Comparing COVID response programs: Fitwel vs WELL

By Libby Dunne
Sustainability Consultant
LEED Green Associate, Fitwel Ambassador
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)

photo showing a hand cleaning a banister in a buidling

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in March, 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 having many high touch surfaces (like doorknobs and elevator buttons) as well requiring people to be in close proximity 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 brand-new rating program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each felt the need for a building certification program that was geared specifically to the way that COVID-19 and other respiratory infectious diseases spread. 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, 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 well-being of those around them.

Fitwel’s Viral Response Module

fitwel logo in colorFitwel created their Viral Response Module to focus on strategies to mitigate infectious respiratory disease spread in the building environment. This new, annual, program is separate from their traditional certification which focuses on minimizing the role the built environment plays in chronic disease prevalence. 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 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.

The Process

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 teams 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 Fitwel VRM plaque can be purchased for display at building entrances.

Minimum Requirements

Within the program’s 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 Environments category

  1. Enhance Indoor Environments:
    1.1 Enhanced Indoor Air Quality (MR)
    1.1.1 Humidity Control Policy (DS)
    1.2 Indoor Air Quality Testing and Monitoring
    1.3 Legionella Water Management
    1.4 Enhanced Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Maintenance Protocol (MR)
    1.4.1 Enhanced Green Purchasing Policy

The Enhance Indoor Environments category focuses on ensuring that the proper equipment and policies are in place to protect occupants from air-borne contaminants. As shown above, there are two minimum requirement strategies within this section. The first, 1.1 Enhanced Indoor Air Quality, requires a rigorous IAQ policy in which source control is paramount. By managing pollutant and moisture sources, one can minimize the pollutants that accumulate in the air in the first place. Additionally, this strategy also requires the assessment and, where needed, enhancement of ventilation and filtration systems. This strategy also requires additional steps (assessment, flush outs, and inspections) to be taken prior to re-occupancy after closures and significant reductions in occupancy lasting 2 weeks or more. The other minimum requirement in this category, 1.4 Enhanced Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Maintenance Protocol, requires that facility managers rigorously clean common spaces, restrooms, lobbies, stairs, elevators, shared kitchens, and high touch surfaces twice daily. It also requires disinfection of high touch surfaces using EPA approved disinfectants that are effective yet do not release harmful chemicals into the spaces in which they are used. This strategy also requires an inventory stocking of cleaning supplies and PPE for cleaning and maintenance staff.

The Encourage Behavioral Change category

  1. Encourage Behavioral Change:
    2.1 Surface Hygiene Stations
    2.2 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Guidelines (MR)
    2.2.1 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Provision Plan (DS)
    2.3 Hand Hygiene (MR)
    2.4 Health Promotion Signage (MR)
    2.5 Specialized Health Programming and Services
    2.5.1 Social Support Groups (DS)

The goal of the Encourage Behavioral Change category is to promote behaviors that prevent the spread of disease. The first minimum requirement in this section, 2.2 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Guidelines, requires that projects establish a PPE protocol during disease outbreaks. This protocol must require that PPE is worn by all operations, maintenance, and engineering staff, masks are work by everyone in common spaces, and trainings and educational materials are provided to ensure everyone is aware of these guidelines. 2.3 Hand Hygiene requires the placement of hand hygiene stations in entryways, restrooms, and break areas that provide either hand sanitizer or soap and water. This strategy also requires upkeep of these stations weekly to restock supplies. 2.4 Health Promotion Signage requires that signage specific to a disease outbreak is installed in bathrooms, kitchens, and at hand hygiene stations. The signage must provide guidelines on physical distancing and PPE usage, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and reminders to sanitize your hands frequently.

The Build Occupant Trust category

  1. Build Occupant Trust:
    3.1 Contagious Disease Outbreak Preparedness Plan (MR)
    3.1.1 Business Continuity Plan (DS)
    3.1.2 Mental Health First Aid (DS)
    3.1.3 Viral Response Design Guidelines (DS)
    3.2 Enhanced Stakeholder Collaboration Plan
    3.3 Communication Plan (MR)
    3.4 Paid Sick Leave Policy (MR)
    3.5 Family Support Policy

The Build Occupant Trust category is aimed at providing building occupants with the resources and services to support their safety and well-being during emergency situations. One of the minimum requirements in this section, 3.1 Contagious Disease Outbreak Preparedness Plan, focuses on the creation and implementation of an emergency preparedness plan which includes the following providing cleaning and PPE resources and the creation of a viral response task force that represents key stakeholder groups. Additionally, this strategy requires that protocols are in place for people to self-report potential exposures or diagnoses, as well as sharing if there is a been a confirmed case. 3.3 Communication Plan requires that projects implement a communication plan that increases awareness and support for new policies. This strategy requires that teams have in place a method for communicating with tenants and/or occupants about new policies related to viral response information through emails, website updates, webinars, or workshops. The last minimum requirement this section is 3.4 Paid Sick Leave Policy. This MR requires that a paid sick leave policy be in place, ensuring that employees stay home when they are not feeling well. For this strategy, both short-term and long-term sick leave should be available to occupants.

Pricing for the Fitwel Viral Response Module Certification

The table below outlines the pricing structure for Fitwel VRM. Discounts on pricing are available to project teams who register 10 or more assets at once. Additionally, projects that earn their Fitwel Viral Response Module Certification are eligible for discounts on Fitwel’s traditional certification program.

