Creating Healthy Work Environments for Tenants: LEED vs. WELL

August 31, 2016
Written by: Lida Lewis, OTJ Architects
OTJ worked closely with the Endocrine Society to establish energy efficiency and material health standards for its new condominium office space in DC.

When creating healthy and sustainable space, developers, property owners, and business leaders now have two options for third-party certification – the familiar LEED certification and the new WELL Building Standard. Through the culmination of seven years of rigorous research and a three-part peer review process (scientific, practitioner and medical), New York based Delos has developed a pioneering vision for improving health and well-being through built environments. When considering the LEED and WELL rating systems and which to pursue (or taking an approach that encompasses both), it helps to understand the benefits behind both systems.


More than 20 years ago, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was established and launched a building industry revolution. Focusing on the footprint of a building’s effect on the environment, the USGBC helped promote a multi-billion dollar sustainability message that currently stretches across many industries. In the built world, the LEED standard has helped developers, designers, manufacturers, and operators streamline every aspect of manufacturing and operations. Through six categories — Location & Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality —property managers and operators have used LEED rating systems to reduce waste and improve access to higher quality environments.

As for why to use the LEED standard, a return on investment can be calculated against first costs and operating expenses to create a strong argument for those who own or operate spaces. For business leaders in leased space, similar arguments can be developed when sub-metering of various services is enacted and a net lease negotiated to ensure operations savings directed toward efficient tenants. Metrics such as gallons per minute, watts per square foot, and other calculable values focus on a building’s performance and establish clear payback periods. In developing LEED v4, the USGBC has also given a nod to Life Cycle Assessments, material disclosures, and environmental comfort measures such as high-quality lighting, views, and acoustic environments. LEED focuses on providing safe, efficient buildings; project teams have and will continue to benefit from the positive effect this rating system has on the built environment.


A newcomer to the industry, the WELL Building Standard v.1.0 was launched in October 2014 after years of research and development. The standard is a collaboration of industry, scientific and medical minds from organizations such as Harvard, Cornell, Berkeley, NIH and many others. Its development was initiated by Delos, which continues to form strategic partnerships with leading organizations in finance, technology, real estate, and sustainability. Implementation, education, and further development of the standard is now under the leadership of the new International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which is essentially the equivalent to LEED’s USGBC. The WELL Building Standard includes 102 features organized into seven concepts: air, water, light, nourishment, fitness, comfort, and mind. The initial standard offers rating systems for commercial office space including New and Existing Buildings, New and Existing Interiors, and Core and Shell structures; with pilot systems in the works for other typologies including Multifamily, Retail, Education, Commercial Kitchen, and Restaurant.

The standard is structured to overlap and interlace with other rating systems such as LEED, BREEM, and Living Building standard, enhancing what those systems have built. WELL, however, is the first system to put a laser focus on health and wellness in the built environment. Where other rating systems focus on reducing footprints for lighting power use, WELL focuses on filtering out contaminants, promoting healthy hydration, lighting quality and reinforcement of the body’s natural circadian rhythms.

Wherever health, productivity, engagement and retention are concerns, WELL is a valuable tool in realizing solutions. Features such as a Healthy Sleep Policy, Workplace Family Support, Internally Generated Noise, and Ergonomics go beyond environmental footprints and support design and operational policies that help employees function at their best. For most organizations, staff costs account for roughly 90-92 percent of overall operating costs. In comparison, initial building costs comprise just 2 percent, and operations and maintenance is 6 percent of the budget.

For many companies, employees and their expertise account for the bulk of their assets. Physical activity levels, quality sleep, access to natural light, and many other health aspects targeted in the WELL standard directly affect productivity levels. Recruitment, retention and engagement numbers are tied to real financial consequences if not managed properly. An office’s design affects a person’s decision to come to work for, or stay working for, a company. Being fiscally responsible in managing this important asset is key in deciding to pursue WELL certification.


While LEED focuses on the built environment, WELL focuses on the people within these environments. Property owners and portfolio managers will likely feel the strongest draw toward the LEED system. HR directors, managers, and employees will be the most engaged during a commitment to the WELL certification process. For the most powerful realization of efficiency and effectiveness, LEED and WELL together can push performance to new, unprecedented levels.

Lida LewisLida Lewis is an Associate and the Director of Sustainability for OTJ Architects. A member of the USGBC-NCR region’s Market Leadership Advisory Board, Lewis also serves as the head of the NCR’s WELL Education Subcommittee and achieved USGBC-NCR Member of the Year status for her leadership as part of the Host Committee for the Greenbuild 2015 convention in Washington, DC. She is WELL AP, LEED AP ID+C, WELL and LEED Faculty, and NCIDQ Certified Interior Designer.