Rachel Hodgdon on WELL Buildings’ Growing Popularity

International WELL Building Institute's president & CEO shares updates about WELL certifications and their growing adoption within the senior living space.

WELL certification

Image by Arek Socha via Pixabay

The adoption of WELL Certification during the past eight years has been nothing short of incredible—the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) has just crossed the 4 billion mark for square footage enrolled to pursue WELL Certification, which means more than 36,000 spaces in more than 120 countries, serving more than 17 million people every day. The largest markets for WELL adoption are the U.S., China and Europe, with Australia as the most saturated—20 percent to 30 percent of all commercial space there is enrolled in WELL.

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The pandemic fueled WELL adoption, with virtually every sector adhering to it. In the senior living space in particular, more than 600 communities around the world are enrolled to pursue or have achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating or WELL Certification, the majority of which are in the U.S.

“This represents more than 30 million square feet and a more than fourfold adoption increase in the sector since a year ago,” Rachel Hodgdon, president & CEO of IWBI, told Multi-Housing News.

MHN talked to Hodgdon, who joined the institute in 2016, after spending nearly 10 years with the U.S. Green Building Council. Since 2018, she has been leading the entity as president.

What sets WELL apart from other benchmarks?

Rachel Hodgdon, CEO & President of International WELL Building Institute on WELL certification

Rachel Hodgdon, President & CEO, International WELL Building Institute. Image courtesy of the International WELL Building Institute

Hodgdon: What really sets WELL apart is the tremendous rigor that we bring in creating an evidence-based roadmap for advancing health and well-being in spaces and across organizations. Our art at IWBI lies in translating research into practice, and we have more than a dozen full-time team members who do nothing but that—parse through the latest research and convert that knowledge into actionable practice. Then, we make all that evidence transparent to our users and the broader public through wellcertified.com.

That rigorous approach is why nearly 25 percent of Fortune 500s use WELL as their roadmap, and why 6 million square feet of property enrolls in WELL every day. We don’t just offer a product, we are leading a movement.

What do you like most about WELL?

Hodgdon: We’ve worked really hard to balance out the features in WELL to address what the building can do—through design and operations—with what the organization can do with policies, programs and benefits. Other certification organizations separate physical design from organizational design, but we’ve found that the best outcomes transpire when one set of strategies goes hand-in-hand with the other. That’s what it takes to truly advance a culture of health and well-being.

I also love that we have stepped away from the static scorecard to allow our customers to select the strategies that matter most. This flexibility is critical because we know, when it comes to health, one size doesn’t fit all. We also provide our customers with tools to help them measure the impact of those strategies over time. WELL is focused on real performance, not best intentions.

There is more than one version of certification. What prompted the changes and how are they different?

Hodgdon: When the WELL Standard was initially launched, it was a certification that could be applied to buildings and spaces within buildings. In developing WELL v2, we wanted to create a version of WELL that could be applied at the level of the organization. Today, you can still enroll to pursue WELL as a building, or a space within a building, but you can also enroll in WELL at scale, accruing the benefits of WELL across a real estate portfolio of assets or an entire organization. Through WELL at scale, organizations can not only pursue building-level certifications and ratings but they can also receive a WELL score that can be leveraged for ESG and CSR reporting.

During the pandemic, IWBI released its first themed group of features in the form of the WELL Health-Safety Rating, designed to address acute health threats through operations and management. The WELL Health-Safety Rating was a solution for building owners and operators looking to bring people back to business in the safest way possible. Since then, IWBI has released a second rating, the WELL Performance Rating, which helps organizations implement best practices for continuous monitoring and performance across key IEQ metrics related to air quality, water quality, thermal comfort, acoustics and lighting, as well as how people are experiencing their surroundings. By comparing building performance to global benchmarks for health, organizations can validate that the right measures are being taken for people to thrive.

And, later this year, we will launch a third rating—the WELL Equity Rating—designed to empower organizations to create places where everyone can feel welcome, seen and heard. From parental leave to accessible and inclusive design, the WELL Equity Rating helps organizations take action toward their diversity, equity and inclusion goals and improve company culture and resilience.

How has the pandemic impacted WELL Certification adoption? Did the pandemic inspire new changes in the program’s requirements?

