By: Sreya Vempatti
Date Published: January 2, 2019
Traditionally, building rating systems have focused almost exclusively on building design and performance, rather than occupant comfort. A wide variety of guidelines and certification standards are used in the design and construction of buildings, such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) standards, and various other mechanical and lighting guidelines. Most countries have to comply with their local building codes which specify elements such as ventilation, lighting, envelope characteristics, and fire ratings amongst others. However, it has been evident recently that several countries have also introduced green building requirements for new construction, many of which have been drafted as a result of extensive studies and research, and have been tailored to their specific environmental conditions. Optional rating systems such as LEED, BREEAM, and Green Star are internationally known for their widespread implementation, with LEED in particular being implemented on projects worldwide.
The WELL Building Standard was launched in 2013 by Delos, a private New York City-based company focused on wellness consulting, to promote a building standard that would exclusively focus on occupant health and comfort.  It is the result of several years of research and discussions with practitioners, medical professionals, and other industry leaders to identify the most pressing occupant health and comfort issues, and devise ways in which these issues can be measured or compared across various types of buildings.
The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) was created by Delos to provide research and support for administering this standard, and it serves as the base for the network of professionals and practitioners associated with the standard. Projects register with the IWBI and certify their projects according to the standard. Third-party certification is provided by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). Certification is awarded at Silver, Gold, and Platinum levels. Currently, certification requirements are tailored to three major types of buildings – New and Existing Buildings, New and Existing Interiors, and Core and Shell. Specialty building types such as residential, schools, and kitchens can be certified under their respective pilot rating systems. Projects first submit their documentation online for review by the GBCI. Once approved, the project can schedule Performance Verification, which consists of a series of onsite tests conducted by an appointed person from the GBCI. 
The standard is divided into seven major chapters, known formally as concepts. The seven concepts are Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Comfort, Fitness, and Mind. Each concept consists of a certain number of features. Some of these features are mandatory, and are known as preconditions, whereas others are optional, and are known as optimizations. The total wellness score is calculated based on a formula that includes both preconditions and optimizations. Silver certification requires that a project meet all preconditions, Gold requires all preconditions as well as 40% of optimizations, and Platinum requires all preconditions as well as 80% of optimizations. There is also the possibility of gaining additional points by submitting Innovation features when projects demonstrate exemplary performance or incorporate novel features. 
The standard has quickly gained traction in a relatively short span of time, and WELL certified projects exist in several countries worldwide. As of July 2017, there were 356 projects registered under one of the three main typologies, and an additional 131 projects registered under one of the pilot systems.  Given its emphasis on occupant health and comfort, it has gained interest from building owners, developers, architects, and other related professionals for its focus on a relatively new topic.
Given that the UAE has one of the most active construction industries worldwide, interest in topics related to design, construction, or building certification is quite high. Green building rating systems have been made mandatory in the two major Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with all new construction having to comply with the Estidama regulations in Abu Dhabi, and the Dubai Green Building Regulations in Dubai. Additionally, there are several registered and certified LEED projects in the country. Therefore, awareness of best practices in building design, as well as the more common green building practices, is quite widespread in the UAE. Since several WELL features build on green building requirements relating to HVAC and lighting, UAE projects are favorably positioned with regard to this.
Additionally, the country is home to several multinational companies that have brought their corporate culture into their UAE offices. Several companies in the UAE are known for implementing initiatives that promote occupant health and engaging workplace policies. For example, Facebook’s Middle East headquarters, located in Dubai, is designed to provide a mix of open spaces and quiet zones to provide variable work settings for employees. The company also provides free healthy snack options in the pantry, as well as recreational spaces where employees can engage in a round of darts or table tennis.  There are several other workplaces in the UAE that offer similar perks, and several surveys, including Great Places to Work, regularly highlight these offices that go above and beyond workplace norms.
Overall, the UAE is in a good position to benefit from and adapt the WELL standard. It is likely that the standard will be adopted in at least a few upcoming developments in the country, particularly higher-end future developments and existing offices with a strong emphasis on workplace culture.
Even though the UAE is favorably positioned to adopt the WELL standard, there are a few country-specific issues that might hinder its widespread implementation, as explained below.
The standards used in the WELL certification requirements tend to be US EPA standards, or similar US or ISO standards. The UAE tends to have different standards, which are either local standards or standards that are aligned to the British standards. The requirements among these standards are not necessarily the same, which could potentially lead to trouble implementing the WELL standard in local projects.
