Healthy Buildings:  What General Contractors Need to Know

By Nicole DeNamur, Esq., Owner, Sustainable Strategies

August 3, 2023

What is a healthy building?

For a variety of reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic elevated the conversation around healthy buildings.  Since then, certification programs like The WELL Building Standard have seen significant growth and widespread market adoption, as aspects such as air quality gain increased attention.

Similar to “green” buildings, there are many ways to think about, and define, healthy buildings.  A common shorthand is to leverage third-party certification programs that specifically focuses on human health and wellness.  While there are aspects of sustainability-focused certification programs, such as LEED, that relate to health and wellness, there are also frameworks and certifications that specifically focus on health and wellness.

Two frameworks that are common in many US markets are The WELL Building Standard (WELL, mentioned above) and FitwelA few additional details on each program are below:

WELL:  WELL was developed by Delos and is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI).  The first iteration was released in 2014, and in 2020, WELL v2 moved out of the pilot stage.  WELL is a points-based, third-party verified program that includes preconditions (mandatory) and optimizations, centered around ten Concepts:  Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind and Community.

Fitwel:  Fitwel was originally developed in 2016 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US General Services Administration (GSA); the Center for Active Design is the licensed operator of Fitwel.  Fitwel is a scorecard driven system, organized around categories, which awards weighted points for implementation of specified strategies.  Projects can earn up to three “stars,” depending on the number of points they receive.  Fitwel v3 is expected to launch in December, 2023.

There are also frameworks developed in the academic context.  One framework that is frequently cited is The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building, developed by Harvard’s School of Public Health.  The 9 Foundations are another way to define, or think about the aspects that encompass, a healthy building.  The 9 Foundations are:

  • Ventilation
  • Air Quality
  • Thermal Health
  • Moisture
  • Dust and Pests
  • Safety and Security
  • Water Quality
  • Noise
  • Lighting and Views

 What is the contractor’s role?

In addition to implementing the strategies that support certification, contractors can also influence jobsite and corporate health and wellness.

It can be useful to think about healthy building strategies as an expansion of both jobsite safety and corporate wellness programs.  For many contractors, safety is embedded into the company’s culture, so it is a logical next step to incorporate aspects related to health and wellness into existing processes.

Consider how the aspects discussed above translate to processes within the contractor’s scope of control, both on the jobsite and in the corporate office.

On the jobsite, consider adding or upgrading air filters in jobsite trailers, reducing use of and exposure to harmful materials, providing water and nutritious snacks for employees and subcontractors, providing shade and clean food preparation areas, dedicating resources to mental health support services, and more.

At the corporate office, consider implementing the strategies contained within the certification programs mentioned above.  Some common examples include access to workout facilities, assessing daylighting and views, providing ergonomic support, incorporating biophilic design strategies, and improving ventilation and air quality.

Tools like the Contractor’s Commitment provide additional resources and ideas for contractors to foster healthier and more equitable practices.

And just like sustainability strategies, healthy building strategies can require some additional time, training, and documentation.  If your company has not already, consider investing the resources for key employees to obtain their WELL Accredited Professional or Fitwel Ambassador credentials, or other healthy building training.  Having additional knowledge on staff can demonstrate to clients and partners that your company has a basic understanding of healthy building practices; it can also help manage a variety of jobsite risks.

Nicole DeNamur is an attorney and sustainability consultant, based in Seattle, WA.  Her company, Sustainable Strategies, helps clients identify and manage the risks of sustainable innovation so they can pursue robust sustainability goals.  She is also an award-winning contributing author and has developed and taught graduate-level courses at the University of Washington and Boston Architectural College.

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E204-2017 Sustainable Projects Exhibit , has been developed for use on a wide variety of sustainable projects, including those in which the Sustainable Objective includes obtaining a Sustainability Certification, such as LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), or those in which the Sustainable Objective is based on incorporation of performance-based sustainable design or construction elements. E204–2017 addresses the risks, responsibilities and opportunities unique to projects involving substantial elements of sustainable design and construction (sustainable projects). E204–2017 is not a stand-alone document, but is intended to be attached as an exhibit to an existing agreement on a project that includes a Sustainable Objective. E204–2017 is intended to replace the Sustainable Projects documents included in the Conventional (A201) family of AIA Contract Documents.

AIA Contract Documents has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind. This article is also not intended to provide guidance as to how project parties should interpret their specific contracts or resolve contract disputes, as those decisions will need to be made in consultation with legal counsel, insurance counsel, and other professionals, and based upon a multitude of factors.