Thinking Green: The How, What, and Why of WELL

Thinking Green: The How, What, and Why of WELL
The Phipps Conservatory Center for Sustainable Landscapes [above] is the first institution to receive WELL Platinum Certification – the highest awarded rating.
Photo credit: Denmarsh Photography via Phipps Conservatory website.


After nearly 20 years in the architecture industry, it’s safe to say that the LEED Rating System is part of the zeitgeist. Most of us in design and construction have worked on a LEED-registered project or at least attended a seminar or two where it was discussed. What you might not be so familiar with is LEED’s biophilic cousin, the WELL Building Standard


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The WELL Building Standard, known simply as WELL, integrates design and construction practices that are good for the planet with strategies that are good for people. While LEED was designed to minimize the burden of the built environment on the natural environment, WELL was designed to leverage the built environment to promote human health and wellbeing. The features of the WELL Standard reflect evidence-based health and wellness recommendations. Each feature demonstrates that relationship through direct correlation to specific systems within the human body.

Like LEED, WELL provides a scoring system that leads to a certification level, but that isn’t as significant as it is with LEED. In WELL, meeting just the preconditions (AKA the prerequisites in LEED terminology) automatically earn Silver certification. Gold and Platinum certification are also achievable depending on what percentage of additional optimizations are met by the project. One of the greatest differentiators between WELL and LEED is the fact that base certification for WELL is the “bare minimum.” Sustainable design then becomes less a matter of “chasing points” as it often does with LEED.

Terminology of the rating systems differs as well, though the conceptual framework is quite similar. LEED defines credits in topical categories. Each category has prerequisites and point-based credits. The preconditions and optimizations of WELL are distributed in seven categories: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Features in some categories can be achieved through conscientious design of the built environment. Air, water, and light features tend to focus on performance. While features in the nourishment, fitness, comfort, and mind categories tend to focus on programs and cultural aspects to affect change in behaviors leading to better health.



While some credits in LEED are performance-based, most are prescriptive. It’s about the design and specification of products. LEED certification is a document-focused process that acknowledges a building’s sustainability score at a point in time. Verification of credit achievement in WELL is done through onsite assessment of performance. This includes environmental testing of the building’s air, water supply, light levels and color, acoustic properties. Assessment of other features would include review of a program or policy that has been instituted. Unlike LEED, WELL requires recertification every three years.

WELL was developed with assistance from members of the U.S. Green Building Council – making the two rating systems compatible and available to be pursued in tandem on a project. In fact, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) published a document in April 2017 outlining the process for dual certification to encourage teams to achieve both. Both LEED and WELL are reviewed by the same entity, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). A wide variety of project types have pursued WELL certification all over the world. However, the prototype on which the standard was based in commercial office buildings. Slight variations in the feature requirements allow for the standard to be applied to core and shell and fit-outs in addition to new construction and major renovations.

Given the similarities and differences between LEED and WELL, you might be wondering whether your project should pursue one, the other, or both certifications. The answer to that question should become clear during preliminary discussions regarding your goals and priorities as an institution. Start with development of the project’s guiding principles. Pursuit of either certification can provide long-lasting benefits to the triple bottom line of people, profits, and planet.




Feeling in the weeds with WELL? The IWBI has a user-friendly website full of resources for learning more about the standard and how to register your project. The reference guide is available for free download on the site along with study guides for purchase. IWBI even goes so far as to recommend a 30-session study schedule to encourage candidates to complete certification.


Guest Author: Melanie Como Harris, Project Manager, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Mantra: “In this bright future, you can’t forget your past.” – Bob Marley