SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 2021: Taking a Look at the WELL Health-Safety Seal

In the wake of a 13% drop in enrollment for 2020-2021, colleges and universities are considering new strategies to attract students. Priorities have shifted for students and staff as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Sustainable design standards have likewise adapted with offerings such as the WELL Health-Safety Seal to help foster trust and encourage a return to pre-pandemic campus life.

The International WELL Building Institute is just one of several organizations to develop specialized standards to address the renewed focus on infection control and safely reopening indoor environments.  The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the Center for Active Design, and RESET have each developed modules to help facility managers measure, improve and monitor air quality, sustainability, and/or health and wellness strategies.

WELL Health-Safety seal signifies a building has achieved the rating
The WELL Health-Safety seal is a visual mark for buildings and interiors that signals a commitment to evidence-based interventions that support human health.  Image Credit:  International Well Building Institute

Have you seen the WELL Health-Safety Seal yet?

Based on its ongoing national advertising campaign, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) seems to have generated the most attention. In January of this year, the Institute rolled out its campaign for the WELL Health-Safety Seal.

Positioned as a public service announcement, the ads introduce WELL to the general public.  A cast of A-list celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Venus Williams and Robert DeNiro, encourage consumers to view the seal as a symbol of trust when returning to public buildings.

Organizations that earn this certification use the seal, which must be renewed annually, to demonstrate that safety measures have been implemented. Building occupants and visitors can scan the QR code on the seal and gain insight into how health and safety efforts are third-party verified by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI).

The seal is now in 87 countries and more than 12,000 locations. That includes recognizable facilities such as Yankee Stadium and organizations such as JP Morgan Chase and Fairfax County Schools. In May, Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health earned the WELL Health-Safety Rating for five of its properties in Pennsylvania and one in West Virginia.


“Look for the WELL Health-Safety Seal outside, and feel more confident going inside.”  Jennifer Lopez


How was the WELL Health-Safety rating developed?

IWBI built upon its existing WELL Building Standard to develop the framework, but it also set up a task force focused on COVID-19. The company sought the advice of more than 600 public health experts, virologists, architects, designers, and other authorities. It also reviewed guidance issued by the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASTM International (formerly, the American Society for Testing and Materials), the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and other agencies.

The WELL Health-Safety rating launched in June 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It focuses on operational policies, maintenance protocols and design strategies for occupant health and safety. WELL Health-Safety Rating strategies not only apply in an emergency but also during normal operating periods. For instance, it includes credits for developing a Legionella management plan, bolstering emergency resilience, and providing paid sick leave.

How does the WELL Health-Safety Seal Compare to WELL Certification?

According to IWBI, the WELL Health-Safety Rating and WELL Building Standard™ are similar, but distinct in their coverage and designation processes.

The WELL Health-Safety Rating is a subset of the more comprehensive WELL Certification. It involves documentation-based approval and third-party review. WELL Certification requires on-site performance testing.

WELL Certification requires a comprehensive approach to building occupant health and well-being. In version 2 (WELL v2), strategies from the WELL Building Standard are organized in ten concept areas. These include: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind and Community.

Owners or operators can pursue the WELL Health-Safety Rating for buildings or spaces as a stand-alone initiative.  The rating can also be used as a stepping-stone to WELL Certification at a later date or applied concurrent with WELL Certification.

The WELL Health-Safety Rating features are a subset of WELL Building Standard strategies. They have been adapted to focus specifically on facilities operations and management. The rating provides policy and procedure guidance to help mitigate virus spread and keep building occupants healthy. This includes things like better cleaning practices, air and water quality monitoring, reduced contact with high-touch surfaces and creation of a health plan for building re-entry.

Sustainable Design 2021:  What’s the Right Choice for Your Campus?

For many facility managers, the pandemic has served as an impetus to refocus efforts and resources on health, wellness, and safety strategies. Nurturing public trust will be key to bringing students back to residence halls, classrooms and other campus buildings. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, defined health-safety standards can be a valuable tool.  However, the positive awareness and health-safety endorsement provided by programs such as the WELL Health-Safety Seal are not without cost.  The fees, facility adaptations, and assessments must be accounted for when considering their relative value.

Administration and facility management teams can work with design professionals to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of potential facility updates regardless of sustainable certification goals.  Research, such as The COGfx studies, indicates that the value of improved indoor environmental quality extends beyond the current focus on infection control to help create better learning environments.

Sustainable design strategies can also be a plus for recruiting students and staff and for learning opportunities and research. For example, LEED Lab is a multidisciplinary immersion curriculum to help institutions prepare students to become green building leaders and sustainability-focused citizens. Ultimately the core value of sustainable design is to create healthier living, learning, working and relaxation spaces for students and staff and sustainable solutions for the environment in which these structures are built.

Other Recently Developed Health-Safety Standards:

Fitwel Viral Response Module:  The Fitwel Viral Response Module is a set of strategies that can help facility managers respond to the pandemic, but also make lasting changes for the health, safety, and wellness of occupants and tenants.  The Viral Response Module is organized into three sets of strategies: Enhance Indoor Environments, Encourage Behavioral Change, and Build Occupant Trust.

Originally created by the CDC and U.S. General Services Administration, Fitwel focuses on health and wellness.  It uses the CDC as its research and evaluation partner and the Center for Active Design, which helped to create its certification system, as its licensed operator.

LEED Safety First:  As part of its Healthy Economy strategy, USGBC has seven LEED pilot credits to help building teams provide healthy spaces, and to assist with re-entry. The pilot credits outline sustainable best practices that align with public health and industry guidelines related to cleaning and disinfecting, workplace re-occupancy, HVAC and plumbing operations.

If you’re considering an interior refresh or campus updates, read our blog:  New Normal:  COVID-19 Design Impacts on Interior Design.

Carson Parr, AIA, LEED BD+C, is a Partner at RLPS Architects.  He leads the firm’s higher education practice, helping clients with campus programming and planning, project design and construction. An NCARB registered architect, Carson, holds a Master of Architecture, Community and Urban Design, from Pennsylvania State University.  He serves as a student mentor and is a board member and past president of AIA Central Pennsylvania. Carson is a LEED Accredited Professional and is currently pursuing WELL certification.

Jessie Shappell, IIDA, RA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C, earned a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She also holds  a Master of Science in Interior Architecture from Chatham University and is a Board Member for the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ).  Jessie attained the designation of WELL AP in April 2018 and is committed to helping clients create healthier and safer interior spaces.  “Increased awareness by consumers and facility managers regarding hygiene and infection control has been somewhat of a COVID silver lining, with much more attention dedicated to things like handwashing, cleaning protocols and improved interior air quality strategies.”

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP