In case you haven’t heard it yet, there is a new well-being standard in town. It’s the WELL Building Standard®, pioneered by Delos™, and it is the world’s first building standard focused exclusively on human health and wellness. Today, WELL is administered by the International WELL Building Institute® (IWBI) and third party certified by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), the same organization that administers LEED certification.  I got the chance recently to talk to the founder and CEO of Delos, Paul Scialla, who is also the founder of IWBI, and ask him on some questions about his company, the WELL Building Standard and his current research.

LS: So Paul, why did you start Delos and the International WELL Building Institute?

Paul Scialla: It dates back to 2007.  I took note of what I thought was a pretty big gap, with regards to the dialogue about sustainability in real estate.  To date, most of the focus had been on the environmental impact of buildings. I can’t tell you to this day why the question popped in my head, but I wondered, “Why has there not been more focus on the biological sustainability of the built environment, given that people are spending 90 percent of their time indoors?”  I began having conversations with a number of doctors and architects and realized that most of them had never spoken to each other before on this topic.  That is really what got the process started.

Delos originally pioneered the WELL Building Standard, helping to develop the framework and establish the research behind WELL, and in 2013, established the International WELL Building Institute. IWBI was founded by Delos as part of a Clinton Global Initiative commitment I made to improve the way people live by developing spaces that enhance occupant health and quality of life by sharing the WELL Building Standard globally.

Paul Scialla

Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes, the first institution to attain WELL Platinum Pilot Certification in fall 2014, Denmarsh Photography, Inc.

LS: How does the WELL Building Standard differ from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and other standards out there?

PS: When we look at LEED, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM), Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS) and the other green rating systems out there, and compare them to the WELL Building Standard, there is some overlap, but not much.  There is only about a 15% overlap between LEED and WELL measures, for instance.  Where green building begins the conversation about people but primarily focuses on environmental impact, WELL really advances it.  With the categorical elements of air, water, light, nourishment, fitness, comfort and mind, about 85% of WELL involves entirely new protocols in and around human health.  LEED and WELL are very complementary and not competitive at all.  We feel like green and WELL buildings, together, encompass the holistic picture of sustainability as opposed to only looking at one side of the coin.

LS: I’ve been digging into several other “comprehensive wellness program” awards like the Corporate Health Achievement Award (CHAA) and C. Everett Koop Award.  How does WELL overlap with some of those programs?

PS: I think there are common themes with these programs and WELL, particularly with regards to the operational components of the standards.   However, to the best of our knowledge, there are no other standards out there that involve a peer-review process and have been vetted by medical professionals to identify protocols as opposed to what might be perceived as “commons sense elements.” For example, Dr. Michael Roizen from the Cleveland Clinic is looking at things like the appropriate size of dishes to encourage healthy consumption.  He would argue that one of the leading issues with regard to obesity and diabetes is portion control.  It’s not necessarily what you eat, but how much you eat at a time that is the issue.  The size of an American dish has literally doubled in size from the 1950s to today.  Dr. Roizen is taking a scientific approach to understanding exactly how many centimeters of food on the plate are appropriate for human consumption and digestion.

(For those who are interested in this particular topic, check out The Power of Choice Architecture).

LS:  You have a pretty interesting Advisory Board for Delos… Dr. Deepak Chopra, Former U.S. Congressman Dick Gephardt, Leonardo DiCaprio.  How did this group come together?  Did you seek them out or did they seek you?

PS: I didn’t know any of these folks before approaching them about the company and the concept.  We made an effort to create a board of thought leaders across all types of disciplines, including Dr. Roizen from the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Nicholas LaRusso from the Mayo Clinic on the medical side, Deepak on the alternative medicine side, and Congressman Gephardt (D) and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez (R) to represent both sides of the aisle on the policy front.  Leo  is a huge sustainability advocate and was very interested in this particular notion of sustainability.  We felt it was important to have a diverse set of people with a diverse set of inputs, all coming from different angles.

LS: Are you reaching out to other groups, to build strategic relationships, your Advisory Board or the mission of Delos?

PS: Constantly!  This is meant to be a very dynamic process.  We are continually looking to appropriately expand our partnerships and affiliations and to bring on the right people to help.  I don’t think that will ever end – this is meant to be as collaborative as possible.  One thing we’ve done from the onset pretty well is recognizing what we don’t know, and surrounding ourselves with the right high-quality thought leaders to get to the right outcomes.

LS: It sounds like you are about to leave for a world tour!  Are some of the relationships you are trying to build in the near future more global?

