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Will WELL Building Certification Become More Popular in the Wake of COVID-19?

[Updated: Sep 08, 2020 ] May 27, 2020
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The idea that a building can make its inhabitants ill is nothing new. The World Health Organization created the term sick building syndrome in 1986. The umbrella term includes a variety of ailments that can be caused by spending time in a building, some as mild as sinusitis and others as serious as potentially causing cancer.

Much of what makes a building dangerous has to do with air quality, an issue that is even more top of mind due to COVID-19. The novel coronavirus is not currently considered to be airborne but is transmitted by respiratory droplets. As the United States and other countries continue reopening plans, there are many questions about how to keep people safe.

In response to these concerns, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), creators of the WELL building certification, launched the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management. It focuses on policies and protocols for a post-COVID-19 environment.

The recently announced safety rating could eventually be applied to offices, hotels, retail, grocery stores, warehouses, manufacturing, restaurants, and schools, among other locations. The rating is being administered in conjunction with the IWBI COVID-19 Task Force, a group of over 500 public health experts, government officials, academics, architects, and real estate professionals who are developing guidelines in response to pathogen transmission concerns.

Locations that participate in the program must submit policies, protocols, and strategies for third-party document review and annual compliance verification. It will launch in June, and current WELL-registered projects can earn the new rating.

What is WELL building certification?

The WELL certification is a bit similar to LEED certification in that it addresses some environmental concerns, but the focus of WELL is more on the human experience of the building itself. These include air, sound, and comfort, among other concerns. WELL was created in 2014 by the International Well Building Institute, an organization created by Delos, a real estate and technology company.

There are two types of WELL certification:

  • WELLv1
  • WELLv2

And the three certification options are:

  • Single cycle.
  • Three-year subscription
  • Five-year subscription.

Both types are available for both new and existing buildings and for both residential and commercial projects. WELLv1 is the first iteration of the program whereas WELLv2 is the second iteration, adding in a new scoring system as well as additional qualifying features.

Prices depend on the size of the building, with a cost per square foot. For WELLv1, prices start at $1,500 and go up to $10,000. For WELLv2, registration is $1,800 and the maximum price is $20,000. Discounts are available for schools, nonprofit organizations, government buildings, and affordable housing projects.

How is a building certified?

Once a project is registered, the building owner or project manager is required to send in a variety of documents including design plans, construction documents, mechanical drawings, surveys, and reports. The building's owner, architect, contractors, and engineers also must submit letters of assurance confirming the building's features.

After the basic documentation is submitted, Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) will assign a GBCI WELL Reviewer to the project. The WELL Reviewer is a third-party individual who reviews the documentation and performance test results for compliance with WELL requirements.

WELL Performance Testing Agents handle performance tests on-site, send samples to labs for testing, and submit results to the reviewer. These tests focus on air quality, water quality, light attributes, thermal considerations, and acoustic elements. All of these requirements relate back to the comfort of the people who will use the building.

What other efforts are taking place right now?

Compared to LEED, WELL is not nearly as well known, and far fewer buildings have been certified. The COVID-19 pandemic has created increased interest both in WELL certification and from people interested in learning how to become a WELL Accredited Professional.

Right now, many building owners may not have the time to go through the documentation process but still need to prove that their buildings are safe. As we saw with the recent phased reopening of Simon Property Group (NYSE: SPG) malls, there are a variety of new rules facing businesses, from distancing requirements to more frequent cleanings.

Another factor in building wellness is ingress and egress. Smart locks opened with a mobile device are one way to make a building safer; antimicrobial buttons and door handles are another option. In China, temperature screenings are common, and people are assigned an app-based code (green, red, or yellow) that determines their ability to travel and access certain areas.

Here in the U.S., a variety of tests are taking place. The Mayo Clinic and Delos founded the Wellness Living Lab in 2016, and it is proving to be more valuable than ever right now. At the end of April, the companies announced a collaboration with Cushman & Wakefield (NYSE: CWK) and Hines, a private real estate investment firm, to evaluate the effectiveness of methods of decontamination, thermal screening, and ways to reduce the concentration of air particulate matter. These efforts are not just designed to make building inhabitants safe from COVID-19 but also to help protect against other potential respiratory viruses.

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