Healthy Buildings: What Will We Measure and How Will We Know?

From homes to hospitals, from offices to theaters, from schools to factories, COVID-19 has raised public awareness of the merits of healthy buildings – and the detriment of unhealthy buildings – as never before. This awareness is not reversing, even if society gets a handle on how to live with COVID.  People will want to know that they are making safe choices in where to rent, where to shop, where to work.  But there is no single entity – and there will be no single entity – to specify and assess and report.

The advent of personal sensing and monitoring equipment has largely coincided with the onset of COVID-19. Your new Apple Watch 6 comes with a pulse oximeter built in. A search on “indoor air quality monitors” reveals more than 300 results… on Amazon alone.  No longer is the measurement of air quality restricted to a few specialist industrial hygienists who only reported to the facility manager. As PurpleAir demonstrated during the recent California wildfires, this citizen-gathered information is out in the cloud and that awareness, too, is not reversing.

Add to this the overnight acceptance of videoconferencing and “work from away” for many kinds of knowledge jobs, also accelerated by decades due to the virus.

These three irreversible trends –realization of the deep downside of bad public health and bad buildings; the access to and democratization of air quality data; and the relaxation of the need to be present in-person, face-to-face, day-to-day will forever change the trajectory of how we use, perceive, design, and retrofit buildings.

What does this mean to you as, say, an apartment switcher or condo seeker?  If you still have a job where you can pay the rent or make the mortgage, you are in the negotiation driver’s seat and you can filter all possible prospects by, among other things, how healthy is this unit by relying on measurable, demonstrable, continuously reported data.  If you are a knowledge worker looking to change jobs in data science, life sciences, finance, consulting or law, you can evaluate potential employers based in part on how productive and healthy you might be in their environment. You are going to spend 90% of your life indoors, mostly in your apartment or office; you can be selective. I wrote more on this topic in “Who Guarantees That Your Workplace is Safe for Return?

What does this mean to, say a large technology company seeking to rent space? Again that part of the equation, in addition to base rent and tenant improvements, will be measurable, objective, continuous readouts of the Health Performance Indicators, or HPIs. This concept is borrowed from objective and measurable Key Performance Indicators, common in many management techniques. As Dr. Joseph Allen of the TH Chan Harvard School of Public Health and I wrote in our new book “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Air Drives Performance and Productivity,” what gets measured gets done: and HPIs are the key performance indicators for these kinds of spaces.

What does this mean to a commercial landlord? For a large office REIT or apartment REIT with good access to capital and with the staff to evaluate investments in health, this means a significant and long-lasting advantage in the market. There are a number of ways to make an office building healthy and they include copious engineering and gadgetry interventions including ventilation (and ultraviolet and ionization);  numerous rules and regulations and administrative interventions including disinfecting; and of course, the masking, hand-washing, and distancing that we are coming to realize is part of the new normal. The sweet spot for the landlord is to balance the benefit/cost of these interventions with the reduction in risk (and liability), and then to explain and sell them and of course to negotiate cost and revenue adjustments with the tenant. This logic also applies for owner occupiers like schools, hospitals, colleges, and municipal buildings (without the landlord/tenant complexity). Joe Allen and I wrote more about this in, “What Makes An Office Building Healthy?

So, then, who will vouch for the health of a living space, work space, store, theater, or office? Probably not the government. Federal, state, and local administrations around the world are so consumed with dealing with the virus…and with its awful economic impact…that they are not going to be able to generate cash, energy (or in the US, consensus) around a new requirement. At the next level, enlightened (and self-interested) large landlords might create self-generated, self-administered, continuously reported rating programs of their own in an attempt to circumvent known players like LEED or WELL or Fitwel – and this approach could be successful if their clients in turn could be educated and mobilized to respect the imprimatur.

Thinking further, at the most democratic level, a third party as yet unknown might be able to mobilize apartment renters, office workers, or parents of school children around a new type of information aggregator and reporter. Much as Morningstar and Lipper’s data driven, objective, transparent performance ratings changed the mutual fund industry 20 years ago, or TripAdvisor and Yelp’s crowdsourced, aggregated reviews changed travel and restaurants 10 years ago, this powerful new entity might be relied upon for transparent and trusted data aggregation and reporting. Consider how much attention this would get in some global capitals where the outdoor air quality is consistently poor.

While it might seem farfetched at first glance, an organization like a health insurance company, perhaps teaming with a mortgage company or other financial investor, might even be willing to provide up front funding for the capital expenditures that make existing buildings more healthy. The return on investment would come from savings in the avoided cost of people not coming down with horrible diseases like COVID-19 in the same quantities. It’s also possible that leading vendors of wellness solutions like Delos, Johnson Controls, Dyson, or Molekule (and many more) might also provide vendor financing, perhaps on a pay-for-success basis. In a time of cheap capital and low investment returns, lenders, investors, and insurers may drive the changes even faster than occupants will.

Awareness of health is here to stay. The ability of individuals to measure and report Health Performance Indicators including both the building’s indoor air quality and other HPIs and their own vital signs (if desired) is not going away. And, in recent months the acceptance of remote communication has advanced by decades. The future of healthy buildings – healthy cities – and of course healthy people is in the hands of the actors who can do something about it – us.

 

Photo by Saad Salim on Unsplash

 

 

+ a podcast

Listen to the Harvard Business Review podcast featuring John Macomber on how to make offices safe to return to after Covid – and beyond.

HBR IdeaCast “How to Build Workplaces That Protect Employee Health”