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Healthy Buildings

Understanding Healthy Building Standards and Certifications

Joe Di Noto

As workers gradually return to onsite work in a post-COVID world, the importance of providing a healthy and reassuring indoor environment cannot be overly stressed. One way for employers to demonstrate their commitment to healthy buildings is through recognized third-party certification programs such as WELL, Fitwel, and RESET.

These programs allow organizations to improve the performance of their facilities on key healthy building metrics, as well as inspire trust among employees and investors. But where to begin? Which certifications are applicable to your business, and which will provide the most value?

In this article, we’ll talk about the different types of healthy building certifications, compare the four leading standards, and offer some tips on choosing the right program for your business.

What Are the Different Healthy Building Standards?

Building certification programs became popular with the rise of the green building movement. As organizations became interested in sustainable practices, they needed an objective standard to measure their efforts against, and to demonstrate their commitment to the cause. This led the United States Green Building Council to develop the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which has since been used to certify tens of thousands of buildings.

As the discussion shifted from green to healthy buildings, standards and certification programs also needed to be updated. With growing awareness of healthy building fundamentals such as indoor air quality, water quality, and thermal comfort, and better ways to measure them, certifications could now set clear and quantifiable benchmarks for key health metrics (in addition to environmental ones).

The four standards that we cover in this article - WELL, Fitwel, UL, and RESET - all provide a set of tried-and-tested criteria for improvement, and which have been shown to have a significant impact on occupant health. We will proceed to examine the nuances between each program, but first must answer the pressing question - are they even worth it?

Are Healthy Building Certifications Worth the Trouble?

While every business has its own set of priorities when it comes to allocating resources, it’s no secret that health and safety are a major concern for employees returning to the office. Even if you’re doing everything you should to avoid the significant costs of unhealthy work environments, employees might still feel apprehensive if they need to take your word for it. 

Attaining certification from a respected, impartial third party can alleviate these concerns, driving increased confidence and trust. It demonstrates that your commitment to employee wellness and wellbeing goes beyond lip service.

Additionally, the programs can also help you hone and fine-tune your efforts to make buildings healthier. They can help you understand where to best allocate resources, which areas should be prioritized, and allow you to set more meaningful objectives and KPIs.

Let’s proceed to take a closer look at the top healthy building standards and how they compare.

WELL: Robust, but Resource-Intensive

What’s it all about? The WELL Building Standard is a comprehensive framework that promises to "deliver more thoughtful and intentional spaces that enhance human health and well-being". WELL certifications are administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation.

The standard has evolved since its first introduction in 2013 to the launch of WELL v2 in 2018. The latest iteration covers ten areas of focus (‘concepts’) spanning both physical and mental health: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, and innovation. 

In addition to certification, the IWBI offers support with technical aspects, marketing, and PR.

WELL is a detailed and well-established standard, but it comes at a cost. WELL offers a meticulous, highly detailed set of metrics to optimize almost every health aspect in built environments. Meeting all of its prerequisites and features signals a willingness to go the extra mile when it comes to building occupants’ health.

It would also put you in good company: According to the IWBI (PDF), the WELL standard is used in over 30k locations in 98 countries, spanning 3 billion square feet. Over 20% of Fortune 500s use WELL, including Centene, T-Mobile, and JP Morgan Chase. 

On the flip side, this certification will also require a non-trivial investment of resources - first and foremost in order to monitor and meet the complex requirements of the standard itself, but also in the costs of certification, which will start at $15,500 and can go as high as $107,000. Additional costs can accrue due to the requirement for an onsite audit and consulting fees.

Improving indoor air quality can help you meet the preconditions for WELL, as well as earn your project additional points towards achieving certification. Learn more in our guide: Maximize Your IWBI WELL V2 Scorecard With Indoor Air Quality Optimizations From Kaiterra

Fitwel: Flexible Certification

What’s it all about? The Fitwel standard was originally co-created by the CDC, which remains involved in research and evaluation. The Center for Active Design (CfAD) is the licensed operator of Fitwel and is responsible for issuing certifications. According to their website, the standard is in use in over 1000 projects that have been certified or are awaiting certification.

The Fitwel program is built around scorecards that address a range of behaviors and design elements that can impact health. In Fitwel terminology these are called ‘categories’, and they include community health, reducing morbidity and absenteeism, supporting social equity, instilling feelings of well-being, enhancing access to healthy foods, promoting occupant safety, and increasing physical activity. Collecting points in these categories allows buildings to achieve three levels of certification.

Fitwel is easier to achieve, for better and worse. As we’ve covered in our previous guide to building certifications, Fitwel is largely focused on providing an accessible, flexible path to certification. 

Unlike the WELL program, Fitwel doesn’t stipulate any prerequisites or required strategies. Points are awarded for implementing each of the 55 strategies across different categories, although it does stress that “strategies with stronger, multi-faceted impacts receive more points”.  The registration costs of Fitwel are also significantly lower than WELL, and it does not require an onsite audit.