PS: At this point, we are seeing registrations and certifications in 14 countries so far, but the supply is everywhere.  The nice thing about WELL and the WELL standard itself is that the human condition is universal.  It doesn’t matter if you live in Denver, Colorado or Guangzhou, China, what is optimal for the human condition is the same – our biology is the same.  So despite different challenges in different places in the world, we don’t have the same adaptation challenges as many of the green building indices.  Because the WELL standard is output and performance-based and focused on better outcomes for people, and because our biology is the same everywhere, the standard is the same everywhere.  We continue to see new projects every day in all parts the world, and the interest is growing.

LS:   I’ve been thinking and writing about the business case for “healthy companies and healthy buildings” a lot lately.  I have to ask, why are building owners and tenants choosing to get their building WELL Certified?  What is driving them to do so?

PS:  The industry is waking up to the fact that about 3% of the ongoing cost of the building is its energy usage (waste management, water consumption, electricity, etc.) and that has spawned a $4 trillion industry in green building, to address that 3% cost input and to drive better economics.  And that is great, but consider this:  90% of any cost of the building are the people inside of it (salaries, wages, benefits, productivity, output, healthcare cost, retention, attraction, etc.)  So the prospects for WELL building – addressing the 90% cost input – are vast. Whether it’s a building owner looking to differentiate their space so they can lease out tenants by creating a WELL Core and Shell Compliant™ building, or whether its companies looking to retain and attract employees, enhance productivity, or potentially reduce health care costs, there is value for all parts of the ecosystem here.

LS: Do you think another driver, at least from companies choosing to make their buildings healthy, is just “good leadership”?  As I talk to forward-thinking business leaders, I find that many of them care about their employees and want to do the right thing, which they know is also good for business (some of them refer to this as “altruistic selfishness”).  They also sometimes have a personal motivation or specific reason for caring about health, such as a family member or colleague who has suffered from poor health.

PS: Interestingly, I am often asked, “Was there a particular issue or thing that drove you to look into this?”  It was curiosity at first, then it was because I realized the potential to have such a drastic societal and economic impact.  Using a Wall Street lens, merging a $180 trillion asset class (real estate) with a $3 trillion dollar industry (health and wellness) growing at the fastest rate the world… that has monster economic implications.  Clearly the societal benefits of addressing or introducing elements of prevention into our daily lives, into places where we spend 90% of our time, and for that matter, doing so in such a passive way, is exciting and has huge societal implications.  I think people have different motivations here.  I don’t think I’ve come across one specific instance or issue that drives my own motivation (other than what I just mentioned).

When people really understand what healthy building is, they realize it is not a “moral hazard” type of proposition, this is not a huge lifestyle changing proposition, this is just common sense.  Everyone should be cognizant of how the 15 cubic feet around them is impacting their health.  When people see how they can improve respiratory health, cardiovascular health, immunity health, sleep health by making certain adjustments to the four walls and a roof they occupy 90% of their day, I think the idea becomes pretty mainstream pretty quickly.

LS: Tell us about Delos’ connections with the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic.

PS: The Cleveland Clinic was heavily involved with the medical part of the peer review that initially created the WELL Building Standard.  The clinic was also heavily involved with the first WELL AP workshop with 12 professionals several months ago.  The Well Living Lab at the Mayo Clinic is very exciting to me.  This facility was built with modular components to it, so that the researchers can move walls, change settings and lighting, and simulate various environments such as bedrooms, infant bedrooms, hotel rooms, commercial kitchens or retail kitchens or commercial office space.  It has the ability to simulate those environments and uses world-class sensors built into the space and biofeedback through biometric devices that the people who occupy the space wear.  We have the ability to dial up and dial down the various interventions in the WELL standard to get real time feedback on things like respiratory patterns, heart rate variability, inflammation markers, near term and long term stress indicators.  It’s going to be a really nice ongoing body of work as people are occupying those spaces (working and sleeping there), which will help demonstrate what is happening to the human condition in a WELL Certified environment vs. not.  (See below for video of lab).

LS:  What is going to happen in the next five years?  Where will the building industry be?

PS: I’m not sure about five years from now but in a decade, I don’t think we will be talking about “green buildings” anymore.  It will just the right way to build.  It’s like when color TV came out and it was called “color TV” for the first two years and then it just became TV. Hopefully the same thing happens with green building practices; they just become normal. I do think the next chapter of sustainability and the built environment is a focus on biological components and the human condition.  I would hope in a decade or two, WELL building is normal and we’ll look back and say, “Remember when we didn’t consider the human condition when we were designing homes and office spaces where we spend 90 percent of our time?”  I’m not saying we don’t consider the human condition today, but I don’t think the envelope has been pushed to the degree it needs to be.


Well Paul Scialla, I couldn’t agree more. For more information on the WELL Building Standard, check out this website.  For more information on the wide variety of well-being standards out there (not just about buildings), check out Measuring the Health and Well-being of Your Organization.

Featured image:  Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Denmarsh Photography, Inc.