Choosing the Right Building Standard: LEED, WELL, and Fitwel

For design firms and companies who value human and environmental health, building rating systems are a helpful route to achieving some of the industry’s most ambitious, forward-looking goals. They set high standards for all kinds of building projects, from residential spaces to offices and schools, for both new construction and renovation. But there are quite a number of options, and their requirements and prerequisites can be complex. They can also be divergent in terms of the importance placed on factors like material health, waste management, indoor air quality, and occupant safety.  CaraGreen is a supplier of healthy building materials for A&D professionals. Knowledge Bank spoke with Jessica McNaughton, president of CaraGreen, and Madeline Rohrbacher, Director of Sales Enablement, to learn more about three of these standards: the building focused LEED, occupant focused WELL, and occupant health focused Fitwel.


LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is perhaps the best-known building standard. It has been around since 2000, when it was founded by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). McNaughton and Rohrbacher describe LEED as a “building-focused” standard, which is to say that it is most concerned about reducing the environmental impacts and costs of building design, construction, performance, and operations. Its framework can be applied to nearly any kind of building project, according to a variety of different point-based scorecards. Projects must satisfy all prerequisites in order to apply for LEED certification.

LEED is a holistic standard that evaluates projects in many areas, from location and transportation, material selection, site selection and indoor environmental quality to water conservation, social equity, and use of renewable materials and resources. McNaughton gives us a sense of some of the areas in which LEED evaluates projects. “They look at location, the ecosystem. Is it a green field site, where you’re starting from nothing and wiping out trees or forests to put in a building? You won’t earn points for that. Is it a brown field site, where you’re remediating the area and the ecosystem? That’s better. If it’s a renovation project, how much of the existing building is being reused? Are you constructing with daylighting in mind, so you can use natural lighting as much as possible rather than having to install expensive lighting systems? Is it easy to get there by bicycle or public transportation? Inside the building, it looks at things like ventilation – is there a structure that removes dirt and allergens from shoes when you enter the building? Did you consider the way air flows through the space?

LEED is currently in its fourth iteration, LEED v.4, a version that according to McNaughton, tried to address some of the shortcomings of earlier versions. Earlier on, there was little data to show a significant return on investment. “When people pay a higher price, they want to know that it will save them money and be more energy efficient. They really want to see proof before they make the investment. That’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve found in trying to promote LEED products.”

After accumulating data over the years, LEED v.4 presents a different picture. “Now they do have studies,” says McNaughton. “When you have a decade’s worth of data, you can start showing people operational efficiencies. Now building owners can get a placard to display in their building that shows how much money they’re saving.” McNaughton tells us that the biggest shift in LEED v.4 was prioritizing transparency. “There’s a lot of ways you can get LEED credits but still be the wizard behind the curtain, but LEED v.4 doesn’t allow you to do that. You have to be transparent about what’s in your materials. It can be bad, but be transparent. They’re trying to take two steps in LEED v.4: first, points for transparency and second, points for optimization – making better choices. Instead of PVC, choose something PVC-free. Instead of something with added urea formaldehyde, something without it.” And as more studies have been released about the relationship between human health, productivity, and wellbeing, LEED v.4 has also begun to incorporate more occupant-related factors, like human health and comfort and social equity.


Whereas LEED evaluates a building’s impact on the environment, the foundation of the occupant-focused standard WELL is the health and wellbeing of the people who use it. McNaughton explains: “The areas of focus in LEED are site selection, ventilation, water efficiency, materials, waste management, etc., but the ten concepts of WELL are air, water, nourishment, light, movement, sound, mind, materials, and thermal comfort. They’re very people-oriented, and so if you look at water specifically, LEED’s focus is on low-flow fixtures, whereas in WELL it’s about providing access to quality water. That’s part of why these standards fit nicely together.” For this reason, McNaughton tells us, it’s common for LEED and WELL to be used in conjunction.

WELL is a building standard launched in 2014 by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI). It uses a point-based framework to assess the ways that the built environment impacts human health. This people-first standard arose as studies found increasing evidence that human health is linked to productivity and wellbeing, with impacts on medical costs, sick time, and student absenteeism. That’s why every point in the WELL standard is based on academic research, peer-reviewed literature, and leading design standards, laws, codes, and best practices that show its effectiveness in improving health and wellbeing and encouraging healthier habits. These studies show that when measures are taken to enhance health and wellbeing, productivity and efficiency also increases. “There are studies that show that hospital stays are significantly reduced when hospital rooms implement daylighting strategies,” McNaughton tells us. “There’s a measured reduction in the amount of medication that patients need with daylighting. There’s a study that shows that when offices are reconfigured so that everyone has a view of greenery, or of the outdoors rather than inside facing a cubicle, their efficiency increases dramatically.” These studies provide documentation of the benefits that come with adopting strategies like daylighting. McNaughton tells us that the impetus to “implement daylighting and your staff will be more productive” has the potential to be much stronger than “implement daylighting and get a point.”

