Understanding LEED, WELL, and the Differences

The WELL program was started by many of the same people involved in the original LEED program established by the U.S. Green Building Council back in 1998. The WELL program was created far more recently, in October 2014, which is likely one reason few of us are familiar with it.

In 2016, one of Canada's largest banks was the first bank in the country to be WELL certified. The bank's employees at this location can enjoy the benefits of the WELL Building Standard® program, which is designed to help protect the health and work environment of the building users.

Many people may not have heard of the WELL program. Further, by saying it is designed to help protect health and the work environment, readers might ask, isn't that what the LEED certification program is designed to do? The answer to that question is yes, but that is not the key focus of the LEED program. To explain the differences easily and concisely, we can describe the programs like this:

  • LEED is designed to focus on buildings.
  • WELL places its focus on people.

Building on these basics, here is a bit more information about WELL, how it compares to LEED, and what it takes to be WELL certified.

The WELL program was started by many of the same people involved in the original LEED program established by the U.S. Green Building Council back in 1998. The WELL program was created far more recently, in October 2014, which is likely one reason few of us are familiar with it.

As many of us know, in order to be LEED certified, a facility must meet specific standards to demonstrate that it has taken significant steps to reduce water, energy, and fuel consumption, reduce the amount of waste it generates, as well as other steps to help reduce the facility's environmental footprint. LEED requirements also would include designing the building to protect natural resources. As you can see, these standards are very building-focused.

Now, let's take a look at WELL. In order to be WELL certified, a facility must meet seven criteria, or "concepts," in WELL program terminology. These include the following:

Air: In most cases, a facility must pass at least two indoor air quality checks; one before it is occupied and the second after it has been occupied for several months.  The process is designed to ensure that healthy indoor air quality is maintained once the facility is fully operational. To accomplish this, the WELL program requires that building windows are operational (can open and close); no smoking is allowed in the facility; all building finishes and interiors are selected so that they meet strict standards about off-gassing; and the cleaning solutions used to maintain the facilities are not only green-certified but release few if any volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Water: Potable (drinking) water used in the facility must be filtered, once again meeting specific standards.  It cannot be hard and must not contain suspended soils, dissolved materials, chlorine, or fluoride.

Nourishment: Don't expect to find chips and cookies in the vending machines of a WELL certified building.  Instead, vending machines (and all food offerings) are to be healthier food options such as 100 percent organic fruit, vegetables, as well as low-fat grab-and-go foods. Meat or chicken food items, if they are available, must be both hormone-and-antibiotic free and vegetarian fed.

Light: While the LEED program does encourage the use of daylighting, it does so mainly to reduce energy consumption. With the WELL program, light must ensure "good visual acuity when performing a variety of tasks to avoid eyestrain and to minimize productivity losses and headaches."

Fitness: Most likely you figured this would be part of the WELL program. While the program does not necessarily require that a gym be included in a facility, it certainly can help.  What the standard does entail is that the building provides users with “the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigor and alertness, without undue fatigue, and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and respond to emergencies.”  This requirement can be accomplished by providing a fitness center, bike and walking paths, or encouraging staff to use stairs instead of the elevator, as well as providing shower areas for building users.

Comfort: A common problem in the work environment is noise. In order to be WELL certified, steps must be taken to sound insulate facilities, protecting users from both outside as well as inside noise. Further, if needed, the facility must provide personal humidifiers, fans, standing desks, and adjustable desks.

Mind: This is a rather broad "concept." One WELL certified building housing a landscaping company tackled this concept by installing an online library and resource center. The resource center provided books, articles, graphics, and other information designed to stimulate ideas and help the staffers perform their duties.

Now that you understand the gist of the program, you might be wondering how many facilities have been WELL certified.  As of 2019, there have been more than 1,610 WELL projects, resulting in 159 certifications and 1,451 registered projects, which refers to facilities in the process of being WELL certified. We should also point out that this is an international program. The WELL "community" is now found in 81 countries and includes nearly 8,000 associated professionals worldwide helping facilities around the world become WELL certified.

But What Does No VOCs Really Mean?
An issue that the WELL program apparently did not consider is the fact that when a green cleaning solution indicates it contains no VOCs, that can be misleading. What it actually means is that the solution does not contain ingredients that can harm the ozone layer surrounding the earth. In order to select cleaning solutions that do not harm the air we breathe, they must be GreenGuard certified.

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