Over the past decade, green building initiatives went from fringe practice to mainstream movement. This evolution of building standards to better the environment, however, has ignored the people who inhabit them.
The WELL Building Standard is the first-of-its-kind standard to focus solely on building occupants. Administered by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), WELL Certification is currently being piloted for educational facilities.
As enthusiasm picks up for schools to embrace the standard, we spoke with Karen Quintana, VP of Technical Solutions at IWBI, to discuss WELL’s potential to enhance K12 facilities.
What is the WELL Building Standard?
With the increased focus on health and wellness in schools, districts are under pressure to address gaps in current building features and operations. The call to incorporate greener elements is amplifying with the recognition that learning and academic performance is closely tied to the built environment.
The WELL Building Standard has now been rolled out in hundreds of projects in 26 different countries. In other words, the training wheels are off. While the standard was originally designed for commercial spaces, pilot programs include not just schools but also large public spaces (airports, convention centers) and healthcare facilities.
The standard wasn’t created from scratch--instead, it was formed with the realization that tons of impactful research already exists, but is undeniably siloed. Through a comprehensive peer review involving leading architects, scientists, doctors and wellness thought leaders, WELL was created to unite the silos of building science, health science and business economics.
It also aims to improve buildings that already exist, with applicable typologies including: core and shell, new and existing interiors, and new and existing buildings.
The CBRE Building in Los Angeles was the world's first WELL Certified office
The standard is nothing if not comprehensive, with strategies for design elements, maintenance protocols and personnel policies. For instance, a policy for schools could ensuring that recess or physical activity isn’t taken away from students as a punishment.
“The fact is you can’t just design a healthy building--you need policies in place to promote health among students and staff,” Quintana said.
WELL’s performance requirements are set for seven concepts relevant to health.
Seven Concepts of the Standard
Each of these seven categories is further broken down into features (a total of 102), which can be compared to LEED’s “credits.” The features are split between preconditions (requirements) and optimizations, which are optional suggestions.
Similar to LEED, the standard involves inclusive third-party verification but isn't a "one and done" process, with recertification required. In particular, WELL emphasizes testing performance over results.
Differentiating the WELL Building Standard
It’s the focus on designing around human health specifically that differentiates the standard from Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) or LEED, which is more focused on the energy efficiency component.
“There are synergies between WELL and green rating systems and you can actually get dual credit using an approved crosswalk. WELL believes that both people and the planet are important,” Quintana said. “The difference, for example, is that CHPS may approach lighting for energy’s sake whereas WELL is looking at it from a human health perspective, things like circadian rhythms, human performance, and so on.”
What’s ultimately unique is that WELL is a comprehensive set of strategies.
“We approach it like this: how can we use design and operations to create a healthier space?” Quintana said. “Our performance metrics contribute to healthier environments so that students can thrive, concentrate and enjoy optimal creativity and productivity.”
Why Should Facilities Leaders Embrace WELL?
Although WELL for K12 is a new undertaking, with only three schools registered at the moment, Quintana believes that it’s essential for facilities leaders to take the reins in the very near future.
“If facilities can lead the way, then vendors can start to evolve, and then teacher/student policies will follow. It starts with facilities in schools,” she said. “For real change to happen, we need facilities leaders to be the pioneers and champions of healthy schools, rather than being told by the board they must adapt. They can reinforce the value of school performance.”
Focusing on strong facilities maintenance protocol in terms of health is a great foundation for adopting the rest of the standard, Quintana said. She believes the “fundamentals” offered can be adapted as valuable performance metrics.
“There are so many strategies we offer to bring basic air quality, water quality, and cleaning protocols to students and teachers,” she explained.
Examples include enhanced cleaning of high touch surfaces, filter changes, inspections for water damage, mold/microbe strategies--all fundamental strategies to help facilities perform at a higher level today without a high cost. Air quality is another element vital to creating productive learning environments, especially in densely occupied classrooms.
One key component in schools that’s ripe for innovation is the “nourishment” aspect. It’s no secret that American cafeterias aren’t known as breeding grounds for healthy habits. Quintana mentions qualities of cafeteria design that can impact student health, from where the fruits/veggies should be placed in line to portion size requirements.
Future for WELL in Schools
The main challenge for districts is the extensive stakeholder engagement needed to fully implement WELL..
“There are far more stakeholders--teacher unions, facilities, parents, school boards, etc.--than in the office setting where it’s a small group of decision makers and it’s easier to implement a dynamic program like WELL,” she said.
The IWBI team is currently researching ways to unlock that challenge as enthusiasm and demand increases.
“As the standard evolves, we will help with the hurdles that exist, like getting the school board engaged,” she said. “We are going to be really working with communities.”
It’s undeniable that WELL’s holistic, human-centered approach is pioneering a revolutionary shift in how the industry views sustainability. By recognizing that health is closely linked to the buildings in which we spend our time, WELL is providing facilities leaders with an amazing framework to strive for to affect positive change.
For more on the potential for WELL in schools, stay tuned for Quintana’s talk at the K12 Facilities Forum.
Join us at the K12 Facilities Forum!
The community for district and facilities leaders
Nov 12-14,2023 | Austin, TX