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Report: Trends Point Toward Greener Buildings for Tenant Health and Health of Planet

Center for Active Design, Fitwel, Urban Land Institute

By Catherine Sweeney 

In the wake of an impending climate crisis and a global pandemic, developers are rethinking strategies to design healthier buildings for both the earth and those utilizing them. A new report from the Urban Land Institute, “Greening Buildings for Healthier People,” breaks down key trends in sustainable development that could serve as a useful tool for real estate developers moving forward. 

Currently, buildings generate nearly 40 percent of global carbon emissions. At the same time, the report showed that Americans spend about 90 percent of their time in buildings. According to Joanna Frank, President & CEO of the Center for Active Design (CfAD) – the operator of Fitwel – city leaders are beginning to push toward more sustainable building design as the health of residents has been largely impacted. 

“It’s not about certifying one or two buildings for us and it never has been. It’s really about how do we ensure that every building, existing buildings as well as new construction, are aware of the fact that they’re impacting the health of the people that they serve and then using that awareness for informed decision making around design and operation policies going forward,” Frank said. 

According to Frank, commercial real estate is already seeing growing trends toward sustainable building practices with tenant health in mind. Flexibility is at the center of these trends as it largely promotes tenant health. Through flexibly-designed spaces, developers can accommodate different temperatures, ventilate office zones based on occupancy and create a mix of spaces for creativity and communication among tenants. 

Residential and commercial properties have also shifted gears to provide more access to nature. The report shows that by using biophilic design – such as landscaping, water features and live walls – developers can not only improve the health of tenants but also improve air quality, combat heat and mitigate carbon emissions. Choosing building designs that rely on daylight can also save energy as well as promote mental health. 

In general, the report shows how both sustainability, mental health and physical health are connected. For instance, while improving air flow could be a sustainable building practice, improved air quality also helps with overall tenant health. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Frank said there has been a growing trend in placing health as a top priority when designing buildings. 

“Health has been recategorized as a risk. Health was a ‘nice-to-have.’” Frank said. “…Now, we work with a lot of institutional investors that have squarely put health into the risk category because they have seen the financial impact that health has on their occupancy levels, on their tenant satisfaction, on their ability to meet their financial goals. That’s a game changer because everybody pays attention to risk.”

According to the report, these sustainable design initiatives will be important moving forward as they disproportionately affect the lives of more vulnerable populations due to location, income, or existing health conditions. Equitable development practices can help ensure that new buildings create health and wellness benefits for every person in a community. 

By allowing community members to become decision makers in the development process, the report suggests that buildings will be more successful overall. While providing benefits for the community, developers could also use these practices to create more transparency and open lines of communication between itself and those it is developing for. 

Moving forward, Real estate professionals can utilize these strategies to develop stronger and healthier buildings. However, these tools can also be utilized by owners of existing real estate as well as those looking to invest in and redevelop existing properties. According to Frank, 80 percent of buildings certified through Fitwel are existing properties. 

“80 percent of the buildings we certify are existing properties, so the best thing we can all do in the real estate industry is to reuse the buildings that we already have,” Frank said. “Because the embodiment of carbon in those buildings has already been expended, we’ve already started to kind of pay that back. To be able to reuse buildings is by far the most effective way to use and reuse resources.”