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The sustainably healthy building paradox

There’s no denying that our commercial spaces need to be more sustainable, but at what cost? Awareness of the ongoing climate crisis and its impact on our day to day lives is increasingly tangible as we see bills rise, and social disruption and increasing political pressure being mounted on governments and decision makers.

Whilst this is high on the agenda within CRE, as it should be, one of the big challenges is how we balance sustainability with other important aspects of our commercial spaces such as efficiency and productivity as well as health and wellbeing. 

AirRated’s most recent survey of employees and CRE decision makers in the UK and US found that 73% had an increased awareness of indoor air quality (IAQ) from 2021 to 2022 (a rise of 20% on the previous year), with 80% expressing an understanding of IAQ’s impact on their health and 68% saying that a lack of transparency about how healthy a company’s office would influence their decision to work there.

So where do we go from here? It’s clear there’s demand from both sides of the fence to solve the conflict, but what’s been halting progress?

How have we got here?

Over recent years regulation and commercial focus has predominantly been around sustainability and the push towards net zero. The outcome of this is that we’ve looked to develop or retrofit buildings to make them more sustainable, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but has led to regulations and mandatory requirements to be put in place that can inadvertently, negatively impact the health of buildings.

A good parallel example to relate to is around car emissions. There was a big push to move from petrol to diesel cars due to the impact petrol emissions had on our environment, however diesel cars produce NOx gasses, which are particularly harmful to humans. Even though our intentions can be to protect the planet, this can sometimes come at a cost to human health and vice versa.

But why does this happen? Well, there can be an argument towards the fact that we prioritize dealing with issues that we perceive to be directly impacting us in the physical sense. We’ve seen this with climate change over the recent past where maybe we were less aware of the impacts our behavior had on our environment and didn’t notice the subtle indirect consequences over time until we saw big events that either caused disruption to us directly or became almost impossible to ignore. For example rising temperatures, flooding, forest fires and other incidents that have made mainstream media.

In response to this there has been a much bigger emphasis on sustainability within CRE. The property sector creates approximately one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 40% of global energy consumption and in order to meet the commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement. The global average building energy intensity per unit of floor area needs to be at least 30% lower in 2030 than its current level (source: UNEP Finance Initiative’s Global ESG Real Estate Investment Survey Results, 2019).

To make headway against these targets there has been an introduction of stricter regulations when it comes to building sustainability within CRE. One recent example is the upcoming requirements around EPC ratings. From April 1 2023, both new and existing commercial lettings must have a minimum EPC rating of E, with landlords not able to continue with an existing tenancy under that rating. This increases to C from 2027 and B from 2030 with substantial fines issued to those that don’t meet requirements. These regulations aren’t necessarily helping make our buildings healthier though and can lead to more airtight buildings and unhealthy characteristics within our indoor environments, especially if the building’s design and specification was more focussed on ensuring sustainability over IAQ for example.

We’re starting to see increased awareness and focus when it comes to air quality and healthy spaces though in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the impacts of air quality and healthy buildings become more apparent in our day to day lives. Initiatives such as The Future Building standard, which includes the new Part F regulations and requirements to undertake continuous CO2 monitoring within certain buildings are all recent examples of regulatory changes aimed at making our buildings healthier.

The rise of healthy buildings

It’s clear that healthy buildings are starting to become a higher priority for Real Estate investors as well as occupiers. The Global Wellness Institute estimates that the number of buildings worldwide which have earned wellness building certifications has grown over 1,000% over the past year, maintaining a 200% yearly growth over that period. This coincides with 92% of Real Estate investors expecting demand for healthy buildings to grow over the next three years.

The demand from the top isn’t unjustified either. 87% of investors stated that tenants from the office sector are driving demand for health buildings and will pay premiums of 4.4-7% to secure a “healthy building”. With the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimating that improving air quality can add up to $20 billion annually to the US economy, that doesn’t seem like a bad trade-off either.

The message is that we can’t continue to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to healthy buildings – there’s demand and it’s only going to grow in importance over time. But it’s also clear that effective buildings have to balance both being healthy and sustainable and it shouldn’t be an “either-or” conversation.

MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning reported that lighting, thermal comfort and air quality were the top three features of a healthy building prioritized by stakeholders, yet despite the reported benefits of meeting these demands, building owners still struggled implementing health buildings due to budget, prioritization of energy performance, unclear business cases and a lack of expertise. These types of challenges need to be addressed if we’re to strike the right balance.

How can health and sustainability live in harmony?

Going forwards, we need to focus on creating spaces that are healthier for us and better for the planet – doing so is absolutely key in order to build a more resilient future for us all.

The quality of a building’s indoor environment can significantly impact our physical and mental health, wellbeing and productivity. There are multiple factors that contribute to making indoor spaces healthy, and it is essential to consider the entire life-cycle of a building – from design and construction, to operation and maintenance.

Whilst it’s easier to tackle this issue when considered from the design stage, 80% of office buildings which exist today will still be in-use in 2050 so how can we optimize our existing buildings?

Understand your building’s current performance

Whilst it may seem a daunting task to make our spaces healthier, understanding how your buildings are currently performing is really important to establishing a pathway to creating healthier, more effective indoor environments.

By collecting real time data on your indoor environment, for example with IAQ sensors, and your building operations via a building management system (BMS), you can start to better understand how your building is performing and the relationship between sustainability and health. This allows you to identify areas of strength or weakness across your space as well as helping you start to test and optimize your specification to find the right balance between the two.

Set suitable targets

It can be helpful to set some thresholds to aim for in creating a healthy space – your buildings don’t have to be performing perfectly to be considered healthy. If you understand how the different parameters of air quality impact health, you can make more considered decisions as to how best mitigate those risks whilst remaining sustainable too. If you’re not sure what to aim for, this is where getting some support from experts or certification bodies can be really useful.

Test and experiment

To achieve sustainability in healthy buildings it’s all about working out how much energy you’re using and the performance of your internal environment right now. It’s then working out your ideals and establishing how you get there. We see a lot of occupiers leaning on property managers and facilities managers to say, “This is what we’re working with right now. If we wanted to make our space more sustainable, how would we go about doing that?”. Then if you were to make changes, you could monitor what the internal environment was looking like, what the energy consumption was looking like and identify what works and doesn’t. 

It will be different for different spaces based on lots of different factors, but sometimes even simple changes such as switching out cleaning products, leaving meeting room doors open in between use, using low-VOC materials and even optimizing your ventilation systems to be used in line with demand can contribute to making your spaces healthier without compromising on sustainability.

In summary

Ultimately, creating sustainable and healthy buildings is possible and it needs to become the norm. Both health and sustainability have huge importance within CRE and will play a big part in future buildings as the demand for better buildings increases not just from investors but from our people and planet too.