CDA Interviews: WELL Certification and the Future of the Built Environment

Apr 7, 2022

WELL building standard is a newer performance-based system that is used to measure, certify and monitor the most significant aspects of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing.

Many of the principles of WELL line up with how we think about the physical environment at Chipman Design, specifically our hospitality and senior living projects. So, our CEO, Lauren Chipman, who is WELL Certified sat down with CDA Project Designer Emily Hoeven who is working toward her WELL Certification. They discussed how WELL certification is being utilized today to improve peoples’ lives and what it means for the future of the built environment.

Their conversation has been edited for length.

Lauren: Emily, thank you so much for joining me today. Why don't you tell everyone a little bit about yourself?

Emily: Thank you for having me. I grew up in Kansas city. I studied interior design and architecture at Iowa State where I graduated with a BFA in interior design. After school I made my way to Chicago, I’ve been at CDA four years, and last year I got my NCIDQ certification. 

I work primarily on the design team at CDA but I’ve also worked with the retail, hospitality, multi-family, and restaurant teams. Currently, I’m working toward my WELL certification.

Lauren: Excellent. So, we first found out about WELL Certification when a potential client came to us and asked if anyone at the firm was WELL Certified. We had to say no, and they worked with another firm for the project. So, I said, “Well, that can never happen again. And I signed up to get certified that week.” I put out an open invitation to our team to see if anyone wanted to be my study buddy and go through this certification with me. And, I was so thrilled that you said, “Yeah, let's do it!”

Emily: Yes, absolutely. Chipman also reimburses employees for professional certifications, which is a great incentive. I ended up pushing my test until the summer but it was great to share resources with each other.

Lauren: It’s great. It also holds you accountable, right? To a certain degree.

Emily: For sure!

Lauren: A lot of people in our industry are familiar with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). What is WELL and how is it different from LEED?

Emily: LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It provides a framework for energy efficient and cost-saving green buildings — but, where LEED is focused on environmental health, WELL is focused on human health.

WELL Building Standard is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing. So yeah, both are very important, but they do have some crossover.

Another key difference is that LEED isn’t as flexible and once you’re certified, you’re done. One of the things I love about WELL is how much it’s evolving and how flexible it is. The WELL Building Standard adapts as we get new scientific research. So, you have to get recertified every few years to make sure you’re up-to-date.

Lauren: Absolutely. When we think about LEED, it's really focused on the building and the benefits to humans are kind of secondary. Yes, making the building more environmentally friendly benefits humans – but indirectly. It's almost the opposite for WELL. The focus is on nourishing the human experience. That does make the building nicer, but the building itself is secondary.

Emily: Right. It's more of a holistic approach to health and wellness. There are 11 concepts WELL focuses on: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, and innovation.

So, obviously not all of those are 100% within the control of the architects and designers. Some of the concepts fall back onto the management and the operation side of things. So, we work together to apply them into these spaces.

Lauren: Absolutely. For example, we can design space for meditation but if someone is going through a crisis whoever is in charge of the space can also make sure they have mental health resources. It really is, like you said, a holistic approach. We can design for a community event space, but how it's used is not up to us through the lifecycle of the building. Additionally, buildings must be re-certified every three years to keep their WELL status which helps to hold management accountable to their commitment to the occupants.

Emily: Yes.

Lauren: You’re working on a WELL certified project for one of our clients right now. I was wondering if you could talk about how the process starts? I imagine you can't get to the end of the project and say, “Oh, let's try and get some points here.”

Emily: Yes, you definitely want to identify that goal at the very beginning. Per category, there are a certain amount of preconditions that need to be met to be WELL Certified. Then, they have what are called ‘optimizations’ which are almost like bonus points. If you meet the preconditions for each category, you get a bronze rating – but, with the optimizations you can get a silver, gold, or platinum rating.

From WELL Certified on Instagram

Lauren: Our clients are usually looking to get a higher certification than the base of silver, correct? 

Emily: Yes, I typically see clients try to go for the gold ratings. And, that’s when it’s helpful to think ahead. When we start to look at the scope of the project and the optimizations, oftentimes we realize how we can qualify for those without even doing that much more work. The optimizations kind of become a guide for little ways to make the building better. So it's cool how they start to kind of interconnect in that way. And, as designers, that's our responsibility anyway –  to build spaces that are not only beautiful, but functional and healthy.

