Promoting Health and Wellness for Buildings

WSP has recently entered into a partnership with Fitwel, a new building benchmarking, certification, and rating system that focuses exclusively on human health and wellness. 

By Mark Bessoudo, M.A.Sc., P.Eng., LEED AP BD+C 

The partnership will allow WSP to promote health and wellness strategies for a wide range of buildings and help better serve clients, many of whom have become increasingly interested in this type of service. It will also help promote health and wellness in our own workplace, providing healthier and more productive workspaces for our employees.

A Focus on Healthier Buildings

A new focus area has quickly emerged in the real estate industry, one that prioritizes human health, wellness and experience as key elements of green building design and operation. There are several reasons for this. For example, there is mounting evidence suggesting that many of our chronic public health problems are the result of poor urban design. Studies have also shown that healthier office environments are linked with higher cognitive function. Furthermore, many leading companies, such as Google and Amazon, use healthy office design strategies as a way to attract top talent and provide employees with workspaces that improve wellbeing and productivity – and the company’s bottom line.

As a result, several rating systems, frameworks and protocols that prioritize health and wellness have emerged. The WELL Building Standard, the world’s first building standard to focus exclusively on human health, is perhaps the most notable.

WSP has been at the forefront of this movement, helping clients manage WELL certification projects in Canada (including CIBC Square in Toronto), Sweden (including the Eminent buildingin Malmö, aiming for the first WELL certification in the Nordic region), and other regions around the globe. WSP has also served as sustainability advisor for several other projects that have prioritized health and wellness, such as Google’s new Canadian Headquarters.

While WELL has raised the industry’s awareness of this topic, it still hasn’t achieved widespread adoption, particularly among Class B and C commercial buildings. Furthermore, there’s an opportunity for property managers to start promoting health and wellness across entire portfolios of existing buildings, rather than just focusing on individual new buildings. For example, of the 759 participants in the 2016 GRESB Real Estate Assessment (the annual assessment used by institutional investors to measure and benchmark the sustainability performance of their real estate portfolios), only 174 responded to the inaugural GRESB Health & Well-being Module. This, along with the actual respondents’ results, suggests that much more can be done to promote health and wellness across portfolios.

Despite the growing interest in health and wellness within the real estate industry, however, there still exist several financial, technical, and operational barriers preventing the widespread adoption of established third-party rating systems.

Fitwel – a New Rating System

To help fill this gap and overcome these barriers, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. General Services Administration recently released a new benchmarking and certification system called Fitwel. The Center for Active Design, an international non-profit, is the independent operator and third-party certifier of Fitwel. Billed as an easy-to-use and cost-effective solution for properties seeking to demonstrate their commitment to a healthier and more productive environment, the rating system is administered through a web-based digital scorecard and benchmarking tool. Projects can use the tool simply as a scorecard for benchmarking performance against similar buildings or for full certification.

Fitwel assesses health, wellness and productivity across 60 strategies and benchmarking criteria that are related to one or more of seven health impact categories: 

1. Community health
2. Morbidity + absenteeism
3. Social equality for vulnerable populations
4. Physical activity
5. Occupant safety
6. Feelings of well-being
7. Healthy food options

What makes Fitwel unique?

- Created for existing buildings: While Fitwel can still be used as a roadmap for the design of new buildings and spaces, it was designed for existing commercial and institutional buildings and portfolios. 

- There are no mandatory prerequisites: Each of the 60 strategies, or benchmarking criteria, are voluntary. Projects can choose to pursue on those that are the most relevant. 

- Simplified process: The web-based scorecard and benchmarking tool is meant to be used by facility managers and minimize paperwork and associated costs.

- Benchmarking capability: The online scorecard reveals a building’s score and provides an automated gap analysis highlighting specific opportunities for improvement. In this way, Fitwel can be used as a benchmarking tool for incremental improvements at a single building, or portfolio of buildings, regardless of number of points achieved.

- Based on evidence: Fitwel was developed over 5 years and piloted at 89 federal government buildings before being publicly launched in 2017.  Each of the strategies and benchmarking criteria is evidence-based and built upon scientific data that has been tested and reviewed. 

- Cost effective: Access to the online scorecard and benchmarking tool is provided for a flat fee of $500 USD per building, regardless of size. Formal certification can be achieved for an additional flat fee of $6,000 USD per building, regardless of size. The cost per building is even lower if pursued by a portfolio of buildings.

Recognizing this important opportunity, WSP’s Sustainability & Energy group recently became an official “Fitwel Champion”. This involves WSP committing to use Fitwel for at least three projects (with clients and/or in our own offices) in Canada, the UK, and the US, as well as exploring further opportunities to expand its use across our own portfolio in the future. WSP is also provided with access to Fitwel’s online benchmarking tool and scorecard.

What’s Next?

Other changes in the market are expected in the near future. For example, BOMA Canada is partnering with the Center for Active Design to explore ways to better align Fitwel with its BOMA BEST, Canada’s most widely-adopted green building certification system for existing buildings.

In addition, the International WELL Building Institute recently announced the development of WELL Portfolio™, a new cost-effective, existing building portfolio certification pathway to WELL certification that will focus on ongoing enhancements to existing buildings, particularly for policies, programs, procurement guidelines, and plans that can be applied across a portfolio of buildings.

The advent of cost-effective and easy-to-use benchmarking tools has the potential to bring health and wellness at scale across large portions of real estate portfolios and among employees, tenants, customers, and surrounding communities.

 *Mark Bessoudo is a Manager of Research for Sustainability & Energy in WSP’s Toronto office.