A conversation on healthy building spaces, the difference between LEED and WELL, and people and buildings, with Darin Bernstein of Cushman & Wakefield.

transcript below

Millen: Hello everyone and thank you for tuning into this conversation on wellness in the workplace. My name is Millen and I’m with Gridium. Commercial real estate buildings use Gridium’s data analytics to lower energy costs, manage utility bills and analyze work order data, including preventive maintenance.

Darin, introduce yourself.

Darin: Thanks Millen! My name is Darin Bernstein and I’m with Cushman & Wakefield as a Sustainability Project Manager. We are a group that focuses on Green Building consulting, WELL in the workplace and just general sustainability help for both our external and our internal clients.

Millen: That’s great! Yeah, and I know that at Gridium we’re very proud to work with some of the Cushman buildings here in California and I know that I’m looking forward to this conversation with you Darin about the WELL certification and how it relates to LEED certification.

So, part of this story will unfold and to lay out an agenda for our audience, we will start at this simple question: where did WELL start? And then we’ll go to… into the difference between LEED and WELL and how WELL is different. And then we’ll finally dig into some details on what WELL actually looks like.  

Darin: Great! So Millen I have a question for you. If you had to guess, how much time do we spend indoors in your average day?

Millen: Ahh… good question. Let me see. It’s probably a lot, but you know (Laughs) I love… I love riding my bike, take advantage of the beautiful territory here around San Francisco. I don’t know… 80%?

Darin: Well, believe it or not, statistics are actually 90%…

Millen: Wow.

Darin: …and I think that actually could be even higher if you think about it. I’d love to say that we are all able to take advantage of getting out a couple of hours per day and riding your bike, taking a walk…

Millen: (Laughs)

Darin: …whatever it may be, but…

Millen: Yeah.

Darin: If you do the math, 90% of the day means that you’re just under 2 ½ hours outdoors and…

Millen: Yeah, that’s a good… it’s a good point.

Darin: …I mean… right. And we live in a place where, you know, the weather’s good most of the year. It’s not prohibitive to be outside most of the year. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to stay outside for that long per day and… and WELL and just wellness in general, you know, realizes that we are going to be spending all of our time indoors, so, we need to make sure that that environment is both healthy, stimulating and also productive. So… that’s sort of how WELL and the WELL building standard came about.

Millen: Ahh.

Darin: So, WELL is really the next generation, the next iteration of sustainability in the workplace. But the primary difference between LEED and WELL is that WELL is focused on the people in the building rather than the systems put in place. So, WELL was formed in 2013 by the International WELL Building Institute, similar to how the USGBC… spawned the LEED rating system and the WELL certification system has 298 projects registered to date. Of note, 126 of those are in the US and the second highest number is actually 50 in China…

Millen: Wow.

Darin: …which is indicative of a, you know, strong demand for healthy and sustainable spaces.

Millen: Yeah, that’s more projects than I would have expected.

Darin: Yeah, exactly. And you know, LEED is an international standard as well, but I think it is typically most common in the US obviously and, you know, a small fraction of projects that are outside of the US… actually certified… and as you know, LEED has been around for some period of time. It actually started in 1998 and has 14,000 projects certified to date.

So, as I said, WELL is designed for people and, I think, what it gives us is, you know, real estate or just generally anyone who works in commercial offices, it’s a science-based standard. It’s third-party verified… and it gives you something to build off of rather than just guessing your way through… choices such as light or, you know, how should I arrange the office? Or what kind of incentive should I be giving my employees to be healthy? So it’s more than just implementing the latest trends like an open workspace or bringing in your dog to the office.

This gives an idea of… of how to follow steps that have been scientifically proven. And then also, of course, the recognition factor… once you go through this process, you’re recognized as a company that is taking steps to better their employees health. So while there are requirements for the physical aspects of your building, it also encompasses a lot of more traditionally HR aspects like, for instance, paid maternity or paternity leave.

Millen: Mmhmm.

Darin: Or… fitness subsidies or just supplying healthier foods. So I think what you really wanna’ look at here with WELL compared to say, LEED, is you’re certifying the company and the people more than you’re certifying your building.

