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Designing for Health: Understanding Well Building vs. FitWel

Jane Rohde - May 2018

There are two major certifications that have been garnering a lot of buzz lately in the health and wellness design space: WELL Building Standard® and FitwellSM. As a designer, you’ve probably heard about both. But what are they and which one might be the right fit for the work you’re doing today or your next project?

Here’s the high-level look:

  • WELL Building Standard is primarily medically driven
  • FitWel is focused on public health issues

Let’s look a little more at each.

WELL Building Standard is designed to provide guidance for health and wellness in building construction and interior spaces. And scientific, medical, behavior, and environmental health factors were taken into account during its development. Research was used to support the desired credits (versus using the research to develop the criteria).

WELL Building offers a certification that incorporates concepts that relate to air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The credits are listed, however, as preconditions and optimizations. This means, for example, that under “air” there is an optimization credit, toxic material reduction, that uses a red list approach that deselects materials based on concern about a chemical in its pure state (as opposed to allowing materials based on their overall effectiveness, application, and final state as a finished product).

Evaluating products should use risk and exposure in conjunction with the appropriate application to better understand the overall product formulation from a life-cycle perspective. While vinyl wall covering contains vinyl chloride, for example, that chemical is harmless in the finished product. Vinyl wall covering, meanwhile, is easy to clean and an ideal material often specified for healthcare facilities.

Another challenge for architects and designers seeking WELL Building certification is that, like LEED, it’s based upon square footage. This makes it expensive to achieve and tends to be used for higher-end construction projects. The proposed 2.0 version is looking at the affordability in addition to some of the preconditions moving into optimizations (prerequisites to options).

Finally, it is important to note that although often called a standard, WELL Building is technically a guideline, in that it was peer reviewed but not developed using an all-stakeholder ANSI consensus process.

FitWel is also designed to achieve health and wellness in building construction and interior spaces. Unlike WELL Building, which takes a proscriptive approach (i.e., do this to achieve our certification), FitWel’s approach is to let you mix and match strategies to evaluate where you currently are and how to continue to improve (i.e. better public health).

FitWel was created as a joint initiative between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA) in conjunction with experts in public health and design. It is evidence-based guidance in that the criteria were provided by the scientists at CDC to determine what would most significantly impact public health outcomes.

This is an important distinction: FitWel is directly based upon the evidence versus developing credits and then finding evidence to support the credit after the fact. Deselection methodologies are not included in FitWel because the science is not there to support a red list approach to product selection. Fitwel was piloted by GSA on a portion of their portfolio, including rural, urban, and suburban buildings of difference shapes, sizes, and uses.

FitWel offers three levels of certification that measure success in achieving “evidence-based design and operational strategies that enhance building environments.” The 55+ strategies fall into seven health impact categories that include community health, physical activity, occupant safety, and reducing morbidity and absenteeism. In other words, using design in conjunction with operations are tools for the betterment of public health.

An example of FitWel’s approach in action is its recent partnership with lender Fannie Mae, which is aimed at encouraging healthy affordable housing. Loan recipients whose buildings achieve FitWel certification are eligible for reduced interest loans and reimbursement of the certification fees. FitWel’s affordability is another key attribute to the use of a health and wellness certification system by a larger portion of the real estate marketplace.