Healthy Environments in the Age of COVID-19

By John Salustri
February 17, 2021

If you think a healthy environment is defined in this age of COVID-19 as plexiglass dividers and hand sanitizers, your assumptions fall short of the mark. An overarching health and safety protocol transcends the accumulation of product to encompass a holistic approach to both mind and body—and not just before a vaccine is widely available, but well beyond.

Building wellness has morphed in the past few pandemic- drenched months from an important option into a necessity. “Wellness and sustainability are not only a mark of good stewardship, but they’re also a commitment to the health and well-being of building occupants and the larger community,” says Bharati Bhosale, LEED AP BD+C/ID+C, WELL AP, BREEAM In-Use Licensed Assessor, Fitwel Ambassador, national operations manager for Environment and Sustainability at UL EHS Sustainability. “Tenant and employee wellness was already becoming more of a focus for building owners in the past few years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has put the issues of indoor environmental quality into hyper-focus, both for building reoccupancy and ongoing management.”

What does this mean in terms of practical application, beyond the obvious, low-hanging fruit of hand sanitizers and masks? Part of the answer is technological (see “Technology Can Build Tenant Confidence"). But, more than this or that gee-whiz technology, there must be a solid and productive connection between manager and tenant.

In the simple, pre-pandemic days, “everyone expected and assumed air quality and humidity were being addressed in their buildings,” says Ilan Zachar, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Carr Properties. “Now, people are going to require more information. They’ll want to understand more, and they’ll be a little more demanding.” That demand will necessitate greater transparency and clear communications, be it in the form of signage, emails or face-to-face interaction.

Twin Needs: Transparency, Resilience

Whitney Austin Gray, PhD, LEED AP, WELL AP, encourages companies to be transparent and clearly communicate their risk avoidance and risk management strategies. “I highly recommend that companies designate someone on your senior staff who can speak to the issues around employee health, both in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 and in the long-term recovery, both physical and mental,” says the International WELL Building Institute head of research.

She explains that, in the United Kingdom, the National Health Service this past May tracked almost three times more cases of people out of work for mental health issues than before COVID. “Even after a large-scale roll out of the vaccine, I predict there will be long-felt mental health problems that companies will need to address in their workforces,” Gray states.

So, if you don’t have that senior staffer on board, she urges, “you need to get someone real fast.” The virus clearly isn’t waiting, but, in a business sense as well, neither is your competition. She reports seeing a surge in companies communicating to their employees the “investment in health and human capital” through such mechanisms as corporate sustainability reports and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) messaging. “l see a strategic business advantage here, and it’s not optional.”

Wellness Initiatives at Work

The property professionals at Carr put the ideas of transparency and resilience into practical application. Outfits like Carr have been practicing some form of environmental health strategy for years now. COVID (to oversimplify the concept) is the newest wrinkle in that plan.

“We haven’t stopped in terms of our efforts to ensure our customers are safe,” says Linda Cogburn, LEED Green Associate, RPA, who is Carr’s vice president of Operations. The firm’s touchless environment is expanding, she says, and access to stairwells also helps all stakeholders opt for a little exercise while avoiding the close quarters of overcrowded elevators. “The next phase of this will be our response to the vaccine, however that shapes up.” (Of course, much of that will be determined by the availability of the injections.) One way or the other, states Cogburn, “Components of these initiatives will always live on.”

And, live on they will in an initiative christened “The Carr Experience,” billed as “an immersive, integrated and interactive” tool to bring tenants, their buildings and the buildings’ management teams closer together. There’s a raft of concierge-type services available through its app, but there’s also access to a variety of such building-specific wellness options as lunch-and-learn sessions and health and wellness workshops. Down the road, part of that offering will focus on air quality information as well.

“We’re piloting many different technologies and adding them to our analytics platform,” explains Zachar. “This information will allow us to react much quicker.” Comparisons of indoor and outdoor air quality and automated adjustments to bring one in line with the other are just a sample of the analytics Carr is shooting for. “Given specific criteria, conditions and occupants, we can see how the building is behaving, or how it has to adjust itself.” In just one building, the app has been downloaded by more than 50 percent of the occupants. “We consider that a very high success rate,” he adds.

Carr’s commitment to environmental well-being is evidenced in The Wilson, a 362,643-square-foot Class A office property in Bethesda, Maryland, that delivered in Q4. Boasting “an advanced HVAC system that circulates 75 percent outside air throughout the building,” The Wilson maintains a focus on sustainability, health and well-being that was instrumental in drawing Walker & Dunlop into a 59,000-foot relocation of its headquarters.

Of course, not all firms are at the same level of preparedness and, therefore, resilience, as Carr. “Are companies scrambling?” asks (then answers) Gray. “Sure. But, this is the time to do it right and bring strong leadership on board. Some companies have struggled to have their leadership invest in programs, such as WELL. Now, we see those same companies quickly coming on board to assure that they have a third party that can verify their approach to healthy places for all. It’s an investment in human capital, and it shows when companies haven’t done it.”

A Breath of Fresh Air

While so much of environmental well-being today goes beyond the mechanics of a building’s infrastructure, indoor air quality still remains at the center of the storm or, in this case, the virus. In fact, in the recent national survey of building occupants conducted jointly by BOMA International, Yardi and Brightline Strategies, maximized fresh air ranked first in respondents’ perceived notion of protocols that bring building value (see "Survey Says: The Office Remains a Driver of Business Success”).

With that in mind, air and environmental quality assessments are key offerings from UL, as Bhosale explains, adding that the organization recently launched the “UL Verified Healthy Building Program, a third-party verification for buildings that have achieved or are measured below set contaminant thresholds for air and water quality, lighting and acoustics and building hygiene.”

She notes that such third-party verifications are key to comfort, confidence and transparency: “The combination of the verification mark, on-site field testing biannually and decades of experience in this field provide the kind of assurance that the building industry is looking for as part of their approach to reoccupy, and that can work in tandem with dedicated health and wellness rating systems.”

The WELL Building Institute is a provider of third-party verification through its Health-Safety Rating and offers a variety of other programs for property stakeholders in the pursuit of healthier indoor environments. These include free online training for students and professionals switching careers, as well as protocol and performance guidelines. And, of course, the BOMA 360 Performance Program helps buildings benchmark to best practices related to wellness, sustainability and other areas as part of its holistic approach to evaluating operations and management.

Ultimately, it’s a holistic strategy that will rule the day and win the COVID fight. “People think that, if you just get rid of the pathogen, that will solve everything,” says Gray. “We’ve learned that you need a multifaceted approach that focuses on the pathogen and the host. In other words, if your people are healthy, they’re more resilient to the pathogen to begin with. Ventilation, filtration and cleaning are vital, and, indeed, testing and tracking technologies are needed. But, don’t lose sight of host immunity, organization resilience and strong risk-management strategies. These are all part of a multifaceted approach.”

These, she says, are all emerging issues, and they’ll clearly remain deciding factors for your prime constituents: your tenants.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of Prior to launching, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.