Smart Buildings

The Rise of Health Certification in Commercial Real Estate

We have long recognized the importance of our buildings on human health. Studies dating back decades have highlighted huge amounts of time we spend in buildings and how the indoor environment can impact our physical, and mental health. Performance metrics and certification programs around indoor health began to emerge in the 2010s but were still largely overshadowed by those focused on productivity and energy efficiency. However, there is no better way to shift the world’s focus to health than a once-in-a-century pandemic, and the advent of COVID-19 has subsequently raised the importance of health in commercial real estate. Today we assess the old and new building certifications driving the health agenda. “Even before COVID-19 and social distancing, humans were spending an incredible amount of time indoors—roughly 90% of our time, in fact. All this time spent indoors has a tremendous impact on our health and wellness, but now, more than ever, the quality of our building environments […]

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We have long recognized the importance of our buildings on human health. Studies dating back decades have highlighted huge amounts of time we spend in buildings and how the indoor environment can impact our physical, and mental health. Performance metrics and certification programs around indoor health began to emerge in the 2010s but were still largely overshadowed by those focused on productivity and energy efficiency. However, there is no better way to shift the world’s focus to health than a once-in-a-century pandemic, and the advent of COVID-19 has subsequently raised the importance of health in commercial real estate. Today we assess the old and new building certifications driving the health agenda.

“Even before COVID-19 and social distancing, humans were spending an incredible amount of time indoors—roughly 90% of our time, in fact. All this time spent indoors has a tremendous impact on our health and wellness, but now, more than ever, the quality of our building environments matters as concerns over limiting the spread of infectious diseases and maintaining air quality have prompted a closer look at the buildings in which we live, work, and operate,” says Shea Dibble. Sr. Vice President, Enpowered Solutions. “By pursuing healthy building certifications, building owners and operators can grow the momentum of the healthy building movement and demonstrate that their buildings are safer and more comfortable than non-certified buildings.”

Perhaps the best known certification program for health in buildings is the WELL Building Standard. WELL was created in 2014 by Delos and the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and is the most popular health-dedicated building certification program with well over 4,000 projects, representing over 550 million square feet of floor space. WELL takes a holistic approach toward building health and wellness that is centered on 10 core concepts; air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community. Each of these core concepts is further broken down into 23 pre-conditions and 94 optimizations available for building to accumulate the desired number of certification points.

“The WELL Performance Rating puts us on an accelerated path to make buildings smarter for human health, unlocking the use of new technologies and more intelligent approaches to improve and enhance well-being and performance,” said IWBI President and CEO Rachel Hodgdon. “Thanks to the contributions of our collaborators from across the globe, the rating will connect building performance with the experience of the people inside, allowing organizations to make actionable what was once invisible through data and occupant insights.”

The main competition to WELL is Fitwel, a joint effort by the Center for Active Design, the Center for Disease Control, and the US General Services Administration in 2017. The Fitwel rating system has quickly become a popular choice for building owners and managers due to its lower-cost and much less complicated certification process. The assessment incorporates 63 evidence-based design and policy strategies based around seven core principles; community health, morbidity and absenteeism, social equity, well-being, food, safety, and physical activity. Buildings must earn 90 points (out of 144), with no specific pre-conditions or criteria required.

“WELL and Fitwel have many similarities in applicability and structure. Both rating systems can be used internationally. Both can be applied to different building typologies. Both systems can work for whole buildings, partial buildings, or tenant improvements. Both have a structure where accumulating more points results in higher levels of certification. Both programs have three tiers of certification, and both systems require recertification on a three-year cycle,” explains an article by Senior LEED Consultants Trista Little and Sebastiano Danino Beck. “The higher cost is a major reason why WELL is generally perceived as “high-end” in the marketplace but also can make it unattainable for many assets.

The total cost of certification is higher for WELL than Fitwel, requiring a registration fee of between $1500-4500 compared to just $500. Both programs assess total fees based on a building’s size, but both registration fees and certification fees are significantly higher for WELL regardless of a building’s square footage. The required onsite performance testing for WELL also carries additional costs, as do the consulting fees, which are roughly twice as expensive for WELL than Fitwel. Organizations that choose Fitwel may also qualify for discounts through the Fitwel Champions program, making Fitwell more attractive to the majority of companies and supporting the WELL certificate’s exclusive status.

The newest building health certification program is IMMUNE, which builds directly on the indoor health foundations laid by the pandemic to initially facilitate the return-to-work but also “redesign and re-engineer buildings for the post-COVID world and beyond,” the organization states. The IMMUNE Building Standard was driven by a €1 million investment by the Healthy by Design Building Institute (HDBI) in Brussels. European business-property entrepreneur and president of the European Property Federation, Liviu Tudor, pioneered the development of the standard in Romania in 2020, as the pandemic raged across the world.

IMMUNE’s scoring index consists of 135 recommended measures, technical solutions, and facility management best-practices to certify the level of resilience on a scale of; Strong, Powerful, and Resilient. The standard will remain under constant review by medical, scientific, architectural, and engineering bodies to incorporate the latest research on COVID-19 and prepare for all kinds of future health risks. The Mace Group’s headquarters in London became the first building to obtain the IMMUNE building standard, achieving Strong status in December 2020. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic has radically changed the way we live, work and interact and has underscored how important it is for companies around the world to be prepared for such a crisis. Excepting hospitals, clinics and “clean rooms'' dedicated to scientific research, no other building has been truly prepared so far to face a pandemic challenge like Covid-19. Mace has shown outstanding leadership in boosting the immune system of its workplace and certifying its resilience with IMMUNE,” remarked Tudor, in the official announcement

Since Mace in Q4 2020, lighting controls firm Prolojik and Genesis Property have also gained Strong and Resilient ratings, respectively, for their office buildings, whilst FUTURE Designs’ logistics & industrial facility and Navana’s residential building have both received IMMUNE’s Strong rating. The organization reports that multiple buildings in Europe, USA, UAE, and Asia are now in the process of obtaining their IMMUNE Building Standard, as the certification program begins to mature.

WELL and Fitwel still dominate the health certification space for the “full-spectrum” of buildings, encompassing numerous building systems, environmental metrics, and health considerations, while IMMUNE’s growing presence may depend more heavily on the progression of the pandemic. Important certifications also exist for specific building systems with significant health implications, such as the indoor air quality (IAQ) assessment by principal green building certifier LEED or the RESET air quality standard. 

Each health-focused standard is now seeing a marked rise in interest as the return-to-work progresses with competition from remote and hybrid working trends that threaten to change the traditional workplace model and reduce the demand for office floorspace. On one side, more certification brings more worker confidence, which enables more people to return to the office, on the other side remote work makes huge gains in a hybrid landscape. For the commercial real estate sector, building health certifications are on the frontline in the battle to draw new lines on the map of work. 

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