A new certification tool called Fitwel is a building rating system for existing workplaces and residential buildings that provides guidelines on how to design and operate healthier buildings.
Does building certification help us live and work better?
Unless we have gone bush, not a day goes by without us interacting with buildings. In fact, we spend a lot of our time in and around buildings for work and living. Some research says that we spend about 90 per cent of our time indoors and much of the remaining time getting to and from buildings.
This close interaction certainly has an effect on us and our health. It is known that “sick” buildings have been associated with a group of mucosal, skin and general symptoms. Consequently, a lot of effort has gone into creating buildings that reduce their impact on our health.
Recently the focus has widened to try to create or upgrade buildings to improve and promote our health. While some of these efforts seem very promising and may actually have positive effects on our health, we have a long way to go before all buildings are health promoting.
Building rating tools – also known as certifications – are used to assess and recognise buildings that meet certain requirements or standards. There are a number of ratings tools in use globally – you will have heard of ratings such as WELL, Green Building and LEED.
These voluntary rating tools recognise and reward companies and organisations that build and operate buildings according to these standards, thereby encouraging and incentivising them to push the boundaries on human health and sustainability on a building level. A health-promoting building certification can be a possible draw card for tenants or buyers of buildings. For building owners, it can mean higher rental potential and for occupants it can mean a healthier environment to live and work in.
Now there is a new kid on the building certification block. It’s called Fitwel. Fitwel is a building rating system for existing workplaces and residential buildings that provides guidelines on how to design and operate healthier buildings. Fitwel awards ratings of 1 to 3 Stars and can be also used as a roadmap to aid the design of new buildings.
First Fitwel certifications in Australia
Last month saw the first Fitwel certifications in Australia – awarded to AMP’s 33 Alfred Street offices in Sydney.
Since it started its workplace Activity Based Working transformation in 2013 AMP has been working to improve the wellbeing focus of this iconic building, Sydney’s first skyscraper completed in 1962. Despite the building’s age it achieved a 1 Star Fitwel Commercial Interiors Space certification.
AMP has also certified its recently completed workplace in Brisbane, achieving a 2 Star Fitwel rating.
AMP is adopting design strategies such as internal stairs, promotional signage next to the lifts on all floors, sit to stand workstations, healthy offerings in vending machines and social hubs for connection and creating a sense of community.
“The Fitwel ratings have allowed us to demonstrate that we have been implementing evidence-based workplace wellbeing interventions since 2013. Further, it has enabled us to identify areas for improvement in a cost-effective way, similar to how we use our NABERS tenancy ratings to develop improvement plans” explains Tom Treffry, Senior Workplace Sustainability Manager at AMP.
Evidence based certification
The Fitwel certification tool was launched globally in March 2017, after a five-year development period by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA).
More than 3000 peer reviewed studies were reviewed in the development of Fitwel to ensure the design and operational strategies, and weighting system were based on the strongest empirical evidence. The Center for Active Design (CfAD), an independent non-profit organisation, is the sole operator of Fitwel and is also responsible for 3rd party certification.
Fitwel is a straightforward system that addresses health as an interconnected system, with no single dominant category or area of focus, and as such all strategies are voluntary, with no individual prerequisites. The 63 strategies selected based on the strongest empirical evidence-base and grouped into 12 groups:
- Building access
- Outdoor spaces
- Entrances and ground floor
- Indoor environment
- Shared spaces
- Water supply
- Cafeterias and Food Retail
- Vending machines and Snack Bars
- Emergency procedures.
Each strategy also relates to at least one of the seven Health Impact Categories and collectively, these categories address chronic disease at a population level, including impacts on occupant health and productivity at the building level.
Fitwel influences seven Health Impact Categories
The specific strategies include access to public transport, end-of trip facilities, parks and walking paths, stairs, fresh and healthy food and drink options, as well as regular farmers markets on the premises.
Indoor environmental quality is a key focus, as is safety. Points are awarded for buildings having safety equipment such as defibrillators (AEDs) as well as exterior footpath lighting.
The rating also uses a scoring algorithm to determine the points associated with each strategy, based on (1) the strength of impact a strategy has within each Health Impact Category and (2) strength of the evidence base behind the strategy. This means that strategies with stronger, multi-faceted impacts receive more points.
This grading scale gives each building/project a score out of 144 points.
Fitwel Ambassadors play an integral role in the certification process as well as the wider promotion of healthy buildings. Ambassadors must complete the Ambassador Course, which gives them significant training in the connection between health and design. They can then more effectively incorporate Fitwel Strategies into their work.
The complexity and cost of certification can be a major barrier for many organisations, especially smaller non-CBD based companies as well as residential buildings.
Fitwel has recognised this and made certification less complicated and less expensive. The Fitwel certification itself costs US$6500 irrespective of the size of the building. This makes it a much more equitable system than others, allowing large numbers of buildings to be incentivised and get recognition for efforts to make their buildings more health promoting.
As the vast majority of the building stock comprises existing buildings, it makes sense that Fitwel focuses on rating and improving existing buildings. The low cost of Fitwel certification makes it possible to undertake an initial rating to benchmark a building and identify areas for improvement and then undertake subsequent certifications to demonstrate and chart improvements.
Fitwel for the future?
In summary, Fitwel has a number of aspects which make it attractive. It is relatively low-cost, it can be applied to a large range of buildings, new, old, single and multi-tenant; and multi-residential; and it focuses on important, but achievable strategies that can be implemented by many. I think it has the opportunity to become an equitable way of rating and comparing buildings, but also to “inspire” to make incremental changes to increase and promote health and wellbeing in and around buildings where we spend most of our time. More health promoting buildings affecting millions of people can have a substantial effect on public health.
Dr Lina Engelen is director of Active Spaces public health researcher; Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney and Lecturer at University of Wollongong. She is also a certified Fitwel Ambassador.