How Healthy Buildings Can Help in the Fight Against COVID-19

Healthy buildings have always been important—even before the pandemic. Now, experts say there’s a direct connection between the healthy built environment and the fight against COVID-19.

By Liz Wolf

Many workplaces have begun allowing employees who wish to return to the office to come in as long as social-distancing procedures can be followed. The looming questions, however, are how will tenants know it is safe to return to their space, and will employees feel comfortable getting on an elevator, sitting in a cubicle or drinking coffee at the building’s outdoor café? While the office is not going away, until a vaccine is found, workspaces are being forced to change if employees are to return en masse safely (see "The Ongoing Value of the Traditional Office.")

In May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published guidelines for how people can return safely to their places of business. Building owners, property managers and employers now are more widely implementing the best practices they’ve put in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.


Healthy buildings have always been important—even before the pandemic. For years, there has been evidence that good air quality and ventilation in buildings can promote well-being and improve cognitive performance. Now, experts say there’s a direct connection between the healthy built environment and the fight against COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, increasing evidence shows the risk of infection is higher in poorly ventilated, crowded spaces. In a typical year, every employee will inhale two million times in their office, according to the Harvard Business Review, noting, of course, that 2020 is "not a typical year."

"We’re an indoor species," says Dr. Joseph Allen, DSc, MPH, assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "We spend 90 percent of our time indoors."

That makes it even more important to understand how COVID-19 is transmitted. Allen explains that the three types of virus transmission are person-to-person (via large droplets); fomite (contaminated surfaces); and airborne. This information then allows building owners to line up control strategies. (Catch Allen in replays of his virtual BOMA 2020 education session at He presented "Healthy Buildings and the Post-Coronavirus Office Landscape" with colleague John D. Macomber.)

This also brings us back to the basics we all are familiar with at this point in the evolution of COVID-19 preparedness: masks and sensible hygiene. "For large droplets, what are the control strategies?" Allen asks. "Maintain at least 6-foot distances and wear a mask. What about contaminated surfaces? Wash your hands and clean and disinfect frequently. What about airborne transmission?" Again, he says, wear a mask, and he advises that buildings must bring in more fresh outdoor air and filter any recirculated air (see "Getting Back to Work.")

"We’re trying to connect the science of what we know about transmission, so we can line up the appropriate control strategies to restart the economy safely," Allen points out. While he concedes the pandemic is certainly new and people are anxious in this unfamiliar terrain, there are aspects that actually feel quite familiar.

"We’ve done this before," Allen explains. "You anticipate and assess hazards and then you design control strategies to keep people safe."

While there’s no such thing as zero risk, building owners and property managers can reduce that risk and take measures to help ease tenants’ anxiety about their built environments.


We all are—or should be at this point—familiar with ASHRAE standards for a building’s heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, which are particularly crucial to review in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Allen points to "9 Foundations of a Healthy Building" from Harvard’s Healthy Buildings team that influence health and building performance and build on those ASHRAE standards. They are: ventilation; air quality; thermal heat; moisture; dusts and pests; safety and security; water quality; noise; and lighting and view.

"Right now, everyone is going to be thinking about infectious disease in buildings, as we should, but then it seems clear that expectations are changing," Allen notes. "Our awareness of how buildings influence our health has certainly changed quickly, and people will naturally start to ask other questions. What about lighting? Acoustics? Water quality? How are these all influencing my health?"


"The number one thing that building owners really need to be focusing on is staying up to date, because things are changing daily," says Mark Rossolo, global director of public affairs at UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories), a global, independent, safety and testing company. "It’s complicated."

Rossolo advises property professionals to stay on top of the most recent guidance from the authorities that drive those protocols, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC and ASHRAE, plus best practice guidance from BOMA International.

Number two is finding good partners, including janitorial vendors and companies that can test your building’s air or water quality. Additionally, companies can "spot check" the effectiveness of any increased cleaning practices.

Curiously, the chemicals used in this COVID age can actually be part of the problem. Imagine scenarios, Rossolo notes, where people are using harsher chemicals to combat COVID-19, and they are cleaning more frequently, so more irritants are floating around inside buildings. Focusing on indoor-outdoor air exchange rates and making sure they are pulling enough fresh air in to adequately ventilate the building are important guidelines.

This isn’t something owners necessarily want to tackle alone, Rossolo notes. "Tenants will feel comfortable knowing that people who own, operate and manage these buildings have partnered with folks who are best-in-class," he says. If tenants don’t feel comfortable returning to their office space, employees are not coming back (see "Pandemic Lessons Learned—So Far.")

"We anticipate the voice of the tenant to be much louder and more forceful when it comes to ensuring that they have a healthy, safe place to work," Rossolo adds.


The same best practices of good operations apply now as they did before the pandemic, notes Brenna Walraven, BOMA Fellow, CPM, RPA, who is CEO of Corporate Sustainability Strategies, Inc.

"Get back to the basics around operational best practices and industry standards and do the things you’ve always been doing," Walraven says. "Review with your teams. Walk the property. Make sure what you think is happening is actually happening."

Additionally, she notes building owners are hiring independent third parties to conduct assessments of protocols around cleaning and indoor air quality.

Then, she states, create a plan, but it should "align with CDC, WHO and ASHRAE guidelines." And, of course, monitor that plan.

"The cream rises to the top," Walraven says. "We set out a plan for how to respond and followed the experts. We use standards like those provided by ASHRAE. We’re tracking performance against that plan. We’ll use third-party validation of the performance and make adjustments as needed over time."


When a tenant is scouting space, "which building is the likely choice?" Allen asks, and then he proceeds to provide the answer: "They’re going to go into a building that’s healthy." Moreover, if you are an employee, where will you choose to work?

He says more employees today understand the importance of healthy buildings, and companies will use that as a recruiting tool. "Your health will now be part of your decision matrix, where maybe it wasn’t before."

Experts say building owners will continue to invest in the basics of a healthy asset, including air quality, water quality, ventilation and moisture—and these are not expensive investments. In fact, healthy buildings are a good business decision, Allen says: "Building performance drives human performance drives business performance."

Allen recently co-authored the very timely book, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, with John D. Macomber. The authors spent three years talking with executives who oversee several billion square feet of real estate. Allen says a critical point in the book is that the science is clear: The indoor environment has a major influence over people’s ability to think and solve problems.

Then, the authors translated pure science into business science, showing what that means to a company’s bottom line. "I think we make a convincing argument that costs for a healthy building are downright trivial when you account for the human health benefits—both in terms of health and productivity," Allen continues.

"That was the case before COVID, and it’s certainly the case now," he says. "The benefit analysis is overwhelmingly in favor of health, so the comparative costs are absolutely trivial. We have to spend that if we’re going to [continue inviting] people back into our buildings."

Liz Wolf is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer with 30-plus years of business and commercial real estate reporting experience. She previously served as editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.