Lauren: Why do you think it's important for a project to be WELL Certified? Especially if we’re designing this way anyway, why take it to the next level and get the WELL Certification?

Emily: Our world is constantly evolving. Especially in the light of the last couple of years with the pandemic, we’re really seeing an awareness and a demand for safer and healthier environments.

Gone are the days where you don’t automatically sanitize your hands or look around to see how many people you're sharing air with. It’s constantly in our minds now. It’s our job as designers to evolve with the world and to keep up to date on what is needed in the built environment.

Lauren: Absolutely. It’s our job as architects to ensure the public is provided with a space that promotes safety and wellbeing. Being a WELL certified designer or architect shows you are taking the mental, physical health of your occupants seriously. 

Can you tell us more about this particular project? And how WELL fits in?

Three of CDA's previous Senior Living projects.

Emily: Yeah. The building is part of a 60+, active living community. It’s our client’s first project going for the WELL Certification but they are very forward-thinking with a lot of their buildings. They were attracted to WELL Certification because there are so many studies that show how much your environment impacts your physical and mental health.

This is the client’s first WELL-certified project so they brought on an additional consultant to make sure everything goes smoothly, guiding all of us through the process. It's nice for me to work on this because I can really see how it’s being set up to meet those standards right as I’m working on my cert.

Lauren: What do you think the future of WELL look like at Chipman Design?

Emily: I feel it’s our job to start suggesting it more to clients because it’s in line with what we’re already doing. So, just taking that extra step in setting the goal at the beginning can help. It’s not that much more expensive to pay for the certification once all the qualifications are met.

I’d love to see WELL certs become more of a mainstream thing, like LEED. WELL has a big campaign right now reminding people to look for the symbol that demonstrates that a building has been WELL certified. I think that people start are starting to notice that.

Lauren: Absolutely. Typically we see WELL Certification in office buildings or multi-family capacities. When you are able to give that kind of certification, you're able to promote it and market it.

It puts your property in another echelon. Maybe you can charge more expensive rents. More importantly, it shows a commitment to quality and attention to detail that really sets you apart from the competition. I think that's one of the big things that we're seeing with WELL certifications.

Emily: People want to know that wherever they're going, working or spending time, they're going to feel safe and healthy. People want to feel that companies don’t just care about making a profit that they care about your well being.

It also gives the building owner a story. For many of our hospitality clients, it’s so important to tell the story of where they came from or how they help their community. People love that. So, when you add in the WELL story on top of that it shows that you really care about people and their environment.

What You Need to Know About The WELL Building Standard - ChargeSpot
Examples of WELL certification logos.

Lauren: Like you said at the beginning of our conversation, it’s about flexibility. It's about innovation. It's about evolving the standard. I think that’s what is so exciting about WELL.

Okay, one last question for you. Through the lens of the last couple years of the pandemic, what does the future of interior design look for you?

Emily: A few big ones come to mind. Air is an obvious one. Even before the pandemic, thinking about pollution and environmental allergies but especially in light of the pandemic it’s something more people are focused on. It has been proven that using air purifiers and having good ventilation helps fight the virus. A lot of people are installing these systems and then noticing the overall benefits thinking “Why have we never done this before?” I think that’s one thing that we're really going to see a lot more in design moving forward is just the better air quality overall.

Another thing that’s really prominent recently is the idea of biophilia. As designers we’ve heard this buzz word for a few years now, but we are finally starting to see it incorporated throughout spaces and become the norm rather than a second thought. We as humans really need balance and we need a connection to nature. Whether it's just simply putting plants in a space or mimicking shapes and textures we see in nature, it’s a design feature that’s popping up a lot. And, honestly, everybody enjoys biophilia. Have you ever been in a space where someone says, “Oh there’s too much nature in here?”

Finally, lighting is so important. It’s the first thing to get value engineered out of a space because clients don't want to spend as much money or they just don't understand how important it is. But, the incorporation of natural lighting or even accent lighting can transform your space and affect your mood.

Lauren: And every single thing that you just talked about is in those WELL standards. I think that's one of the most important things is it's not just you, Emily, saying, “I like plants.” It's scientifically proven that it not only improves the occupants mood, it purifies the air and provides that connection to the outdoors.

Emily: Exactly!

Lauren: Well, thank you so much. It was so great to talk to you about this.

Learn more about WELL at the International WELL Building Institute.