Office N Illinois

Doing WELL at 500 feet

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In June 2019, 151 North Franklin became the nation’s first WELL-certified Core & Shell v1 Gold high-rise. Unlike LEED which focuses on reducing a building’s environmental footprint, WELL takes a hard look at improving occupant health and wellness with continued, verified performance. As stewards of their indoor and outdoor environment, 151 North Franklin pursued both LEED Gold and WELL Gold certification.

The silver lining to WELL certification

To achieve WELL Gold, one must first comply with the WELL Silver requirements in seven core concepts (more on that later). Achievement in these core areas is the first step in being recognized as a healthy building by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) who oversees WELL certification.

Think of it as a nutrition label for a building, alerting potential tenants to the quality of the building’s interior environment. Of these requirements, about 50 percent are field-verified during occupancy, via third party, on-site testing. The others are verified via design documents and signed letters of agreement from the project team.

Can my building achieve WELL?

This was one of the first questions The John Buck Company, the developer of 151 North Franklin, asked when considering certification. Other unknowns included: “Will we meet the Silver requirements?” and “The project is nearing completion—is WELL possible and what are the added construction costs?”

To help answer these questions, The John Buck Company reached out to Environmental Systems Design (ESD) to perform a gap analysis and complete WELL certification. Since 151 North Franklin was also pursuing LEED, there was some overlap which helped pave the way for WELL Silver. Additional investigation required above LEED v2009 included seven WELL core concepts.

Indoor Air Quality. It was imperative to confirm that at least 95 percent of furniture (by cost) installed was low-emitting. Additionally, preliminary indoor air quality testing was performed in areas of concern where furniture wasn’t compliant. This required a relatively low-cost and quick half-day test with immediate results. The carbon dioxide setpoint also needed to be reduced to 800 ppm in high density conference rooms to meet WELL’s requirements, along with logged quarterly maintenance on the base building’s cooling coils and outdoor air filters. Previous research has shown that productivity improvements of 8 to 11 percent are not uncommon with these air quality initiatives.

Water Quality. Many cities provide annual water quality reports to the public. In reviewing Chicago’s water quality, chlorine was the only concern. The team immediately confirmed that drinking fountains on each floor had a chlorine filter to meet WELL’s requirements.

Nourishment. Any food provided or sold directly by the building on a daily basis had to meet WELL’s stringent nutrition requirements. For example, all vending machine items must contain less than 30 grams of sugar. 151 North Franklin was exempt from this requirement since the building was not providing food. Although not a WELL requirement, the building does lease out retail space to a healthy food vendor to improve access to quality food for building tenants.

Lighting Quality. Approximately 5 percent of the lighting cutsheets were missing data on their candelas per meter squared, which is required by WELL. This was easily verified by the project’s engineer, ESD, using lighting software.

Fitness. If 151 North Franklin were less than five stories tall, a common stair would have been required at all floors. At 30 stories, the building was exempt from this provision. However, a prominent staircase was installed as part of the base bid to access the second-floor conference center, fitness center and outdoor plaza.

Comfort. WELL is concerned with noise and thermal comfort on a whole-building level. Being a new building, meeting the exterior noise intrusion and thermal comfort criteria was not a concern since code requirements had the same specification.

Mind. Not covered by LEED or code, the gap analysis communicated additional scope items necessary to meet the WELL Silver “Mind” requirement. These included a free health and wellness library and a document on how the project’s design met WELL beauty requirements. A narrative from The John Buck Company fulfilled the beauty requirements as the building’s design was inspired by natural patterns and public art was important to the development team. The digital library has proven to be well-used and tenants are invited to share their own resources to keep the library continuously up-to-date.

The pursuit of WELL gold

With the WELL Silver gap analysis complete, the building was breathing easier (pun intended) and it was possible to change focus to the pursuit of WELL Gold. To achieve Gold, 12 additional strategies (23 for Platinum) were required.

Additional strategies to pursue WELL Gold included Direct Outdoor Air Systems (DOAS) that provide 100 percent fresh air year-round and signage to encourage healthy eating and its benefits in the building management’s break rooms. Proven biophilia (connection to nature) was captured in the building’s already floor-to-ceiling glazing and views to natural elements installed on-site. Other tactics included documentation of HR benefits for full-time building employees and innovation features, such as free WELL tours to the public.

The catch

Although the above details paint a pretty picture, there were moments that the team had to endure its own stress to achieve this difficult health and wellness certification. The main stressor on the project was capturing WELL Gold in a timely manner with little room for error.

Additionally, the certification schedule was extended due to a single non-compliant air quality sample during on-site testing. This was resolved once the floor was fully leased and occupied since most of the air circulation in the testing area was missing without the build-out.

Unlike LEED, WELL requires recertification every three years to prove that the building is still meeting the standard’s strict performance standards. Documentation required includes maintenance logs and on-site testing.

The future is looking WELL

To date, there are over 3,500 WELL projects in 55 countries spanning 434 million square feet. Once more empirical evidence is available that supports the health and business case for certifications like WELL (i.e. WELL Living Lab, Harvard Building Evidence For Health), it is certain that even more buildings like 151 North Franklin will incorporate WELL into their own portfolios.

About the author

Tim Zelazny, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C, AIA, CPHC, BECxP is Envelope & Healthy Buildings Specialist at Environmental Systems Design, Inc. in Chicago. He is an expert in LEED, WELL and Passive House Certification, and consults on energy and sustainability for new and existing buildings in the areas of energy modeling, daylight analysis, hygrothermal analysis, thermal bridging analysis, material toxicity analysis, renewable energy analysis, carbon sequestration, exterior envelope performance and sustainability.