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17 January 2019
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Credit: Alarmy

12 May 2017 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal


At the tail end of March, a "cost-effective" certification system for promoting healthy workplaces in existing buildings was launched. What is this system, and what does it mean for FM professionals? Herpreet Kaur Grewal reports.

At the tail end of March a “cost-effective” certification system for promoting healthy workplaces in existing buildings was launched. The Fitwel Certification System, created as a joint initiative led by the USA’s General Services Administration (GSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was piloted in 89 public buildings across America for five years before launching in the UK.

Fitwel provides 63 “cost-effective design and operational strategies for enhancing building environments to improve occupant health and productivity”, according to Joanna Frank, executive director at the New York-based Center for Active Design, which operates Fitwel in the US and beyond.

Each strategy is linked by scientific evidence to one of the seven health impact categories including what aspects of environment instils feelings of well-being, what reduces morbidity and absenteeism and what promotes occupant safety. Frank told FM World that the certification system is about “getting knowledge into everyone’s hands” that can be used by any firm for a small fee.

She said: “We are interested in lifting the base for everybody and that means having an egalitarian approach so that it doesn’t matter where organisations are now as a workplace but showing them that there is something they can do and there’s a way they can use Fitwel to benefit their staff or the environment – that’s the point.”

According to Frank, a lot of the work required to obtain a Fitwel certification is operational, with responsibility for changes falling to facilities and building managers – Fitwel could fit into an organisation’s renovation, refurbishment and refitting programmes.

“Pest management policies, procurement contracts for food vendors, the way you stock a vending machine – all of those aspects which are operational but have a big impact on people’s behaviour is where changes could be made,” she says.

The certification had a ‘beta launch’ in the US in February, and the Center for Active Design has been “inundated with interest by companies who you would not think would be into health”, added Frank.

Graphic_How buildings can take a fitness test

Fitwel works by using criteria like the location of a company then assessing how employee behaviour responds to it and what an organisation can do to make it a healthier place to work in. The certification tool contains 3,000 ‘peer-reviewed’ studies backing up what it recommends.

In the US there are 50 projects already certified by Fitwel and in the UK, three are in the process of being certified. UK engineering firm Integral has already completed the certification programme.

Where does Fitwel stand alongside standards such as BREEAM (the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) launched by BRE in 1990) or LEED (the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), set up three years afterwards by the US Green Building Council (USGBC)? Then there’s the WELL building standard launched in 2015. Whereas BREEAM and LEED focus on the delivery of building design, construction, fit-out and operation, they do so from the perspective of the building. WELL focuses on putting the well-being of the occupants of a building first. Fitwel has a similar focus. 

Lynne Ceeney, technical director at BSRIA, said: “It is interesting to see a range of proposals for standards coming forward on the social side for sustainable buildings, perhaps catching up with the environmental side and the level of detailed monitoring and understanding available there for owners, occupiers and operators.”

Ceeney added that BREEAM was also studying post-occupancy. “All of these are positive moves. Thinking not just about a building on a drawing board but how it functions in use and the impacts on the humans that interact with it. The important thing is making sure that standards are more than badges for early adopters and the high-end market – they need to influence the everyday building and the ability (and willingness) of the market to respond to the need for better buildings. Good buildings should be normal practice.”

Monica Parker of workplace strategy firm Hatch calls Fitwel “a breath of fresh air”. Parker told FM World: “A peer-reviewed well-being building certification that focuses on behaviour and the additional benefit of it being affordable and simple to deploy means workplace well-being is achievable for all businesses, not just the FTSE corporates. I can see why it is being lauded as one of the social enterprises worth watching.”

Rick Fedrizzi, chair and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI.), says they were “pleased to see others join the effort” by using the “holistic approach, scientific rigor, and verified performance” also used by the IWBI. 

He said specialised systems like Walk Score, Fitwel, GIGA and others “play an important transformational role” along with “the increased focus on health among global sustainability standards, such as LEED, GreenStar and BREEAM”.