By Libby Dunne
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, many people have been working from home, leaving vast vacancies in office buildings around the nation. Buildings have since been viewed as a facilitator of disease spread due to high touch surfaces (like doorknobs and elevator buttons) as well as being in proximity to other people in an enclosed space. And it’s true. If not properly managed, these situations do pose risks for building occupants. However, if proper policies and strategies are in place to address these concerns, buildings can be better prepared for re-occupancy and beyond.
The Fitwel and WELL certification programs have each come out with a new rating program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though they are unique in their approaches, they feature many of the same components such as promoting proper handwashing techniques, purchasing safe yet effective cleaning supplies and properly cleaning of common areas, education and training on PPE usage, mental health support, and creating preparedness plans for future outbreaks. These programs aim to ensure that building occupants are safe and healthy in their spaces, but also that mutual trust is formed between building occupants and managers in which everyone does their part to protect and maintain their own health, as well as the health and wellbeing of those around them.
Fitwel’s Viral Response module is an annual certification that is separate from their traditional certification rating program. While their traditional program is specific to different building types (multi-family residential is different from retail for example), their Viral Response module is applicable to all building types. It is for this reason that their Viral Response module is completely separate from their traditional program. While a building can pursue both certifications in tandem, it must pay fees to each, and each rating system is reviewed separately and on a different timeline. The strategies included in their Viral Response module are based on research from the Center for Active Design’s academic advisors, as well as feedback from industry advisors who helped to streamline and evaluate the rating system and its applicability.
Fitwel’s Viral Response module is completed in two steps: entity level adoption and asset level adoption. First, entity level adoption is completed in which policies and protocols are adopted. For this step in the process, property management groups have a variety of options. They can choose to submit just one building at a time, or they can combine assets to submit them together. Property management groups can decide how they want to group assets in their portfolio, but they need to be similar (in asset type and geography) so that the same policies and protocols can apply to all properties in their designated entity. The review process for Fitwel’s Viral Response module takes a total of 6 weeks. First, Fitwel reviewers go over the submission and respond with a review after 2 weeks. The project team then has 2 weeks to answer questions and make changes or clarifications to the documentation. After another 2 week final review by the Fitwel team, the entity will either receive Viral Response Certification (for completing 75-89% of strategies), Viral Response Certification with Distinction (for completing 90% or more of the available strategies), or they will be notified that they failed to meet the program requirements. Asset level adoption focuses on implementation of the policies and protocols established in entity level adoption. This step is completed on a per building basis and project teams submit professional narratives explaining how these policies were implemented in their building specifically. Upon completion of this step, the building itself will be awarded as Viral Response Approved (with or without distinction). The rating level achieved for the building will be the same as achieved for the entity in step 1. After this, a WELL HSR can be purchased for display at building entrances.
The Viral Response module has 3 main components:
- Enhance indoor environments
- Encourage behavioral change, and
- Build occupant trust.
Within these categories, certain strategies are designated as Minimum Requirements (MR). These MR strategies are required to earn certification and help to ensure that certain strategies that play a major role in disease control are implemented. Some strategies are also labeled as Dependent Strategies (DS) meaning that they require the completion of another strategy. The intent of these dependent strategies is to amplify the effect of their associated strategy. As an example, strategy “2.2 Establish Personal Protective Equipment Guidelines (MR)” focuses on education and training of regular occupants on PPE usage. The goal of this strategy is to ensure PPE is used when appropriate, and it is used correctly. This strategy is a minimum requirement, meaning that it is required for the project to complete in order to earn certification. This strategy also has an associated dependent strategy, “2.2.1 Establish a Personal Protective Equipment Provision Plan (DS)”, that focuses on equity. This dependent strategy rewards projects for providing PPE to those without access to it and providing PPE for visitors who may not be aware of the PPE policy in place at the building. This dependent strategy enhances strategy 2.2 by ensuring everyone has access to quality PPE, in addition to knowing its proper usage.
The enhance indoor environment category focuses on source control, filtration, indoor air quality (IAQ) testing, cleaning procedures, and guidance for building occupancy. Encourage Behavioral Change contains strategies on creating hygiene stations in common areas, providing PPE for building visitors, training occupants on proper PPE usage, implementing health education and programming, and creating support groups to support mental health. Finally, Build Occupant Trust focuses on creating preparedness plans, sick leave policies, plans for remote working, social distancing strategies within the built environment, and stakeholder engagement and communication.
