Fitwel: Rethinking Workplace Certification Standards

We’re halfway through January, and that means that some of us are feeling super healthy in keeping up with new fitness and other wellbeing goals, and some of us are…maybe already falling off the wagon?

There’s something to be said for a more mindful approach to becoming healthier – not by setting intimidating large-scale New Year’s resolutions, but instead with an eye for longevity, by making small changes over time that add up to achieving big impacts. For some inspiration, check out these Fast Company features.

This mindset is scalable, from our personal lives to bigger entities like the very work this industry does: designing and furnishing workplaces. Enter Fitwel, a new workplace certification standard that “positively impacts building occupant health and productivity through improvements to workplace design and policies.”

Fitwel is branded as a low-cost, high impact workplace certification standard – a standard that’s accessible to the masses, easy to use, and cost-effective with great ROI. These qualities are pretty rare in an age of increasingly complex and expensive certification standards.

Government-backed, Fitwel was developed by experts in public health and design, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA), over the last five years, which then selected the Center for Active Design (CfAD) as Fitwel’s sole operator and third party certifier moving forward.

So, what exactly does Fitwel measure, and why did the groups who created it choose to focus on workplaces?

“A growing body of evidence links the design of our built environment with our health,” explains the Fitwel website. “The location, design, and management of buildings can have a direct, positive impact on occupants’ wellness. That’s a top economic concern of chief financial officers and the 90% of business leaders who say that promoting wellness improves employee productivity.

“Workplaces can present multiple health risks to employees, from exposure to indoor pollutants to discouraging or preventing physical activity during work hours. Research by the CDC and others has shown that promoting health through programs, policies and environmental changes can improve employee health and productivity, with potential savings in healthcare costs.

“Fitwel certification will pave the way by encouraging building owners and managers to prioritize health in their facility investments.”

We spoke to Joanna Frank, executive director of the Center for Active Design, about how the certification process works and who will be able to use it. The Fitwel creators built the standard with existing buildings in mind, but the variety of applicable projects is almost limitless.

“It was designed to be used in a lot of different scenarios – to be very egalitarian and available to everyone to use,” said Ms. Frank. “People can apply it to entire campuses or partial buildings.”

For example, Perkins+Will in the soft launch committed to achieving Fitwel certification for all of its North American offices. In most cases, the firm doesn’t own the base buildings in which its offices are located, but the certification can be applied to the individual Perkins+Will offices within those buildings.

“And the strategies Fitwel uses are split equally between both the design and operation of a building into one certification, so both the A&D and facility management communities will be able to use it in their work. People can use the standard to inform decision-making, as a way to benchmark different strategies.”

Fitwel digital tool scorecard

How does the certification work?

Fitwel uses a simple, web-based scorecard that anyone can access through the Fitwel web portal.

“The scorecard consists of 63 benchmark criteria that are organized in the same way that you would move through a building, from the lobby to the rooftop cafeteria,” explains the Fitwel website. “A numeric score is displayed upon completion of the scorecard. Once the Center for Active Design verifies the scorecard, a certification score is awarded.

“Each criterion in the Fitwel scorecard is linked, by scientific evidence, to one of seven health impact categories:

  • Impacts community health
  • Reduces morbidity + absenteeism
  • Social equality for vulnerable populations
  • Instills feelings of wellbeing
  • >Increases physical activity
  • Promotes occupant safety
  • Provides healthy food options
  • “Criteria with stronger, multi-faceted impacts get more points, with the strength of the evidence also factored in. This robust framework enables for change, over time, as the scientific evidence evolves.”
Fitwel Scorecard Summary – Areas of Opportunity

Everything from siting a building and calculating a building’s walking score through to things like water supply, food standards and emergency procedures are accounted for in the Fitwel strategies. Many of the indoor environment strategies are similar to LEED, and Fitwel accepts LEED documentation.

From what we could see, the Fitwel user interface is beautiful and easy to use – something Ms. Frank said was a big driver in its development. Users shouldn’t need additional, specialized knowledge to use it properly.

“We’re really trying to bake all of this knowledge into the system, so that it can be a very powerful, very helpful tool,” said Ms. Frank. “The system is dynamic, so that as time goes on, we’ll be able to add information to reflect the most current thinking around all of these measures. It will be really interesting to start to tease out these metrics once people really start using the standard.”

For each criterion, the Fitwel tool provides a “rationale” and “evidence” based on research provided by respected institutions. And for areas that require documentation, it lays out exactly what you need to provide and an uploading tool for easy submission.

One of our favorite features is the tool’s “Areas of Opportunity.” Once the Fitwel scorecard is filled out, teams can see the things they don’t currently have in their building project, organized by areas of highest impact.

“People can look and say, ‘These are the things we don’t currently have built into our space, and of those things, ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ will make the biggest impact,’” said Ms. Frank.

Once all of the required documentation is submitted for a project, the CfAD reviews each for certification. As of today, the Center is averaging between two and four weeks to review each project for Fitwel certification.

Fitwel was first released in a soft launch in May 2016, with a robust pilot program of select private sector companies feeling out the system for the first time. But soon – this coming March – the Center for Active Design will officially launch Fitwel to the general public. And individuals can sign up to become Fitwel Ambassadors to advocate for and learn about the tool.

“For the Center, it’s a bit of a game changer. This is the beginning of a great story. It’s exciting that we’ll soon be getting people to use it. We’ll be able to see how people are applying it and see what will be inviting real change.”