Health, Safety & Wellness in Commercial Real Estate’s New Normal
September 16, 2021 | By: Erik Malmstrom
As the latest spike in COVID-19 infections continues to complicate and in some cases derail return to office, school, and campus plans, I remember discussions in the early days of the pandemic with several major building owners and operators who ardently believed that the pandemic would run its course by the end of 2020. Back then we discussed the pandemic ultimately being eradicated by mass vaccination, and that it would not have lasting impacts on the built environment. Essentially the strategy was to survive the choppy waters of 2020 in anticipation of a “return to normal” by 2021.
A year and a half later, three realities have become clear. First, COVID-19 is still with us in 2021 – in a recent Nature poll, 89 percent of scientists felt that SARS-CoV-2 is either very likely or likely to become an endemic virus. Second, while evidence suggests that vaccination provides strong protection against SARS-CoV-2, it is not a silver-bullet solution given unevenness in adoption, access, and efficacy. Third, there are already strong indications that the pandemic is driving the built environment to a new normal, especially as many offices, schools, and campuses confront prolonged vacancies, partial occupancies, and never-ending fits and starts of reopenings and shutdowns.
One key element of this new normal will be the increasing prominence of health, safety, and wellness as value driver in real estate, both with respect to buildings themselves and the people occupying them. Prior to the pandemic, the “Healthy Building” movement had been gaining steady momentum, reflected in the rise of the WELL Building certification and the popularity of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity by Joe Allen and John Macomber at Harvard. “Healthy Buildings” thinking is premised on the organizing framework that people spend a majority of their lives indoors, indoor environmental quality has a significant impact on health outcomes, and improved health outcomes ultimately flow to a company’s bottom line via productivity boosts.
The pandemic has powerfully validated the Healthy Building paradigm and turbocharged demand for higher indoor environmental quality standards due to the significance and urgency of the health and safety, financial, and liability stakes for both owners/employers and tenants/employees. In the context of a highly transmissible airborne disease like SARS-CoV-2, the critical elements of indoor environmental quality are ventilation, filtration, and indoor air quality. Along with vaccination and masking, public health and EHS experts emphasize ventilation and filtration as central pillars to effective infection control. Beyond COVID-19, the benefits of improved ventilation and filtration extend to preventing common respiratory infections like influenza as well as improving cognition, performance, and productivity within indoor spaces.
However, the pandemic has exposed a pervasive trust deficit regarding workplace safety. A widely cited poll of 3,400 respondents across seven countries conducted by Edelman in late 2020 yielded striking results. Only half of employees believed that office spaces are safe. Whether these concerns are justified or not is difficult to discern because building safety is largely a black box for SARS-CoV-2 and airborne diseases. The public has little visibility on health conditions of indoor spaces. Moreover, building owners and operators often have little understanding of health risk in their portfolios due to limitations in measuring risk and verifying controls in real-world buildings.
Our company has a unique lens on this challenge. We’ve developed the first commercial diagnostic solution for testing and verifying real-world ventilation and filtration performance for aerosol contaminants like SARS-CoV-2, leveraging DNA-tagged aerosol tracers that safely simulate airborne pathogen mobility and exposure. During the pandemic, we’ve been supporting large multinationals, commercial real estate owners, and public entities to assess and mitigate health and safety risk in their facilities and then help communicate our independent science-based data to employees and tenants.
What have our field assessments taught us about risk levels in everyday spaces? First, risk varies dramatically within buildings, across buildings, and across time. Second, assumed understanding of risk levels inevitably varies from the ground truth. Third, enclosed spaces with multiple occupants and prolonged occupancy often indicate the highest levels of risk and therefore demand the greatest attention. Fourth, the simplest, cheapest, and most accessible solutions often prove to be the most effective. Fifth, money is frequently wasted on mitigation strategies and solutions demonstrating little to no measurable benefit.
In the end, perhaps the most significant tail of the pandemic will be embedding health, safety, and wellness firmly into the core value equation of buildings. Key bellwethers that we’re already seeing are health, safety, and wellness increasingly factoring into future leasing and safety risk becoming more heavily incorporated into building codes, rating standards, and compliance requirements. In the new normal, those who are proactive about prioritizing, improving, and differentiating on IAQ, ventilation, and filtration are likely to be rewarded by the market; those who are complacent risk being caught flat-footed.
- Joe Allen and John Macomber, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. HUP. 2020.