We didn’t see it coming, but 2020 has become the year of the healthy building. Thankfully, experts have been researching this topic for years. We recently sponsored a Bisnow webinar to help commercial real estate professionals learn more about healthy buildings in a post-pandemic world. Our subject matter experts included John Macomber, Harvard Business School; Rachel Gutter, International WELL Building Institute (IWBI); and Andrew Wiener, L&L Holding Company. Here’s what we learned.
Interest in Healthy Buildings is Soaring
The International WELL Building Institute is busier than ever. “We’re registering well over a million square feet per day for WELL certification,” says Rachel Gutter, president of IWBI. She also reports that their WELL Accredited Professionals are experiencing tremendous demand for proposals and bids. While COVID-19 is driving a lot of the interest, healthy building strategies would have been good to have beforehand and will still be important once the pandemic is under control.
Prior to COVID-19, Gutter says the “why” around WELL certification was often talent recruitment and retention, and sometimes an increase in productivity or a reduction in sick days. Today, it’s about helping people feel comfortable and confident leaving their homes to return to workplaces — providing a sense of security. And the debate about whether investing in wellbeing makes business sense is a lot more straightforward.
John Macomber, co-author of Healthy Buildings agrees. “If you invest upfront in the building that’s healthier — either a new building or a renovated building — you can much more easily justify that upfront capital cost against the deferred downside cost.” When the downside costs include potentially losing employees, the justification becomes even easier.
Helpful Frameworks for Assessing Healthy Buildings
In Healthy Buildings, John Macomber and Joe Allen cover nine foundations of a healthy building: ventilation, air quality, thermal health, moisture, dust & pests, safety & security, water quality, noise, and lighting & views. IWBI bases its WELL certification on ten very similar concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community. WELL goes beyond a building’s design and extends to programs, policies, amenities, and more.
For building owners or tenants looking to make quick, impactful changes to an existing building, the first consideration should be air quality. “Run the fans more; change the filters,” says Macomber, noting that adequate ventilation may help prevent airborne COVID-19 from spreading. In “Who Guarantees Your Workplace Is Safe for Return?” Macomber and Allen offer a framework for gathering and interpreting Health Performance Indicators: settings, sensors, screening, surveys, and statistics.
Gutter agrees that sensors can play an important role and are becoming more accessible and affordable. “We like to talk about the importance of being in real-time dialogue with our buildings,” says Gutter. She recommends real-time monitoring of air, water, and lighting quality. And to balance the quantitative data with qualitative data, surveys are also key to an ongoing healthy buildings program.
While building professionals often want to design a problem away, Gutter says design solutions need to be paired with organization interventions and behavior shifts. For instance, it’s just as important to create a culture that encourages people to stay home when they’re sick. “We are also cognizant of the fact that we’re only as safe as the others inside of the building,” says Gutter. “How they’re interacting with us; how they’re interacting with the space.”
How Quickly will Healthy Buildings Expand?
Macomber predicts that given the probable economic recession, demand for buildings will also dip. So when people and companies do need space, they are going to choose the healthiest spaces. “To the extent that the general population is aware of this issue, and to the extent that [COVID-19] is not really contained, then the healthy building will be mandatory,” says Macomber. “In order to get mortgages, in order to get tenants, in order to get apartment renters, in order to get hotel visitors.”
Consumer awareness and demand will help drive expansion of the healthy buildings movement. “This is a huge shift in the capability of individual human beings to get information about what’s in their buildings that was never there before,” says Macomber. And companies will be watching their competitors in this regard.
In our webinar, held in in late June 2020, more than half of the attendees who participated in a live poll indicated that they aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of returning to their own office at this time.
Prior to the pandemic, some people in the commercial real estate industry were skeptical about healthy buildings. “There were skeptics before,” says Gutter, “but anyone who’s having a conversation now and is suggesting that the building is not integral to our health and safety is not paying attention or has subscribed to a political viewpoint and not a scientifically based viewpoint.”
425 Park Avenue: A Case Study
This spring, Macomber and Harvard colleagues published a case study, “A Tower for the People: 425 Park Avenue.” The building was developed by L&L Holding Company and designed by Lord Norman Foster of Foster + Partners. It is the first WELL certified office building in New York City.
When developing 425, L&L wanted to create a unique product. And five or so years ago, you didn’t hear a lot about wellness in buildings. “We not only thought about building the best building,” says Andrew Wiener, Director of Leasing at L&L, “but also really tying it to the civic duty we had to build a great building on Park Avenue, which is one of the most important avenues in New York City.”
Doing the bare minimum doesn’t cut it anymore. “We think that in a post-COVID world, all developers are going to have to really dig deep in thought into how they’re going to improve their assets,” says Wiener. “And that’s something that we believe L&L has done for the past 20 years.”
425 Park Avenue features incredibly tall ceilings, unique art, park views, and many wellness features. Perhaps most important: top-notch air filtration. “In a post-COVID world, that’s the first question we get — wellness and air quality,” says Wiener. “So we think 425 will be the leader in New York City office buildings.”
According to Macomber, the point of creating a case study is to find the reusable lesson. For 425 Park Avenue, the exercise is to invest more upfront in capex for wellness features and invest ongoing money for re-certifications and compare that to whether they can actually collect more rent. From the tenant perspective, roughly half of their expenses are payroll. So if a building can help them boost productivity or reduce sick days, the math works.
As a leasing professional, Wiener believes that developers who have been investing in health and wellness are going to win. He explains that buildings with premium wellness components will command a premium in an up market or simply win the tenant in a down market. “We find that the demand is going to come from the tenant mandating that owners put in these features,” says Wiener, “and if you don’t, your building is going to become a dinosaur.”
Be Part of the Healthy Buildings Movement
While it’s great to see elite properties embracing wellness — and many more will follow suit — the pandemic has exposed the danger of living or working in unhealthy buildings. For instance, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is probably higher in multi-family housing projects with poor air quality, inadequate cleaning, and few working elevators. In order for everyone to have access to healthy indoor spaces, we need to find creative solutions.
“I think that the key to getting green and healthy buildings to the masses are partnerships,” says Gutter. She cites a successful partnership to achieve WELL certification for affordable housing projects and nods to large companies that are funding research and marketing to get the healthy buildings message out. And at the project level, developers and tenants can also collaborate more to get the best possible outcomes.
If you want to be part of the healthy buildings movement, check out the International WELL Building Institute’s latest resources, including the WELL Health-Safety Rating and WELL v2. And be sure to read Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. To learn more about the 425 Park Avenue case study, listen to this Harvard Business School podcast episode, “Is the Healthiest Building in the World Worth the Rent?”
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