There is a workaround to this in the form of International Equivalency Proposals (IEPs) and Alternative Adherence Paths (AAPs). IEPs enable projects to submit equivalent standards to the ones in the WELL requirements, which can then be applied to all future projects in that region, and AAPs can be used to propose suggestions when projects are unable to meet all the requirements of a particular feature.  Over time, it is likely that there will be several alternatives to the WELL requirements given the growing number of approved IEPs and AAPs, which will certainly make it easier for projects outside the US to demonstrate compliance.
The UAE being a developing country, is still creating and refining legislation related to environmental and construction matters, and some of the information required by the WELL Building Standard can prove difficult to obtain in the region. For instance, WELL requires that VOC content be maintained at low levels for all furniture and furnishings in the project, however this information is quite hard to obtain. Furniture data sheets generally do not contain this information; it is usually only higher-end products or products produced in countries with stringent environmental controls that tend to include this information. Similarly, the Toxic Material Reduction feature requires information on perfluorinated compounds, halogenated flame retardants, and a host of other toxins that are not supposed to be present in furniture or furnishings. Even though the local market has grown at a very rapid rate and includes a wide variety of products and suppliers, this information is still hard to obtain or is often simply unavailable.
Polychlorinated biphenyls are hazardous substances that are found in select building materials, such as caulking and fluorescent light ballasts.  These chemicals are known to be carcinogens, and most countries worldwide, including the UAE, have signed up to phase out PCBs as part of the Stockholm Convention of 2001. 
PCB testing is required as part of the Fundamental Material Safety precondition in the WELL standard. At present, knowledge of PCB testing and remediation is scarce, nor are there any guidelines available that mention if and when PCB was banned in building materials in the country. Since PCB testing is not covered under Performance Verification, this would not be covered by the assessor during onsite testing. Therefore, it is currently tricky for projects to demonstrate compliance with this requirement.
Several requirements and optional credits within the WELL standard, especially within the Mind concept, include ideas for reform of workplace practices. Although some of these are taken from general best practices and overarching workplace trends, some others are mandated by US Law. For example, the Workplace Family Support optional feature requires that projects provide 12 working weeks of leave annually for the care of a sick family member or domestic partner. This is built on requirements mandated in US Law.  There is no similar requirement in the UAE. Similarly, WELL requires 6 weeks of paternity leave, while UAE companies are only required to provide 4 days. Given these differences, projects might not have any real incentive or interest in implementing these reforms. 
Although the WELL Building Standard helps to bridge the gap between green building design and occupant comfort and well-being, there are definite ways in which the standard could be improved in future editions to cater to a wider variety of users and projects worldwide.
It is currently quite expensive for projects to register and certify under the standard. Total costs are calculated based on the project’s square footage, and there appears to be no cap on the cost. Therefore, for countries like the UAE that have a very high percentage of high-rise buildings, the total cost of applying the WELL standard to these buildings would be prohibitively high. This would act as a major deterrent, even to developers or owners that have a high level of interest in implementing the standard. To ensure that the WELL standard gains more traction in the UAE and the region as a whole, it is imperative that the IWBI restructure costs and possibly introduce a cap on the fees, so as to encourage many more entities to pursue the certification.
Several mandatory and optional features within the standard do not have clear requirements, or have requirements that are vaguely defined. For instance, the Beauty and Design feature mandates that projects incorporate elements that reflect a “sense of place, celebration of culture, and human delight”. These requirements have been taken from the Living Building Standard, but neither this nor the WELL Building Standard offers any detailed explanation on how to incorporate these elements, or examples on what types of design elements might count towards achieving this feature. Making the requirements for each feature as specific as possible, even though they may be intangible requirements, would help eliminate any ambiguity during the certification process.
Overall, the WELL standard provides a novel, measurable way of implementing occupant comfort and general building design strategies intended to further wellbeing. The UAE’s robust construction industry and numerous high-end developments make it a promising place to apply the standard, and there is growing interest in occupant-focused design in the country. However, there do exist some challenges regarding its implementation, particularly given the US-specific standards and prohibitive costs involved. Tailoring the standard to be more flexible for projects outside the US, as well as restructuring costs to make it more accessible to a wider variety of projects, would help the IWBI spread greater awareness and interest in the WELL standard worldwide.
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