Millen: Hmm.

Darin: So, that’s exciting to think of this holistically and also address it from a variety of different angles, another example of the difference between LEED and WELL.

Millen: Got it.

Darin: So, as I mentioned, to breakdown how WELL is classified, it’s broken into seven categories or concepts and those touch on air quality, water quality, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Again, some of these are more familiar with uhh… Green Building and the infrastructure that goes in place in your air and lighting and even your water systems.

Millen: Sure.

Darin: Other things like comfort or our mind are, you know, a bit more cutting edge, if you will and I think it’s important that we consider the whole equation and talking about what is wellness in the workplace and what does that look like.

Millen: Yeah. It’s interesting to see this list because, you know, it pairs quite differently to LEED’s leadership and energy environmental design. And to see the list here of the factors going into what it means to occupy a space, what it means to be an occupant of the built environment. You know, it is interesting to think of all of the different factors that go beyond energy and environmental design.

Darin: Right. And if you think about theLEED system, it’s taking the indoor environmental quality aspect of green building and really digging in deeper on all of those categories.

Millen: Yeah.

Darin: And again, a heavy emphasis on the quality versus the quantity. Which I can talk about it and explain more. You know, really the main concept here: I believe that WELL and Green Building are united and not in opposition to each other. Ideally they go hand-in-hand. You wanna’ be able to have an efficient and you know, comfortable building where people are able to be productive and you know, feel like they have… they’re taken care of by their employer and… and by the building. So, I’d say the main difference between LEED and WELL… as I said, you know, more emphasis on the people and the occupant versus the design of your building and how it’s operating.

With WELL you actually have… you know, more emphasis on the quality of the environment and how that impacts the people. So, one other thing to note, with WELL you’re actually able t receive an on-site visit and a performance testing from an assessor who, you know, in some ways is able to make your life easier if you’re going through certification. LEED is very much document taken… documentation-focused. There never is an on-site visit, never is anyone to kind of meet you, see the space, you know, see the employees that are there. So you get a much more personal connection with WELL and I think that helps.

In terms of getting things done quicker and obviously having an ally in this versus, you know, just sending in paperwork to your reviewers.

The bottom line is, you know, that they do go hand-in-hand and actually there is a lot of overlap in terms of how they’re reviewed. Both WELL and LEED projects are reviewed by the same organization, the non-profit Green Building Certification Institute. So, that gives it a layer of, you know, continuity between…

Millen: Sure.

Darin: …the two projects…

Darin: And of course, you know, they are both shared goals to improve sustainability and also help outcomes within the building. A lot of the categories such as air and light, or acoustics, they do mirror each other. And we can talk about more in detail, but you know, looking at how does the lighting affect my morale or how does the lighting affect my sleep cycle. That is actually something that wasn’t as well addressed in LEED and WELL has taken that to the next step.

Millen: I bet some of the folks in our audience will be thinking to themselves what the total project scope and… and average expected time for certification can be. So…

Darin: Umm… yeah! I mean, that’s a great question. It depends on how long your design process is going to take. You have up to five years to certify from the day that you register. You obviously are only able to have an assessor out once the building has been substantially complete and occupied. So, it’s… it’s dependant on… on your design schedule. But the documentation back and forth and the assessor visit doesn’t significantly add too much time.

Millen: Great.

Darin: …but it is worth noting that you actually receive certification for a period of three years.

And you’d have to re-certify every three years, whereas in most of the LEED rating systems, once you earn a credit or, sorry… a certification for say, your design or your build-out, that certification never expires. So, WELL is intent on making this performance-based and continually updating…

Millen: Hmm.

Darin: …based on how your building is doing.

Millen: Interesting.

Darin: So, we talked a bit about the people over and over again here, but really what is important to remember here and what I think is indicative of how people are looking at the WELL building standard… your biggest asset in a building is not your lighting or your furniture or your mechanical systems. Over 90% of your cost is employees and need to remember that there’s an ROI on the people in your building. So just to give you some examples of WELL credits that are somewhat more innovative than actually focus on this…there’s heavy emphasis on lighting as I mentioned.