The WELL Health-Safety Rating (WELL HSR) is similar to Fitwel’s Viral Response module in many of its strategies, however, the rating system structure and implementation is different. WELL HSR is an annual achievement, with ongoing information on operations and management being uploaded annually for WELL review. WELL HSR can be completed in conjunction with traditional WELL projects for no additional cost. However, if being completed independently, regular fees apply. WELL HSR has an option for multiple projects enroll concurrently. This allows certain policy documents to be completed once and shared among different buildings in a portfolio. However, if property management groups choose to participate in this pathway, projects will be audited at random to ensure that these policies are implemented in each building. Additionally, projects can apply to WELL HSR individually and submit their own documentation. Either way, upon review each building receives its own building specific WELL HSR rating. WELL HSR only has one level of achievement, so a building either earns it, or it doesn’t.
WELL HSR is unique from Fitwel in that it allows for and encourages innovation and creativity in approach. Project teams can submit Alternative Adherence Paths (AAPs) which are different strategies used to meet the intent of a WELL feature. There is no limit to the number of AAPs that a project can use, but a fee does apply for each AAP attempted after 3. Additionally, innovation features can be used to earn credit for pursuing items that are not included in WELL HSR or that go above and beyond the current requirements. Three innovations are allowed per project.
The WELL HSR has 21 total features from which projects can choose. No feature is required, but at least 15 must be achieved to earn the WELL Health and Safety Rating. WELL HSR has 6 categories:
- cleaning and sanitization procedures
- emergency preparedness programs
- health service resources
- air and water quality management
- stakeholder engagement and communication
The cleaning and sanitization category contains 4 features that focus on providing proper handwashing supplies and educational signage on handwashing, reducing surface contact, improving cleaning practices (specifically addressing high touch areas), and selecting preferred cleaning products. The emergency preparedness program category focuses on planning for future emergency and outbreak scenarios. Some elements included in this category include conducting a risk assessment, a remote work readiness assessment and business continuity plan, creating a plan for re-occupancy, providing emergency resources, and improving emergency resilience through education. Health service resources focuses on providing sick leave and health benefits, supporting mental health, promoting community immunity through flu vaccine programs, and promoting a smoke free indoor environment. The air and water quality management section ensures the monitoring, maintenance, and management of air treatment systems, water quality, and ventilation. Stakeholder engagement and communication helps to create trust by promoting health and wellness through programming, as well as conducing food inspections and sharing those results.
Similar to traditional WELL certification, various documentation types are required for different features. Annotated documents (including operations schedules, policies, and professional narratives), letters of assurance from an appropriate professional, and photographs are common types of documentation. In addition to these feature-specific documents, some general documents are required to submit that give general information regarding the project. These include a WELL HSR agreement, a project checklist showing the attempted strategies, representative floor plans, and a narrative describing the project generally. However, unlike the traditional WELL rating system, the HSR does not require an onsite assessment.
Both Fitwel and WELL’s viral programs contain similar features focused on cleaning practices, mental health support, handwashing support, and creating preparedness plans. However, the programs differ in their structure and process. The main differences and similarities are shown in the table below:
|Valid for 1 year||Yes||Yes|
|Different certification levels||Yes||No|
|Optionality for single building or multi-building adoption||Yes||Yes|
|Plaque or seal upon completion||Yes||Yes|
|Opportunity to be integrated with traditional certification pathway||No, separate only||Yes, can be done separately or in conjunction with WELL v2|
|Review timeline||2 weeks for each review||8-10 business days for each review (on same timeline as WELL rating system if pursuing with a certification)|
Overall, both the Fitwel Viral Response module and the WELL Health-Safety Rating help to ensure that the built environment is a safe place for people when they choose to return to work. As experts in the green building environment, our team at Sustainable Investment Group (SIG) is well positioned to aid teams wanting to pursue either of these programs. For more information, fill out the form on our “contact us” page, or call 404-343-3835.
SIG has put together a list of Covid-19 Resources for you, check it out here.
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