Daylighting and many other WELL strategies are based on biophilia, or the idea that humans have an innate affinity towards nature. “Biophilic design is a pillar of WELL,” Rohrbacher explains. “It incorporates natural elements into the space, helps us connect with nature.” Biophilic design might mean using natural materials or patterns, incorporating water into the space, setting apart spaces where occupants feel a sense of refuge and comfort, or creating dynamic or diffuse lighting that replicates natural light. (See KB’s article on biophilic design and biomimicry to learn more about these concepts.) Rohrbacher tells us how this might be implemented in a WELL project: “It focuses on how design can affect different parts of the body, your mental health, cardiovascular health… If you’re in a stressful environment, your heart rate might go up. WELL implements strategies like acoustic design – muffling the noisiness of the workplace so you can find pockets of comfort throughout the day and reduce your stress levels.”

Like LEED, WELL requires all projects to meet a set of preconditions for certification. A variety of different kinds of projects are available, from retail spaces, offices, educational institutions, multifamily residences, and more – and it can be applied to both new construction and renovation projects. There are specific scorecards for different kinds of sites, since different project types need to meet varying occupant needs.


Founded in 2017, Fitwel is one of the newest rating systems to emerge. Like WELL, Fitwel is an evidence-based standard created through the expert analysis of nearly 6,000 academic research studies about health and wellbeing. It was established by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA), and today the CDC continues to serve as Fitwel’s research and evaluation partner.

Fitwel is an occupant health focused standard, one that aims to improve health, wellbeing, and productivity through design strategies. Its scorecards include over 55 design and operational strategies. It assesses projects according to seven health impact categories: Impacts Surrounding Community Health, Reduces Morbidity and Absenteeism, Supports Social Equity for Vulnerable Populations, Instills Feelings of Well-Being, Enhances Access to Healthy Foods, Promotes Occupant Safety, and Increases Physical Activity. “Fitwel is a bit more direct in its measurable goals,” McNaughton tells us. “‘Reduces Morbidity and Absenteeism’ is about as straightforward as you can be – make sure that people are present and alive.”

Rohrbacher explains more about these health impact categories: “Rather than just focusing on the site, they look at the wider community health as well – at how the user is impacted when they enter the building, but also when they go back to their community, and how that influences healthy behaviors and a healthier community. It’s about how to have an impact on the community around you as well as how to create a healthier, more sustainable environment.” Health impact categories like “Supports Social Equity for Vulnerable Populations” ensure that spaces provide access to a range of different groups, including children, the elderly, disabled, or socio-economically disadvantaged. Rohrbacher continues: “If you have children and adults using a space, is it considering the children’s perspective, allowing them to experience the space too? Is the space easily used by the elderly population? Are there railings? Visible and accessible stair treads?” Fitwel also places an emphasis on access to healthy food – not only by providing more balanced options, but also by pricing healthy foods accessibly.

A particular advantage of Fitwel is that they don’t have prerequisites and all categories are voluntary, removing hurdles to implementation. McNaughton ties this model back into biophilic design: “You can always incorporate some elements of biophilic design without having to go all in and check every single box. And that’s what Fitwel is doing. You can just choose one part – social equity, or physical activity. It’s not all or nothing.”

Focusing on buildings and people

If this article has you sold on all three building standards, there’s room for all of them in any project, and they can be used together. “I’m really excited to see more LEED building focused standards together with these more occupant focused standards,” says McNaughton. “Because it’s really about the health of the planet and the health of the people in the building.” And for those who don’t want the hassle or the price tag associate with getting a certification, you can always take what you want and leave the rest. It’s more about trying to be better – for people and the environment – than collecting every certification.

For designers, it’s particularly rewarding to be able to share the experience and the process with others. McNaughton adds: “At the end of the day, you want to be able to tell the story. To be able to point to a beautiful central staircase, an organic material – that’s part of a story. When you put pieces in place that allow people to interact with it, to experience that story, it becomes so much more meaningful. When someone enters a building and asks about Fitwel or WELL or LEED, people get excited – they want to show them around. To explain that this path leads this way because it encourages a sense of mystery, and this is a calming nook where you can enjoy a biophilic environment. Here’s a built-in herb garden. Here are some lights that are shaped like clouds to make you feel like you’re in nature… just being able to walk through it and be part of that story is really compelling. And designers love being able to share a personal element in their story.”

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