HEALTH INNOVATORS: Dr. Joel Kimmons of Fitwel

Joel Kimmons wants the spaces where you work to support and enhance public health. He’s helped create a system to make that happen.

Joel Kimmons was completely surprised when he learned that FastCompany magazine had named the company he had helped start one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017. As a food scientist for the CDC who grew up off the grid in rural Tennessee, Kimmons says he never really paid attention to “that type of thinking.”

But there it is – Fitwel – one of 10 companies listed among familiar giants including Nike, Patagonia, Alphabet, and Chobani.

“It was totally great,” he said. “I do think it’s well-deserved. We’re a unique program with a lot of promise.”

What is Fitwel? The quick answer is that Fitwel is a certification process for healthy buildings. But that less-than-sexy explanation fails to capture the deep and visionary thinking that has gone into the creation of Fitwel as a driver of community health.

Kimmons and his colleagues purposely created a process that allows for the application of strategies that are broadly conceived, economical and evidence-based. There are no prerequisites that are cost-prohibitive, and Fitwel’s strategies work in both existing buildings and as a roadmap for new design. And, the certification process has been designed as a web-based tool that is user-friendly, efficient and cost-effective.

In a nutshell, this is how it works:

Each strategy within the Fitwel scorecard is linked by scientific evidence to at least one of its seven Health Impact Categories: (1) Impacts Community Health; (2) Reduces Morbidity and Absenteeism; (3) Supports Social Equality for Vulnerable Populations; (4) Instills Feelings of Wellbeing; (5) Provides Healthy Food Options; (6) Promotes Occupant Safety; and (7) Increases Physical Activity. Within those categories there are 12 sections that impact the design and operations of a building, including healthy workspaces, building access and location, outdoor spaces, healthy food and beverage options and shared spaces.

Which all goes to say that a Fitwel-certified building is the kind of place where you want to work – a place that supports your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.

How did it all get started? Kimmons tells a somewhat long and meandering tale involving people named Frank and Caleb and Melissa who are no longer with the company, but the short story is that the head of the GSA – the federal government’s building and acquisition agency – approached the CDC and said they wanted to create a new building code but needed to figure out how health metrics fit into the picture. Fitwel developed as a full collaboration, with the GSA and the CDC as equal partners.

 Dr. Joel Kimmons of the CDC and Fitwel

Dr. Joel Kimmons of the CDC and Fitwel

“They wanted a standardized way to integrate more robust health measures but didn’t know what parts to put in,” Kimmons says. “What do we fight for? Where’s the empiricism behind it? What’s the road map here? We had strong programs at the CDC around this.

“We could barely communicate because we speak so many different languages – the builders and lawyers and public health people,” he adds. “It was a great recipe for innovation.”

Kimmons credits the early team with bringing the concept forward.

He explains how building codes evolved initially for pragmatic reasons around things such as safety, and then how materials health became important with LEED and sustainability – but health was never integrated into the system. Fitwel changes that.

Kimmons is the the kind of guy who manages to weave in references to Neitzche, Buckminster Fuller and the French existentialists without sounding the least bit showy. His parents were biologists who raised their family both overseas and at their 350-acre family homestead in Tennessee, where they relied on the kind of solar energy that was one generation away from standard methods. They farmed and have a sawmill – and his parents and some family members still occupy the place today.

“Most everything comes off the land,” says Kimmons, who goes between his home in Atlanta and the homestead.

“It’s a very closed-loop living cycle,” he says. “My parents are classic intellectual people who put science-y stuff into growing food and homesteading. It’s the ultimate innovation by necessity – always thinking about how to get things to work, that fix-it mentality.”

In fact, Kimmons came to the work he does today through a love of the land, food and science. He says the cultural aspects of food are interesting to him and governed the work he does at the CDC and for Fitwel.

“I’m at heart a nutrition scientist,” he says. “I support health amenities and policies because of the public health evidence.”

His relationship to Fitwel is agnostic. “How do you build around food?” he says. “Are we building things around an idealized image of people or are we building for the human animal?

“To build a robust society we need health-satisfied people, and the things that make people that way should be integrated into our built environment so we can ensure those outcomes,” he says.

Just as LEED drove the market and affected real estate values, Kimmons expects Fitwel to alter the market as well. “We know the benefits of occupant health are massive. Absenteeism, productivity. How much does happiness contribute to the health benefits of a building? These are becoming very important in management. Resilience among workers is critical to companies.”

Fitwel is now licensed and operated by the Center for Active Design and the City of New York. While the CDC and GSA maintain the trademark, they’re not operators of the program.

The partnership between the CDC and GSA allows subject matter experts to work together and maintain the standard, while the Center for Active Design capably advances the cause through its licensing of the program.

“It was a model for great collaboration,” Kimmons says. “People doing very different things with the same goal.”

Two big government agencies working together to power through meaningful change in public health. Imagine that.

Learn more about Fitwel.