Healthy and Sustainable Certified: WELL and Living Building Challenge Explained

Key Takeaways:

  • The WELL Building Standard and Living Building Challenge (LBC) extend beyond building efficiency and sustainability, taking into account health and well-being.
  • WELL and LBC have expanded certification levels to allow for more points of entry.
  • Many predict the philosophies guiding these two certifications will soon become the universal norm in the built environment. 

Green building certifications and rating systems have been around for several decades. You’ve likely heard of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which came on the scene in 1998 and became the gold (and platinum and silver) standard for healthy, efficient and carbon-saving green buildings. 

Prior to that, the Passive House Certification was introduced in Germany and is still considered the most rigorous standard in energy efficiency today. But now there are two other certifications on the block that many organizations are striving to pursue: The WELL Building Standard (WELL) and Living Building Challenge (LBC)

What are these certifications, how do they differ, and what types of businesses should pursue them? 

A look inside WELL and LBC 

WELL was introduced in 2014 by Delos, a wellness real estate and technology company, and has become the global benchmark for promoting health and well-being in buildings. It is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a Delos subsidiary, and is the first standard focused exclusively on the impact buildings––and nearly everything in them––have on human comfort and health and wellness. 

Think of it as a roadmap for creating and certifying that spaces advance, rather than detract from, human health and well-being. As the IWBI describes it, WELL is a “performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.” 

The standard is based on scientific and medical research that has found an inextricable link between the built environment and the health and wellness of its occupants. Considering we spend more than 90% of our time in some type of building, it makes sense that the built environment can have an impact on health and well-being. And the WELL Certification essentially designates that a space was created to help improve human health––nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns and performance. 

Somewhat similarly, the LBC, which was introduced in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), is a green building certification program and sustainable design framework. The program addresses buildings, landscapes and infrastructure projects of all scales, and it is structured around seven petals: Place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty. 

To achieve LBC certification, projects have to be evaluated by a third party and have to have been operational for at least 12 consecutive months since it is based on actual performance versus modeled or anticipated outcomes. 

There is quite a bit of crossover between these two certifications; International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and ILFI have partnered to show organizations where there is alignment and how to pursue dual certification. However, typically the Living Building Challenge imperatives are broader where WELL features are more specific. In many cases, this means it can take several WELL features to meet one LBC imperative and vice versa.

WELL v2 under the hood

After years of collecting data, the IWBI developed the WELL v2 and launched a pilot program in 2018 to gather feedback and market insights. After two years of refining WELL v2, it now serves as the standard for advancing human health through design interventions and operational protocols. 

Understanding the rating system behind the WELL Certification can be quite detailed, but at a high level, it takes into account ten concepts:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Nourishment
  • Light
  • Movement
  • Thermal comfort
  • Sound
  • Materials
  • Mind
  • Community 

Each of these comprise “features” with specific health intents. These features fall into one of two categories: preconditions or optimizations.

Preconditions are mandatory for certification and define the fundamental components of a WELL Certified space. Optimizations, on the other hand, are optional and provide additional ways for projects to meet certification requirements. 

WELL by the numbers:

  • 10 concepts
  • 24 preconditions required
  • 84 optimizations available
WELL v2 At A Glance

Each concept varies in the number of preconditions and optimizations it has. For example, “Air” has four preconditions that must be met. This concept targets indoor air quality across a building’s lifetime and aims to promote clean air and minimize exposure to harmful contaminants. It necessitates that strategies be in place to ensure clean indoor air over the long term. These strategies include:

  • source elimination or reduction;
  • active and passive building design;
  • and operation strategies and human behavior interventions. 

The reason for these diverse strategies is because air contaminants don’t just come from the built environment or materials used in the design. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) can also be brought in by occupants. This can include cleaning supplies, personal care products, air fresheners, etc. So the combination of elimination, design and building occupant education is key. 

WELL Preconditions Strategies

LBC 4.0 under the hood

Just as LEED and WELL are ever-evolving, so too is the Living Building Challenge. As more projects are completed and feedback is collected, the program is refined. The current version, LBC 4.0, aims to streamline some of the requirements and make the point of entry more accessible. While it eliminated many of the time-consuming requirements, it did raise the bar on requiring basic issues across all seven petals to be addressed. 

The seven petals of the LBC include:

  1. Place
  2. Water
  3. Energy
  4. Health and happiness
  5. Materials
  6. Equity
  7. Beauty

Each petal is then subdivided into imperatives. There are a total of 20 imperatives in the Challenge. Within the “Water” petal, for instance, there are two imperatives that must be met: responsible water use and net positive water. The “responsible water use” is a core imperative, meaning it is required to achieve Petal Certification. 

LBC At A Glance

Who should pursue WELL and LBC certifications

Any organization and building or project type can pursue these certifications. And in recent years, WELL and LBC have started to gain tremendous steam. According to the IWBI 2021 annual report, WELL was applied in more than 30,000 locations of all space types; LBC projects have been registered in more than 29 countries.  

In the last couple of years, health and well-being have become foundational in the workplace. Companies of all shapes and sizes have started to evaluate various elements of the workplace, from ventilation to natural light to access to healthy foods. And many predict that sustainable and biophilic design (the connection to the natural environment) will become the universal norm rather than a “nice-to-have”. 

Still, these certifications can appear daunting at first glance. Luckily, over the years, both have established a variety of additional entry points. For instance, WELL can be implemented in a single interior space or an entire building or asset, and now there are several certification levels ranging from bronze to platinum.

WELL Certs and Steps

Similarly, LBC can be applied to a variety of typologies (i.e. new buildings, existing buildings, interiors, landscapes, and infrastructures). The requirements vary based on the project type, or typology. 

Though meeting the core imperatives of the seven petals of the LBC may sound overwhelming, they can be applied at any scale, and now there are several different certification paths:

  • Zero Carbon Certification
  • Zero Energy Certification
  • CORE Green Building Certification
  • Living Building Challenge Petal Certification
  • Living Building Challenge Living Certification –– for projects stringed for the highest level of sustainability and regenerative design. 

LBC Process

If you’re considering pursuing one of these certifications, it might be worth contacting a WELL Accredited Professional or a local ILFI Ambassador. Find out costs, what types of certifications are most applicable and will meet your goals, and the requirements. Both sites also offer a variety of resources.

The bottom line, consider what is important to your business, what is financially feasible, and the type of culture you want to create. With that in mind, you can begin to take steps toward pursuing a healthier and sustainable workplace and business operation.