Hodgdon: In March of 2020, just days before our governance council was set to cast their votes to bring WELL v2 to market, we pressed pause and shifted the entire organization’s attention to supporting our customers in navigating the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We formed a COVID-19 task force, bringing together 600 leading medical and public-health practitioners, business and real estate professionals, building scientists, sustainability experts and members of academia, who helped us do a scan of all of the WELL features in the standard to determine which had the most efficacy in a moment like this, and what, if anything, needed to change given what we were learning day to day about the virus.

What we found was that WELL v2 performed exceptionally well. We did not need to make changes to our standards for filtration, ventilation, touch-free surfaces and cleaning. Some of the changes we did make, in response to task force recommendations, were to ensure that remote workers could also enjoy the benefits of their organization’s commitment to WELL. We added new provisions around telehealth and telecommuting, professional development and ergonomic consultations for home offices, to name just a few.

Not only has the WELL Health-Safety Rating been hugely popular, with 2.8 billion square feet enrolled since its launch just two years ago but we are also finding that most of the companies that adopted the WELL Health-Safety Rating are treating it as the steppingstone that it was intended to be and upsizing their commitments to WELL at scale.

Initially, the standard was predominantly used to assess workplaces and commercial buildings, but things advanced in the meantime. Who is pursuing a WELL Certification these days?

Hodgdon: The easier question to answer is who is not pursuing WELL these days! We see participation in virtually every sector but are especially encouraged by the growth that we see in senior living, multifamily, education and manufacturing and logistics. We like to quip that if you’ve got a door and a roof, you can pursue a WELL designation, but we are even thinking beyond that box! We recently awarded a WELL Health-Safety Rating to Brightline, a privately run intercity rail route between Miami and West Palm Beach, Flo., that runs on a track owned by Florida East Coast Railway, and we are gearing up to launch our first-ever offering for single-family homes.

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You mentioned the growth you’re seeing in the senior housing industry. Do seniors really care if the building they reside in is green? Or do their caretakers?

Hodgdon: What seniors and their families care about is that their loved ones are in an environment that is safe and that helps them to live the best version of their lives—not just health and safety but also in well-being and thriving.

For instance, one resident said, “When you’re ill, your surroundings really matter, and look at these surroundings! There’s so much light and I think that light brings encouragement.” Another resident remarked, “You must clean the air here. I have asthma and breathe better when I’m here and my oxygen levels go up.” At the start of the pandemic, senior living operators were rightly focused on basic needs. Now the goal is to create spaces to thrive, where seniors can go and live a more fulfilling version of life.

Employees are equally critical to this equation, and as one nursing supervisor said of her WELL space, “As soon as you enter the building, you get a sense of calm and relaxation.” We know that there is never enough care, never enough resources, never enough time. But what the evidence shows is that if you invest in the caregivers themselves, if you give them the tools to cultivate their own resilience, to take care of their own mental health, that has a profound ripple effect across the entire community. And I think that more than ever that’s what this moment in time represents for senior living—an opportunity to invest in caregivers for a massive and profound impact on the organization, both its culture and its bottom line.

Why is WELL Certification especially important for senior housing?

Hodgdon: I think the last couple of years have been an exceptionally challenging time for senior living and that has made recruitment and retention in a burgeoning jobs market a top priority. WELL spaces send a message, not just to residents and their families but also to their staff, that their health, well-being and safety are being prioritized.

The owners and operators I have spoken with recently indicate a desire to move away from the pandemic and toward well-being, where residents can live the healthiest, best version of their lives. As with many other sectors, senior living operators are constantly being bombarded with “silver-bullet” technologies and products. WELL helps them to filter through many of those claims by focusing on strategies that are tried, true and proven to drive real impact when it comes to health and well-being.

What stands in the way of wider adoption of WELL Certification within senior housing?

Hodgdon: These days, it doesn’t feel like there is much standing in our way. But as is always the case, when you are in the business of market transformation, the biggest competition is the status quo and how much easier it is to keep doing things the same way we’ve always done them.

The more stories we collect, the more case studies we publish and the more data we review about the experience of senior living residents and staff, the easier it will be to onboard people to a different way of doing things, one that puts people first and has been proven by many of our customers to attract and retain talent, shorten healing times, reduce absenteeism, and improve satisfaction among residents and engagement among staff.  That’s a win for everyone.

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