Darin: Things like daylight and varying color temperature throughout the day. That’s something that, you know, a heavy emphasis on daylighting is always present in both LEED and WELL, but if you’re not able to… to do that. Say you have a, you know, a building that just doesn’t have great daylighting or you have weird hours where it’s dark most of the time you have employees, WELL would look to actually you know, design lighting with the proper color scheme, color temperature so that you’re able to actually mimic some of those cues that we normally get from daylight that we don’t ever really realize.

So, WELL in this case actually requires that you have 95% of all work stations within 40 feet of a window and 75% of the areas within 25 feet of a window. So you’re really focused in getting people out towards the exterior of the building, keeping them more, uhh… you know, interior core for mechanical and closed offices, storage and things like that.

If you have an iPhone and you saw maybe six months or a year ago, they added a feature where your screen can actually mimic the color temperature of the day and the night, depending what time it is. So… it’s, you know, all coming about as of, I’d say the last couple of years and WELL is continuing to push for that, realizing that there’s now science-based evidence that this can actually improve your sleep and you know, obviously we know that sleep deprivation is a health issue, which WELL is trying to address here…

Millen: Sure.

Darin: …in the workplace.

Darin: Another cool feature about WELL. Natural nourishment. It’s an emphasis on if you provide any food or drink in your office, make it healthy. Make it a good choice for people and also try to encourage positive habits when people are not in the office. So you know, realizing that the World Health Organization estimates 2.7 million deaths per year from lack of fruit and vegetable intake. WELL advocates for having at least 2 fruits and vegetables in each offering or 50% of the offerings being fruit and vegetables. And also limiting any kind of processed food or drink.

Millen: When you say offering, do you mean what’s available in the building?

Darin: That’s right. Anything that’s purchased by the company for its employees.

Millen: Ahh, got it.

Darin: And this actually came up in one of our office build-outs. Limiting processed food and drinks to 30 grams of sugar, trying to promote whole and natural foods. Well, a lot of people, in our office in particular really were connected to their Cokes having available soda at the office. And so, having that conversation that, you know, we are trying to promote wellness and not encourage this sort of behaviour. At first people were a little bit shocked and hesitant but, you know, after trying that for a couple of months, they realized, you know… “I just used to reach for the soda because it was there and now I don’t. So, I haven’t had a soda in months.”

Millen: Yeah.

Darin: You know, those are the things that we like to continue seeing in the office and WELL is kinda’ pushing that as well. And then just quickly here, the fitness aspect of wellness in the workplace. You’ve probably heard a lot about sit/stand desks or, you know, trying to get people off their… off their chairs and you know, being active. Having, you know, great… or I’m sorry, just having the ability to do your daily tasks with alertness and without fatigue is important. And so, creating a space that encourages walking around, using the stairs, having the ability to kind of work from different places. Those are some things that you’ve probably seen in a lot of the newer, more innovative build-outs around the Bay area…

Millen: Sure.

Darin: There’s actually, you know, evidence that this improves your health by getting your out and moving you around, getting out of your seat.

Darin: Yeah, well, WELL likes getting out of your seat as well. There is an option to pursue active furnishings, it’s called.

Millen: Ahh.

Darin: Anything like a treadmill desk or one of those bikes that you… you can work from…

Millen: You know, to be honest… I should try it. You know I in fact, I am curious. I would like to try it. It does seem like it could be tough… to focus, but… I should try it first. (Laughs)

Darin: You know, WELL is obviously intent on creating a inviting, intriguing and healthy work space and that means bringing nature in. So, you know, there’s scientific evidence that nature having, you know, either the imagery of it or plants, things like that around people, actually improves the nervous system and reduces depression. And so, there’s things incorporated in WELL like just bringing nature into the environmental design and lighting or using natural patterns of the term called biophilia. And also having, you know, actual, physical nature inside, whether that’s a living wall or, you know, plants within the office space. And of course, encouraging, like you said, people to be able to walk around, having close proximity to parks, trails… you know, outdoor areas. All that is getting people more and more connected to nature and getting them, you know, out of the office as much as possible.

