Joanna Frank is the Executive Director of the Center for Active Design (CfAD) in New York, the non-profit spinoff of a citywide initiative started during the Bloomberg administration. I’ve had a great time collaborating with her and her team, along with several others in the building and wellness industries over the last couple of years, and was thrilled to hear that her group will be administering Fitwel, a new building certification that supports healthier workplace environments, created by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA). We recently got a chance to chat about NYC’s Active Design Guidelines, the new Fitwel tool, and other things that CfAD is doing.  It’s impressive.

Leigh Stringer: Joanna, what is the origin story of the Active Design Guidelines and the Center for Active Design?

Joanna Frank: The Active Design Guidelines were created in 2010 through a collaboration with the New York City Departments of Health, Design and Construction, Transportation, Planning and many other private sector organizations. It was the first time that health research had been translated into practical urban planning and building design strategies. The city created this set of guidelines to inform design strategies within New York City’s built portfolio, which includes roads, housing and public buildings. It was important that the strategies in these guidelines were evidence-based.

Over the next three years, the city, under the Bloomberg administration, voluntarily implemented these strategies into design and construction projects. The Center for Active Design was launched to respond to the demand that New York City was receiving from other cities that wanted to either use or replicate active design strategies in their policies or planning. There was clearly a desire from designers, private developers, cities and researchers to have evidence-based data to drive design standards.

Now, CfAD is an independent non-profit organization that works both nationally and internationally. At first we focused on promoting the guidelines, but we very quickly moved into developing the ideas of active design into a broader evidence base. We’re now looking at how the built environment impacts participation in public life, trust in your neighbors, social activation and stewardship of the public realm—interestingly, there is growing evidence that place-based design actually has a measurable impact on these things as well.

CfAD really plays a few roles. We translate evidence into practical design strategies at a neighborhood scale, an individual building scale (with a focus on affordable housing) and at the workplace scale (focusing on existing buildings). We set up verification and certification programs and provide technical assistance. We also do original research where there are gaps, and find ways to fund it. Overall, the ambition of CfAD is to change the practice of design and development, so that promoting health in all its forms is actually an everyday occurrence.

LS: And this is why I enjoy working with the Center for Active Design so much. Meaty research and practical, accessible tools!  So… the news is out that CfAD will be managing the rollout and ongoing operation of the Fitwel tool, a new healthy building certification standard. Tell us more!

JF: In brief, Fitwel is a certification that evaluates how workplaces can be leveraged through both design and organizational policy to support human health. The Fitwel tool impacts a broad definition of health that includes seven different categories (see below).

Joanna Frank

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) led the development of Fitwel, garnering insights from various regions and experts. It has been five years in the making, incorporating more than 3,000 research studies that were evaluated and built into the certification. Each piece of research was weighted using an algorithm that determined the positive health impact each design or policy strategy has on building occupants—some strategies may receive a rating of five and others might receive a three depending on the strength of evidence.

The tool is online and is very easy to use as an end user. It doesn’t require a third party with additional professional expertise to evaluate the building. It’s really designed for building managers, employees, developers and real estate investment trusts to be able to evaluate their existing buildings. The tool is smart enough to know, based on your current building, what you should consider investing in to promote the optimal health of the occupants. It’s meant to be not just an assessment, but also a road map or tool for planning how to prioritize future investment.

LS: Who, within organizations, are the champions or stewards of Fitwel? Does it require lots of people to roll out the program? What sort of commitment is involved?

JF: The person who is going to be using the tool will likely be the facility manager in conjunction with the human resources department (for example, the HR department might be involved with setting overall goals for what the wellness standard will be for a business). Many of the suggested Fitwel strategies are about sighting, food standards, vending standards and overall policies that actually impact the culture of the business as well as the physical design.

LS: In many organizations, even some smaller ones, I am starting to see that in addition to HR, there are also corporate wellness directors or even business leaders who might play a role. Could these people also be integrated into the decision making?

JF: To date, with the 89 federal building pilot projects, the person who took the lead was the facility manager, though some of the questions would require input from other professionals within the organization.

