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The Benefits of Pursuing WELL Certification

By Chris Schilling


Biophilic design in Chinook Trail Middle School

The leading building certifications for “wellness,” the WELL Building Standard explores improving occupant wellness through better buildings. In recent years, the WELL Building Standard has made inroads into Colorado, with roughly 30 projects in the state certified through the program.

Working in association with RTA Architects alongside a team from BranchPattern, our design team had the opportunity to incorporate WELL Building standards into our design approach for Chinook Trail Middle School, a 1,000-student middle school in Colorado Springs. At the start of the project Chinook Trail Middle School was slated to be the first WELL Certified school in Colorado and among only a handful of schools in the entire country.

The structure of the WELL Building Standard demanded that it be incorporated from the start of the design process, and then defended over the course of numerous design advisory group meetings. We were lucky that our client, Academy School District 20, clearly saw the value and importance of this design intent. Even though the premium to achieve WELL was calculated as roughly $125,000 — 0.31% of the total $41,000,000 budget — we recognized that the pursuit of WELL certification would likely be the first aspect of the project on the chopping block in the event of budgetary challenges.

While cost estimates tracked nicely through design development, inflation had taken hold by the end of the construction document phase and the project ended up $500,000 over budget. The district briefly considered eliminating a portion of the building housing a fitness area in order to get back on budget, before deciding to eliminate the displacement ventilation mechanical system in favor of a less costly mixed-air system.

Displacement ventilation, although only worth a single point towards WELL certification, was viewed by the design team as a major element of the intent of WELL. The air is supplied at floor level at a low velocity and rises up to the ceiling where it is removed, taking contaminates and carbon dioxide with it. The system meant that building occupants would be less likely to spread airborne illnesses, an important consideration for a school.

Given the key role of displacement ventilation in the building’s WELL design intent, the budget conversation snowballed into a larger discussion of whether to eliminate the pursuit of WELL certification itself, which would return $50,000 back towards the budget. In the face of the mounting budgetary challenge, the decision was clear: WELL certification had met its demise.

Despite dropping the formal certification, the building design itself retained nearly every other certification requirement. The only dropped requirement was the use of MERV 13 air filters, which — with their annual replacement costs of $10,000–15,000 — had long met with opposition from the district’s maintenance and operations department.

So, aside from the hit taken to the building’s air quality, the project in its completed state still exhibits many of the WELL hallmarks, addressing the program’s major categories of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The building is replete with biophilic design principles in action, including solar tubes that pull daylight into the heart of the building and nature-inspired design elements in circulation and gathering spaces.

In that light, we consider the project and our pursuit of WELL as a major success. The structure of the process allowed the design team to introduce a progressive and curious client to a new set of considerations when it came to school design, operation, and maintenance.