WELL Health-Safety Rating (WELL HSR)

WELL AP certification | Sustainable Investment Group

The WELL Health-Safety Rating (WELL HSR) aims to provide a comprehensive guide for project teams to properly operate their building throughout a disease outbreak as well as provide guidance for strategies to reduce disease spread in the first place. 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 to 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 in fact 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.

Innovation and Creativity

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.

Six Categories

The WELL HSR has 21 total features from which project teams can choose. No feature is required, but at least 15 must be achieved to earn the WELL Health-Safety Rating. WELL HSR has 6 categories:

Cleaning and Sanitization Procedures

  1. Cleaning and Sanitization Procedures
    Support Handwashing
    Reduce Surface Contact
    Improve Cleaning Practices
    Select Preferred Cleaning Products
    Reduce Respiratory Particle Exposure

photo of elevator buttons being cleaned and sanitizedThe focus of this concept is to prevent the spread of disease through properly cleaning and sanitizing surfaces. Specifically, the features in this concept require that projects create cleaning and sanitization plans that incorporate effective, yet safe chemical products for all cleaning activities. Additionally, another goal of this section is to reduce person-to-surface interactions as much as possible to prevent disease spread. To do this, projects can implement hands-free methods for all high touch surfaces. Handwashing is promoted in this concept and rewards projects for provision of adequate soap and hand drying equipment as well as for posting educational handwashing signage in restrooms.

Emergency Preparedness Programs

  1. Emergency Preparedness Programs
    Develop Emergency Preparedness Plan
    Create Business Continuity Plan
    Plan for Healthy Re-Entry
    Provide Emergency Resources
    Bolster Emergency Resilience

The goal of this concept is to equip projects with the proper resources to be better prepared for a variety of future emergency scenarios. The feature language outlines the requirements for each type of emergency plan to ensure that project teams are taking the correct steps in preparing their employees for emergencies. For example, the business continuity plan requires that teams identify critical business functions that must continue despite an emergency and identify members of a business continuity team. The plan also requires that a remote work assessment be completed that evaluates who can work remotely and what technology is available to employees to facilitate remote work if needed.

Health Service Resources

  1. Health Service Resources
    Provide Sick Leave
    Provide Health Benefits
    Support Mental Health Recovery
    Promote Flu Vaccines
    Promote a Smoke-Free Environment

This concept focuses on prevention measures that can prevent a disease outbreak in the first place. One of the main goals of this concept is to prevent sick individuals from coming to work by providing paid sick leave. Additionally, the features for health benefits and flu vaccines help to ensure that individuals are being proactive about their health and have access to health resources when they are ill. The smoke-free environment feature aims to maintain occupant health by prohibiting the sale of tobacco products on-site and reducing exposure to secondhand smoke. Mental health has also been a major point of focus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The feature “Support Mental Health Recovery” aims to ensure that employees have access to mental health resources such as psychological first aid, bereavement counseling, access to mental health coverage, and crisis counseling.

Air and Water Quality Management

  1. Air and Water Quality Management
    Assess Ventilation
    Assess and Maintain Air Treatment Systems
    Develop Legionella Management Plan
    Monitor Air and Water Quality
    Manage Mold and Moisture

The goal of this concept is to ensure that healthy air and water are present within buildings. By assessing ventilation, project teams can better understand how their HVAC systems are affecting air quality and can consider improvements to the current system to increase outdoor air flow. Additionally, this concept rewards projects for assessing their air filtration mediums and for completing an assessment which will evaluate the system’s ability to be more efficient and support UV equipment. The feature “Develop Legionella Management Plan” aims to ensure that hot water systems and cooling towers are free from water-borne contaminants. Additionally, air and water quality parameters are to be monitored annually to ensure the policies and equipment in place are resulting in clean air and water within the project.

Stakeholder Engagement and Communication

  1. Stakeholder Engagement and Communication
    Promote Health and Wellness
    Share Food Inspection Information

The goal of this concept is to provide clear communications regarding the health and safety support strategies implemented. The first feature, “Promote Health and Wellness”, rewards projects for completing a feature guide to send to occupants about the features pursued in the WELL Health-Safety Rating and how each one supports occupant health and well-being. Additionally, teams are rewarded for incorporating health into their mission statement. The second feature in this concept, “Share Food Inspection Information” rewards projects that contain food service areas for displaying their health inspection reports for occupants to see. This helps to not only ensure the food area is safe, but to inform occupants of the steps the establishment has taken to support their health and well-being.


  1. Innovation

The final concept within WELL HSR is Innovation, which rewards project teams for going above and beyond on the other features, or for incorporating unique strategies that support health and prevent disease spread.

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 broad-brush documents are required to submit that give general information regarding the project. These include a WELL HSR agreement, a project checklist displaying 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 by a third party (the performance verification).

Pricing for the WELL HSR

WELL pricing chartThe pricing structure for WELL HSR is shown in the table to the right and the table on the above right. For projects completing WELL Certification or WELL Recertification simultaneously with WELL HSR get their WELL HSR fees waived. There is a per-building fee in addition to the registration fee, but the per building price greatly diminishes as more buildings are included.


Both Fitwel and WELL’s viral response programs are brand new, and geared specifically towards managing the spread of COVID-19 within the built environment. They 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:

Fitwel WELL
Valid for 1 year Yes Yes
Required features/strategies Yes No
Research based Yes Yes
Different certification levels Yes No
Optionality for single building or multi-building adoption Yes Yes
Plaque or seal upon completion Yes Yes
Innovation opportunities No Yes
Opportunity to be integrated with traditional certification pathway No, separate only Yes, can be done separately or in conjunction with WELL v2
Review process Yes Yes
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)

Contact SIG

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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