We just announced a soft launch of the tool a few weeks ago, and have already started working with early adopter companies that we are calling Fitwel Champions. Fitwel Champions are making company-wide commitments to using Fitwel, and will give us valuable feedback. They will be weighing in on what will be the most useful areas of impact for their business. We will develop a steering committee with the CDC and GSA, which will establish framework items such as updating the criteria based on emerging research. It’s exciting because there is going to be a lot of great data generated to help refine the tool over the next several months.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (National Center for Environmental Health). Architect: Perkins + Will. Fitwel: 3­star rated. Photo © Hedrich Blessing

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (National Center for Environmental Health). Architect: Perkins + Will. Fitwel: 3­star rated. Photo © Hedrich Blessing

LS: Very exciting. One question I know many people will ask, is how this tool fits into the landscape of health and wellness standards already out there. I mean, there is LEED, the WELL Building Standard, the Corporate Health Achievement Award (CHAA), WELCOA and the C. Everett Koop Award just to name a few. How does this certification fit into the mix?

JF: The research base the CDC brings to Fitwel represents the highest-impact design and policy strategies that the current evidence supports. As a business, you know that using the Fitwel standard means that you are really achieving the highest impact for your investment. That’s why it’s a really powerful tool for all businesses: there are many things you could invest in when it comes to health and wellness, but if those investments haven’t reached the threshold that Fitwel demands, they are not recommended.

Even if companies are doing nothing on the health front today, Fitwel is useful to help them make decisions on what to focus on first. There are no prerequisites for Fitwel; Fitwel is able to take any business, wherever they are, and raise them up to the next level or to the next couple of levels in terms of health and wellness.

This tool isn’t like others that are just for the few businesses that can afford it. It’s for any business, whatever level they might be today. This is really important to us because assuring that it’s attainable for all will have a massive impact on health overall in our cities and communities.

If you have suburban, urban or rural buildings in your real estate portfolio, they will each require a different set of strategies, but they may well achieve the same certification level. The strategy recommendations are adaptable to the different opportunities in each facility.

So that, to me, is exciting because we don’t want anyone to be excluded from using the tool. It’s really about taking what you have and improving upon it using the highest-impact strategies. Interestingly, the highest-rated strategy in the Fitwel tool is providing a lactation room. I wouldn’t have known that intuitively, but it’s what the research says.

Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building. Architect: HGA. Fitwel: 1­star rated. Photo: Morgan Sheff Photography

Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building. Architect: HGA. Fitwel: 1­star rated. Photo: Morgan Sheff Photography

LS: Is there a place where people can go online to check out the certification system?

JF: Right now we just have a splash page up, but we’ll be rolling out more information over the summer. Fitwel is still in the soft launch phase, but is planned for public availability in 2017. We would like to test it with our Champions first, and get more feedback from businesses before we put it out there.

LS: If a company or an organization is interested in being a champion, how do they go about doing that?

JF: Email fitwel@centerforactivedesign.org and go to http://centerforactivedesign.org/fitwel to learn more about Fitwel’s vision. Over 70 companies have volunteered to champion it within the first few weeks. We had thought that we would be spending the summer building demand, but that is definitely not the case.

LS: Where do you see health and wellness headed over the next 5-10 years?

JF: What I think is going to happen, because we’re on the brink of it already, is that the design of the space and operational policies will start to shape the culture of business and the communities we live in. At the moment I only see a few organizations taking a leadership role in this.

I feel like it’s going to shift in the same way that sustainable design shifted. Health and wellness will become a demand from the market and from NGOs as well. At that point, our job will become responding to demand rather than driving it.

We really feel that Fitwel is going to help shape that demand because it’s full of simple design strategies with a lot of evidence behind them—it’s also not rocket science. So when companies start to understand how simple it is to support healthy behavior, they will make the needed changes. We anticipate that it will drive demand beyond the workplace into sectors such as housing, communities and infrastructure. That’s what we’re really hoping, because we deeply care about equity across the built environment.

LS: So where do folks go to learn more?

JF: Besides going to http://centerforactivedesign.org, I recommend subscribing to our newsletter. It’s like a mini magazine, and people tell us they love it. Right now, our website is viewed by 190 countries and many thousands of people… it’s really becoming quite a community. Also, look for the winners of our Active Design: Excellence awards. We’re really excited to see this year’s crop of entries, because there are always some really amazing and inspiring projects.