Millen: Yeah, that sounds interesting. It sounds like sort of like the kind of space that I would want to work in, doesn’t it?

Darin: Yeah! Well, we’re actually registered for WELL in some of our new build-outs at Cushman & Wakefield and have another project that we’ve registered for a client in Silicon Valley.

Millen: Yeah. I’d love to check one out.

Darin: So, just to kind of give you an example here, a quick story to end, speaking of checking one out. This is the CBRE headquarters, located in Los Angeles. They were the first commercial office space to achieve WELL certification under the pilot program in 2013. And there’s been a lot of studies and obviously a lot of press releases based on this information. But just a couple of highlights: 92% of the new occupants said that the space had a positive effect on their health and well-being. 94% said it had a positive impact on their business performance.

Millen: Wow.

Darin: 83% felt more productive and 93% said they’re more easily able to collaborate with others.

Millen: Hmm. That’s phenomenal results, isn’t it?

Darin: Yeah! I mean, that’s exactly what you’d hope when you go through a WELL project or a WELL build-out. All of those things we maybe assume are going to happen…

Millen: Sure.

Darin: …but you’re actually able to… to have some results behind it and so, it’s exciting to see this is kinda’ the direction that workplace and commercial real estate’s going. And you know, I hope that this rating system, along with LEED, takes off… to help drive better decisions in corporate real estate.

Millen: And now you just talked a little bit about success at one of the first WELL certified spaces. What are some of the challenges you’ve seen?

Darin: Yeah. I mean, so as with any new system there’s gonna’ be some kinks to work out and, you know, this is version one they just launched in 2014. So, workin’ out some of the details around which credits apply and… and which do not. Whether they should all be equally weighted or not, which they are at the moment. You know, LEED has worked from that initial version and realized that some things are more important than others, you know, and also the fact that maybe the scoring system needs to be tweaked to help promote, you know, the right design, but also reward those who go above and beyond. WELL does have silver, gold and platinum level of certification, just like LEED. But it’s actually interesting to note that to earn silver, you only need to meet the prerequisites or pre-conditions of the rating system which is about a quarter of the overall hundred credits. So, you know, really if you were just going for silver some of the things that we’ve talked about, and some of the more innovative approaches, you don’t actually need to pursue those to get certified.

Millen: Is this applicable only to new buildings? I assume that there’s a way to get a pre-existing space certified. Or does the WELL program really only play best with either new construction or a build-out in a pre-existing building.

Darin: No, that’s a good question, and another difference between LEED and WELL. So, there’s three different rating systems or rating types within WELL. The first being any sort of, you know, new construction, new building. Second being core and shell and you can actually not get WELL-certified but WELL-compliant on the core and shell build-out. Obviously some of the elements of fitting out a building or… or having, you know, policies in place for the employees… if you don’t have those yet, you can’t really go for those credits. And then there is an interiors, an existing interiors rating typology. So, it’s available to anyone both new and old.

Millen: And Darin, can you provide a little bit more color on how best to get started and what the expectations would be for someone hoping to get their space WELL-certified?

Darin: Sure. The best way to begin is, you know, to consider an analysis of what potential WELL credits do we already have? And where do we fall short through some kind of gap analysis. And there’s a very easy tool to check on registration on the WELL website. That’s: wellcertified.com. You can plug in your square footage, you can plug in some of the other parameters and figure out what this is going to cost and find out how to, you know, get involved with next steps.

Millen: Well hey, I want to be conscientious of our audience’s time. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up, Darin?

Darin: If you have any other questions about WELL or about sustainability in your workplace, feel free to reach out to me. My e-mail here: Darin.Bernstein@cushwake.com. And we look forward to seeing how this rating system develops and where it goes.

Millen: Thank you for the time Darin and if folks have questions about Gridium, please e-mail us: info@gridium.com. And thank you.

Darin: Thank you.

About Millen Paschich

Millen began his career at Cambridge Associates, trained in finance at SMU, and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, business, and green chile burritos.

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