While these factors make Fitwel more attainable and affordable, therein lies a potential criticism - that it is simply too lenient to serve as a benchmark for healthy buildings, compared to the more demanding WELL standard. 

For Fitwel v2.1, all project types, except for Commercial Sites, can earn a variety of points by monitoring and improving indoor air quality. Learn more in our article: Unlock Fitwel With Commercial Air Quality Monitoring Solutions From Kaiterra

RESET: Focused on Air Quality

What’s it all about? Developed in 2013 by the GIGA corporation, RESET standard offers a data-driven toolkit for optimizing the built environment through sensor-driven monitoring. RESET Air provides a complete framework to monitor and improve the air quality of indoor spaces - from collecting air quality data to maintaining HVAC systems. Additional modules for water, energy, materials, and circularity are available as drafts.

Unlike other certification programs, RESET Air is built around continuous monitoring rather than spot testing. It defines ‘acceptable’ and ‘high-performance’ levels of particulate matter (PM2.5), total volatile organic compounds (TVOC), carbon dioxide, temperature, CO2, and thermal comfort, and these need to be measured over time using accredited sensors.

RESET is the most detailed and comprehensive standard for air quality. Compared to the more holistic approach of WELL and Fitwel, RESET is laser-focused on air quality. It’s worth noting that it is considerably more stringent in this respect, even when compared to WELL. For example, in order to satisfy the requirements of the RESET standard, you’ll need to use sensors that provide more granular and detailed data than the WELL requirements.

This focused approach makes RESET a good choice for facility managers and building owners who want to set a high standard for indoor air quality, which would often be the best place to devote resources when it comes to healthy buildings. However, this does mean that its scope is more limited than the alternatives. Registration and audit fees are also lower (for projects covering similarly-sized properties).

To maintain the RESET certification, you need to ensure that the monitor’s sensor data is 100% correct and provide annual proof of re-calibration. To learn more, check out our guide:
Everything You Need to Know About the RESET Certification

UL Verified Healthy Building: Modular Certification

What's it all about? The Verified Healthy Building program from UL helps assess and certify buildings as meeting certain standards for indoor air, water, lighting, acoustic, and building hygiene quality. The program aims to help building owners and companies reduce the risk and cost associated with occupant health issues. The Ventilation and Filtration program is an additional service from UL that specifically addresses concerns about the spread of infectious diseases within indoor spaces.

According to the UL website, the program is aligned with recognized third-party standards provided by the EPA WHO, CDC, LEED, and others. From press releases found online, the UL Verified Healthy Building Mark for Indoor Air is being used by KBS, a leading commercial real-estate investor, as well as RMZ Corp - a prominent real-estate company in Asia.

UL offers a tiered approach. While other certification programs can be complex and expensive to obtain, UL’s modular approach can make it easier to verify specific factors such as indoor air quality. This allows building owners and managers to select the level of verification that best fits their needs.

The options available are Verified Healthy Building for Indoor Air, Verified Healthy Building for Indoor Air and Water, or Verified Healthy Building for Indoor Environment: Air, Water, Hygiene, Light, and Acoustics. Each level is verified by a combination of audits, on-site visits, performance testing, and laboratory testing.

Summary: WELL vs Fitwel vs RESET vs UL

Certifying organization IWBI CfAD GIGA UL
Notable users Centene, T-Mobile, JP Morgan Chase CBRE China, QuadReal, U.S. CDC Hines, Tishman Speyer, Kerry Properties Limited KBS, RMZ Corp
Areas of focus Air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, innovation Community health, morbidity and absenteeism, social equity, feelings of well-being, access to healthy foods, occupant safety, increasing physical activity Air quality, continuous monitoring, data collection and analysis, sensor technology Air, water, lighting, hygiene, and acoustics
Difficulty to achieve / complexity High - long set of prerequisites and specific metrics that need to be satisfied Low - no prerequisites, points can be accumulated across categories Low if you have the ability to install accredited air quality monitors Modular design makes it easier to certify specific aspects of the building
Onsite validation Required Not required Optional Required
Cost $2,500 enrollment fee, $6,500+ testing fee, certification fees based on project scope $500 registration fee, certification fee based on project scope Audit fees dependent on project scope, starting from a few $1000s No public information available

Which Certification is Right for You?

Should you attain a healthy building certification? And which program is right for your business? These are questions that are unique to each organization, and depend on what you’re trying to achieve and how much you’re willing to invest. As we’ve covered above, you can go all-out with WELL, choose a more flexible and affordable option with Fitwel, or focus your efforts on air quality with RESET.

Kaiterra helps global companies improve air quality and other important healthy building fundamentals. To learn more and get a personalized consultation on how you can attain trust-building certifications, schedule a no-strings-attached chat with one of our experts below:

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