Greenstreet, along with everyone in the environmentally conscious design community, strives to create a better-built environment. So, in principle, we welcome the International Well Building Institute’s recent announcement of the WELL Building Standard as a way of providing additional guidelines. IWBI was launched by Delos in 2013, following a Clinton Global Initiative commitment by Delos Founder Paul Scialla, to improve the way people live by developing spaces that enhance occupant health and quality of life by sharing the WELL Building Standard globally. However, the forthcoming WELL Accredited Professional Program seems to offer more a paid-for endorsement from a for-profit than an efficient, nonprofit certification. So we have decided to look more closely at the pros and cons, and see where the green really lies in this green-building scenario.

First, IWBI states that the WELL standard offers a third-party certification in collaboration with the GBCI, ensuring that it works with LEED, and by extension, adds something to the mix of the

Living Building Challenge. Its putative focus is on people within buildings, marrying best design and construction practices with evidence-based health and wellness interventions. How? By harnessing the built environment as a means to support human well-being, comfort and health. A public benefit corporation (B-Corp), IWBI launches professional education, supporting publications and the WELL Accredited Professional Program, early next year.

Now, both LEED and the LBC offer superb improvements in terms of building cost-efficiency, human health and the promotion of green practices; overlap occurs when considering WELL, as it superimposes a few criteria upon both of these, while having more in common with LEED qualitatively (as it is another certification). We must remember the difference between LEED, WELL and the LCB: LEED and WELL are a series of measures to meet to receive a particular accreditation; the LBC is a philosophy, an approach, and future-focused vision. LEED is hard to achieve, and so is WELL, but the Living Building Challenge is comprehensively a more difficult, and healthful, standard. So for comparative purposes, it is best to look at it first.

The stringency of LBC requirements—the seven “Petals”—raise the bar very high for construction. In term of energy use, LBC requires meter data from a year of operation so that the project is confirmed to have a net-zero energy use: that it has generated as much as it used. In terms of water use, projects may use only water arriving naturally to the site, that it be treated on-site and returned to nature (again, net-zero use). LBC requires that the landscape be a source of local, organic food production; buildings also may not use materials from the Red List. There is no “wiggle room,” in terms of the imperatives, with LBC: A building has to achieve every single one, as there are no optional imperatives.

Greenstreet’s Viridian Future encountered issues meeting the requirements of the LBC’s Red List. As our primary focus was on the “Materials” Petal, a problem arose in locating plywood within a specific radius. In our case, as we wrote, Plywood was located at a farther distance, in a sustainable forest in Michigan, but at quadruple the cost, and it needed to be trucked to the site. This would have necessitated a greater carbon footprint. In the end, we came to a compromise: plywood finally used came from a sustainable forest in Brazil, shipped by boat: A better option in terms of our carbon footprint goal.

In terms of LEED certification, Viridian Future is striving to met the highest level of standards. Summarizing LEED’s standards, indeed, shows how tough the LBC is, however. A LEED certified building, in contrast to the LBC’s zero-net energy/water use goals, must achieve simply a marginal improvement over standard energy/water, and gets points for higher energy-efficiency plumbing fixtures. In addition, LEED offers points for irrigation-free landscaping, and allows the use of any sort of material in the construction of a building. Optional points in a various categories are on offer (whereas the LBC offers no options).

The WELL Building Standard operates along seven “Concepts” of building—attributes, reminiscent of the LBC’s seven Petals. It overlaps with LEED, as we will see, but adds two concepts. As WELL is a very recent announcement, let’s look at these standards, point-by-point:

  • Air: An attempt to optimize indoor air quality through the removal of “airborne contaminants” via “prevention and purification” strategies
  • Water: Optimization of water for “each particular use” through filtration/treatment to “remove contaminants”
  • Nourishment: A “design, technology, and knowledge building” strategy component to promote better eating via design elements “behavioral cues, healthy options, and knowledge”
  • Light: The design of “specific illumination levels and quality” that “enhance the occupant’s daily schedule and visual acuity” and “improve sleep, energy, mood” along illuminative design
  • Fitness: Optimized access to “opportunities for aerobic, strength, and flexibility training” for occupants to incorporate fitness routines into their daily schedules
  • Comfort: Creating a “distraction-free, productive and soothing environment”
  • Mind: Providing “the occupant with regular feedback and knowledge about their personal and occupational environment” and relaxation spaces, and state-of-the art technologies

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 11.38.38 AMPhoto provided by: IWBI

So far, this is all WELL and good, but the difficulties are evident when you ask a basic question: “At what cost?” The answer is that WELL costs more—considerably more, in fact. Becoming peer-certified in IWBI’s forthcoming schema involves thousands of dollars, and you must re-certify triannually. The IWBI’s green thumbs-up, paid for every three years—accrediting you within their seven categories—is, thus, counterintuitive (particularly considering that there is already LEED in place). The certification makes building green more expensive, even prohibitively so, over time. In the long run, such cost will push people away from building green homes because they don’t actually address another, more basic question WELL purports to, which is: “Why do we build green?”

Greenstreet knows that we build green because a better-built environment improves the health of the people who dwell within it. It costs less to do so in the human (and economic) sense by maximizing people’s comfort. That said, the purpose of certification systems is to improve the way we build, which mandates greater cost-efficiency, obviously. That bottom line is not addressed or met by WELL because the certification, apart from its incorporation of certain fitness and nutritive elements, essentially reiterates those of LEED and the LBC while adding one burdensome element: A price tag.

Greenstreet’s stand in this issue is upon a middle (greener) ground. We have, currently, effective enough certifications, such as LEED, and goals, such as the Living Building Challenge, to design and construct buildings that will improve the health and happiness of those living within them. Using these principles as guiding tools, we can build in ways that will better harness the environment, without harming it, AND we can do so more cost-effectively to make building green common practice. In the end, the proliferation of a better-built environment is our shared goal.

So instead of turning certifications systems into paid-for shingles to hang upon the doors of our buildings, Greenstreet sees a different course. Pooling our knowledge using educational resources, and sharing our ideas without a price tag, will lower the cost of building safer, more healthful in the future. In turn, this will not only be less expensive for those choosing to build green now, but will make future design more environmentally sound. Instead of WELL-certification, a different kind of accreditation, the best kind of endorsement, in fact, will come from an impartial source: the happiness of those living within our buildings.

– Alessia Pilloni