEED and WELL certifications are designed to ensure commercial properties are built with sustainability and building occupant health in mind. Courtesy: DEP

Key differences between LEED and WELL certifications

LEED focuses on the impact of building design on both the indoor and outdoor environments while WELL focuses on the impact of building design on people working and residing inside the building.

While these two certifications may seem different, they complement each other. This is why these two certifications are offered through a partnership between the U.S. Green Building Council and the International Well Building Institute.

Before going into further details concerning the most suitable certification for a particular building, let’s briefly look into why it makes sense to acquire either of these certifications. Understanding such needs will help project managers decide which certification to pursue.

How green building certifications help businesses, people and the environment

LEED and WELL certifications are designed to ensure commercial properties are built with sustainability and building occupant health in mind. It makes sense because research indicates 87% of people spend most of their time indoors, which affects their physical, mental, and cognitive abilities.

If the environment and its surroundings are not conducive to work, it can lead to productivity loss. For instance, workers could lose 33% of their productivity due to poor indoor air quality (IAQ). On a positive note, green building initiatives almost double productivity due to cognitive improvements in workers.

From a business perspective, certification comes in handy because it reduces absenteeism, medical costs, and physical complaints while increasing staff turnover and business revenue. According to the Canada Green Building Council, certifications helped 46% of building owners lease office space more quickly and charge premium rental rates.

From a worker’s perspective, the low concentration of carbon dioxide and other pollutants doubles the cognitive ability of workers. Likewise, employees working near windows get almost 46 minutes more sleeping time every day, and a flexible workspace improves loyalty by helping team members feel in control of their workload. Almost all scientific research agrees that visual appeal is a major factor in staff satisfaction and retention.

From a building perspective, an efficient HVAC system translates to less operational cost and better waste management practices. Improved water management techniques, lower energy consumption, and use of organic materials also enhance the building’s life and value. Open areas, contamination management, and smart grids further improve the overall social and environmental impact.

WELL and LEED require building owners to focus on air quality, lighting, HVAC efficiency, construction, materials, water management, and wellness. Courtesy: DEP

Selecting the best sustainability initiative for your company

When selecting a certification, it’s important to remember LEED and WELL are complementary. If a building adheres to either one of the certification’s criteria, it may have already attained several benchmarks for the other certification.

LEED and WELL monitor many factors when evaluating a building. These factors include air quality, lighting, HVAC efficiency, construction process, social impact on the environment, materials, water management, site location, sanitation, wellness, and access to nutritional needs.

Considering the aim of each certification, a specific factor may be more important to building owners. For instance, sanitation and access to nutrition are more important to achieving WELL certification. In fact, sanitation and nutritional needs are exclusive to WELL because the certification aims to improve human well-being. In contrast, site location and the social impact of the building are more important in LEED because it focuses more on buildings. More importantly, WELL and LEED require building owners to focus on air quality, lighting, HVAC efficiency, construction, materials, water management, and wellness.

The requirements and standards of each category may differ slightly. For instance, WELL has additional requirements related to air quality, such as advanced air purification, air flush, outdoor air systems, and increased ventilation. Similarly, LEED sets additional standards for lighting and energy needs. Besides day lightening and automated shading, LEED requires buildings to adopt energy metering, light pollution reduction techniques, energy performance evaluation, and renewable energy production methods.

In the wellness category, WELL and LEED require building owners to offer physical activity spaces. On the same note, WELL standards require buildings to integrate biophilic design, whereas LEED encourages bicycle facilities and storage space.

Which one is better?

WELL and LEED encourage green building practices and offer performance-based systems that can correlate with each other. The Green Business Certification Inc. assists businesses in helping them acquire these in a neutral capacity.
Keep in mind the inspection process is slightly different for each. While WELL sends someone to inspect and offer advice for improvement, LEED is a more document-focused certification and requires regular input.

Overall, there is no real competition between the two because each serves a distinct purpose. Therefore, if there is a business reason to adopt a particular certification, it will likely serve the organization better.

DEP is a CFE Media and Technology content partner.

Author Bio: Hannah Moskowitz is RTS’s Sustainability Director and has been advancing clients’ sustainability initiatives since January 2020. She is responsible for ensuring quality data, implementing new and refining existing processes, and overseeing the hiring, training, and managing of our data analysis team. Hannah has served as our Sustainability Director since January 2022 and built her expertise of RTS’s technology and approach through her prior role as Sustainability and Sales Operations Manager. Hannah holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.A. in Environmental Resource Policy from George Washington University, and participated in The Green Program at the Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavik University. She is also LEED AP O+M accredited and TRUE Advisor certified.