Has the WELL Building Standard Already Jumped the Shark?

With its latest project, WELL demonstrates the vulnerability of alternative green-building initiatives to finance.

Recently purchased by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the small island of Blackadore Caye off the coast of Belize will be transformed into a massive resort and eco-tourism destination. The project will be built according to the latest green-building standard, or so its developers argue. 

Courtesy McLennan Design

In early April, the New York Times reported on Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent purchase of Blackadore Caye, a small island off the coast of Belize that has faced significant environmental degradation. A patron of several environmental organizations and projectsDiCaprio is partnering with Paul Scialla, CEO of the Delos real estate and wellness platform, to create an eco-resort intended to serve as a cutting-edge model of environmentally responsible tourism development. Scialla’s secondary vehicle, Restorative Islands LLC, will build the eco-resort project, while, the Delos subsidiary Restorative Hospitality will operate the islands. The development plans include a row of floating guest suites built over the water, 48 oversized private villas (ringing in at $5–15 million), human health and anti-aging “wellness” programs, and a conservation area. Moreover, the project is advertised as meeting the ambitious green building standards of the Living Building Challenge and the WELL Building Standard (WELL).

Many Times readers in the comments section sardonically noted that the private jets and the shipment of building materials and daily resources for island development come with large environmental and social price tags that far outweigh the conservation efforts associated with the resort. On the other hand, a few commentators pointed out that the development will employ local labor and save the island from complete degradation. The discussion surrounding the pros and cons of “eco-tourism” development is not a new one, and not one that is easily settled.

Beyond the (important) discussion of the impacts of eco-tourism, the development raises questions about the emergence of alternative green building market standards, which ostensibly aim to transform the building industry by setting measurable targets for the environmental and social effects of the places we live and work. Perhaps the most well-known green-building standard, LEED, was introduced by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000 and has since gained significant traction in real estate markets around the world. Since LEED’s development, standards such as the Living Building Challenge, developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), and WELL, founded by the Delos Institute and released in 2014, have emerged and take arguably even more ambitious approaches to changing the built environment.

It becomes an even more serious issue when architects and designers, who arguably have the responsibility to change the world for the better, succumb to the celebrity syndrome and indulge in self-congratulatory projects.

The goal of these standards is noble—create healthier places and buildings that focus on the people and society which they are intended to serve. However, the green-building movement has at times found itself vulnerable to the same type of self-congratulatory, architect-as-celebrity syndrome that is pervasive in mainstream architecture, and which often results in disjointed designs that lack a sense of social responsibility or community. The goal of standards such as WELL is to improve the environmental and human health of a community, and yet, right now, the benefits of the standard seem to focus only on those who can afford it. For example, among the handful of WELL projects certified to-date is the 66 East 11th St boutique condo building in Manhattan with units selling for upwards of $14 million, and condo unit owners already include Delos advisory board members Leonardo DiCaprio and holistic health guru, Dr. Deepak Chopra. The exclusive real estate agent for the condo building is Dolly Lenz, real estate broker for the ultra-wealthy, who also serves on the Delos advisory board. Among WELL champions, there seems to be a complete and utter lack of self-awareness that, thus far, the call for increased health and well-being seems to be confined to the rich. Right now, wealth buys health.

Of note, Jason McLennan, CEO of ILFI and yet another Delos advisory board member, has been designated as the lead architect for the Blackadore Caye development. McLennan was instrumental in the creation of the Living Building Challenge, an ambitious and laudable green-building standard that calls on design to create more energy than it consumes, eliminate reliance on district water utilities, promote pedestrian connections, inspire occupants through beauty, and foster equitable and inclusive communities. In a 2014 Metropolis article, McLennan puts forward questions that should be asked of any building project—"Is it worth the input of energy and materials to create it? When it’s completed, will it make people’s lives better? Will it inspire us to be better people?”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though McLennan applied his own criteria to the Blackadore Caye project, as it’s difficult to see how an eco-tourism resort for the ultra wealthy is making people’s lives significantly better. Or how the standard can justify the energy and material expenditures required for a project that is only intended for an extremely small, privileged portion of the population. Additionally, it is unclear whether Blackadore Caye should even qualify as a full Living Building Challenge project, as one of the first mandatory requirements for certification prohibits development within 15 meters (50 feet) of wetlands or within 100-year flood plains.

There seems to be a complete and utter lack of self-awareness that, thus far, the call for increased health and well-being seems to be confined to the rich. Right now, wealth buys health.

In the Times article, McLennan is quoted discussing strategies for the Blackadore project such as LED circadian lighting and air purification systems. When the spokesperson for one of the most ambitious green building standards in the world is quoted boasting of providing circadian lighting for an ultra-wealthy tourism resort in an area of the world that often lacks reliable access to electricity, it seriously seems as though all sense of perspective has been lost. Celebrities and the ultra rich are often criticized for always adopting the latest trendy charitable cause. However, it becomes an even more serious issue when architects and designers, who arguably have the responsibility to change the world for the better, succumb to the same type of celebrity syndrome and indulge in self-congratulatory projects.  

With Blackadore Caye, have WELL and the Delos board officially jumped the shark? The green-building community constantly struggles with the idea of not just doing “less bad,” but doing “more good,” a concept popularized by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle (2002) and adopted by McLennan himself as the essential aim of the Living Building Challenge. In this instance, what would result in the most good for the island—setting it aside for conservation, or building an oversized, high-end resort? If the goal of the Delos Board and the WELL standard is to promote and recognize positive environmental and human-health impacts, it seems that they have strayed with Blackadore Caye. Yet, the project’s celebrity status could make it the poster child of the very standards it undermines.

Tanya Mejia, LEED AP BD+C, is a sustainability specialist at Perkins Eastman, where she develops firm-wide sustainability programs, manages all third-party market standards such as LEED, and works with project teams to maximize the social, economic, and environmental value of designs. 

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