Do LEED, WELL and FITWELL play nicely together?

Perkins&Will's new Dallas office tries to do all three certification systems in one beautiful historic building.

Perkins&Will has long been known as a leader in environmental awareness and transparency, publishing its own Precautionary List of chemicals of concern. However, in their new offices in Dallas, they are adding a trifecta of other certifications, going for LEED Platinum AND Well Gold AND Fitwell Three Stars all at the same time.

Interior detail of renovation photo© Perkins&Will

The Dallas studio is in a renovated high school. “The adaptive reuse of a historical building, built in 1904, that will serve as a living lab for architecture and design.” Going for so many certifications in one existing building is certainly an interesting experiment.

These different programs sometimes have different and contradictory goals; LEED is the grand-daddy that touches almost everything in green building, but often touches them too lightly for some people's tastes. WELL is all about health and wellness, but has some weird obsessions, with some coming off sounding pseudoscientific and Goopy. FITWELL promotes fitness, noting that “physical activity and healthy eating are the two most important factors in reducing obesity.”

Perkins & WIll Dallas office auditorium© Perkins&Will

I have wondered if these different certifications all played nicely together, so I was intrigued by the project, and had a long talk with Garrett Ferguson, sustainable building advisor to Perkins&Will.

The WELL certification system doesn't mention climate or energy, it's focused on health. I have worried that this is to the detriment of other issues, noting that “Well certification is all well and good, but not if it stands alone.” Ferguson notes, “I can say that we have made sure that that sustainable effort is not just wellness focus, but it's also making sure that we're not abandoning everything else.” And there were some conflicts, most notably around water.

Water is looked at quite differently between all three rating systems. LEED's focus is purely on water reduction; WELL's focus is on water quality. But they don't care about water reduction at all. Like it's not even in their discussion. FITWELL wants to ensure that there is access to it, that there are lots of drinking fountains and water refill stations.

So they installed lots of water fountains with flow reduction devices and focused on water conservation, and then put in a reverse osmosis purification system as required by WELL, which in fact uses a lot of water, and “kind of undid some of the work” they had done for conservation.

Perkins & WIll Dallas stair© Perkins&Will

Some of the conflicts between systems seem petty, but in the end, turn into interesting stories. Take the humble trash can; LEED requires a recycling program, so Perkins&Will would put a trash and recycling bin at every desk. WELL doesn't mention recycling at all, but demands that every trash can has a lid and operate hands-free.

But if we wanted a recycle bin at each desk, you would only be allowed to recycle paper in it or it had to have a lid. So you couldn't you couldn't recycle cans or plastic or anything else in that bin. It could only be paper. And at that point, we were looking into it and it was like $10,000 for trash cans for the entire office.

Ferguson says he didn't really care about lids, he cared about recycling. But in the end, they came up with a solution: instead of having bins at every desk, they clustered them in a kind of a pod. There was some pushback because it meant that people often had to get up and walk to the bins, but we are also talking FITWELL, so getting up and moving is a feature, not a bug, and they were able to get away with 15 percent of the bins than they thought they needed, with no extra cost. And guess what: It actually did have an impact on air quality, which impressed Ferguson.

You don't have that smell. You don't have that leftover lunch smell in the room. You don't have bugs flying around trying to get into the trash can. I am surprised to see that was such a noticeable difference.

Perkins & WIll Dallas yoga studio© Perkins&Will

In the end, there were bits and pieces from each of the systems that added to the quality and success of the project, and that like the trash bins, could be figured out in a way that benefited everyone. For instance, FITWELL insists on a proper nursing and mothering space,

…which is is fantastic.There have been points in our office where it was busy enough that they had to schedule it. We had to put it on a calendar so people could reserve it. We have an actual dedicated space for them with a lock on the door It's a nicer space where they're not just stuck in a closet, but they can actually go in there and and have some privacy.

Perkins & WIll Dallas studio space© Perkins&Will

When I mentioned that one of the things I disliked about WELL was its strict acoustic requirements that were hard to meet without a dropped tile ceiling, Ferguson noted that they couldn't meet that requirement because they are in an historic building, “but that one of our biggest problems in the office is acoustics.”

It seems that most of the biggest conflicts were about the littlest things, like the trash cans or the vending machine, where WELL goes on about transfats and FITWELL (which grew out of the Bloomberg administration in New York) is all about sugar. LEED wants air dryers in washrooms to minimize waste, while WELL doesn't want all that moving air and requires paper towels.

But in the end, every conflict seems to have started a discussion and a thought process about the issues. Ferguson is now working on a research paper that describes the process and the results in greater detail, based on their first-hand experience; we will report when it is released.

Perkins&Will's new Dallas office tries to do all three certification systems in one beautiful historic building.