Building - Real Estate

How Building Wellness Certifications are Adapting to COVID-19

Up until several weeks ago, I didn’t think much about building wellness certifications. I have been apartment hunting several times in my life and never did a certification play into my rental decision. But, then I got COVID-19. Now, I will certainly be much more cognizant of the way that the buildings I live my life in are working to keep me safe. It isn’t just me. In light of the COVID-19 virus, as people are stuck inside their houses waiting for the worst of the pandemic to show,  the whole world is thinking more about health and safety. So, I decided to do some research to see if these certifications really make a difference in tenant health and how they are adapting to the world we now find ourselves living in. 

How environmental factors influence health and wellness have become a primary focus in the last month or so, especially for large properties in urban environments where close proximity means higher transmission rates. Look no further than the disproportionately high percentage of COVID-19 cases in New York City as an example. Clearly, other factors aside from building health play a large role in New York City’s higher transmission rates, including resident adherence (or initial lack thereof) to social distancing, lack of available tests early on, and its coastal location, to name a few. 

Clearly, a Well certification doesn’t negate the possibility of a building’s tenants contracting or spreading any kind of infectious disease. What it does provide is a guaranteed standard for air quality and ventilation, which are some of the most important factors in transmission reduction. While researching building health for a recent article, Commercial Real Estate in the Age of the COVID-19 Virus, I learned from John Macomber, co-author of Healthy Buildings, that air quality is the most important factor for building (and occupant) health. As I began looking into Well certifications from IWBI (International Wellness Building Institute), I learned that its air quality requirements were in line with Macomber’s recommendations in regards to fresh air, ventilation, and air filtration. 

It’s important to note that there are different versions of Well certifications, versions one and two, and within those versions, the concepts and requirements also differ. Concepts are what IWBI calls their main categories of focus, such as air, water, materials, light, etc. Within each concept there are “preconditions,” which are requirements and “optimizations,” which are optional add-ons that increase a building’s score. Depending on how high a building scores, its Well certification can be silver, gold, or platinum, in that order. I mention this because not every building with a Well certification will have the same features, and with over 97 different optimizations in Well version two alone, people should research and ask specific questions to determine which features a building has or should have. 

In Well version two, one of the options for air optimization calls for UV lights to filter particulate matter (what “airheads” call PM) from coils on air filters. What does that mean? According to IWBI’s President, Rachel Gutter, “UV lights are definitely an effective strategy for treating some surfaces,” and she says Well will continue to explore uses for them. Meanwhile in the U.K., autonomous robots with UV lights are being used to sanitize hospitals and kill contaminants including COVID-19. While these robots aren’t fool proof and still require spaces to be manually cleaned first, they do provide another layer of protection against infectious disease. Potentially, if an air filtration system uses UV lights, it could reduce the threat of viruses and other microbial contagions. In a post COVID-19 world, tenants will be asking more questions about how their air filtration systems work, and they will want to know that all possible measures to prevent infectious disease transmission have been taken.

In talking with Rachel, I learned that one of Well’s missions had been to get board members and decision makers to understand how building health is truly an investment into an organization’s bottom line. Healthy buildings allow the people within them to perform at their optimum capacity. Up until now, this has been a challenge. She mentioned discussing building health with the CEO of a “Fortune 100” company who also sits on the board of several publicly traded companies. He told her health is never a topic of discussion in any of the board meetings he’s attended. Gutter believes that will change. “It feels like we have a moral imperative to take a look at our communities and see what we can do to fortify and enhance them, to make sure a Well plaque on a building really does instill confidence,” she said.

After this terrible pandemic has come and gone, tenants are going to want to know their buildings are safe before they return to work, school, etc. To ensure building safety for everyone, not just their clients’ buildings, Well created a COVID-19 task force, which is led by Joseph Allen, co-author of Healthy Buildings, as well as a former surgeon general, among others. Thus far, Gutter said over 250 community members have volunteered to participate in the task force by sharing recommendations, research, and information that will then be verified and filtered by IWBI and the COVID-19 task force leaders. The information gathered will then be used to create a checklist that anyone can access to determine their building has taken all necessary precautions before allowing people to return safely to commercial properties for work, school, etc. The task force’s information will also guide any revisions to Well’s framework for certifications going forward, and it could even become a part of federal guidelines as several task force volunteers are members of the GSA. 

Gutter says the COVID-19 task force has already begun discussing some recommendations. One concern that was brought up was the possibility of Legionella contamination, from water having been stagnant in large, unused buildings for so long. “Buildings don’t like to be left alone,” Gutter said. Another example she gave was that buildings won’t need just one deep clean, but rather scheduled cleaning protocols need to be put in place. The risk doesn’t come from building surfaces that have been untouched for several months—the virus can’t even survive on surfaces that long. The risk comes from the people returning to those buildings who may not have had symptoms. As some health experts suggest, this virus could come in waves, infecting different parts of the population at different times. 

Gutter even recommends examining hand washing protocols in restrooms. Are the soap dispensers sealed and disposable? Refillable soap dispensers allow bacteria to get inside. Are there paper towels to dry your hands? Air dryers, even those with HEPA filters, can spread PM and germs. Hand washing protocols may not have been on anyone’s mind before this pandemic, but it is now. We’ve learned from various health experts and the media that there is a right way and a wrong way to wash your hands. It makes sense that we should follow best practices for how we wash our hands, too, and the places we frequent play a large role in that. As Gutter said, “Buildings will either contribute to our health or take away from it.”

Going forward, the corporate world, and thus the commercial real estate industry that serves it,  will have no choice but to prioritize wellness and building health because tenants will demand it. Laws may even require it. COVID-19 has shed new light onto how much the buildings we live and work in can impact our health. In a recent LinkedIn post, Macomber provides his take on the future of the built world: “COVID-19 will change the nature of our offices, apartments, hospitals, schools, and government buildings. Concern about the spread of this and other communicable diseases might fade after this contagion, but there will probably be more outbreaks in the decades to come. This means that we can expect our physical structures to change, too.”

When I asked Gutter how IWBI balances operating as a profitable business and also making information (like their forthcoming building checklist) available for anyone to use, she explained that Well certification framework has always been available in the public domain. She explained, “We aren’t in the business of giving out plaques. We’re in the business of changing the market, and there has never been a better opportunity than in this moment for people to see that places matter.” After dealing with this crazy illness, I understand just how much places matter, and unfortunately, there will be a large number of Americans who can say the same. I expect we won’t know the full impact or implications of this pandemic for quite some time, but I’m fairly certain they will be generational. A focus on building health isn’t just a temporary fix to satisfy tenants. It will be a requirement for commercial properties to remain relevant and profitable going forward.

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