I was recently told a story of how a human resources team for a large property organisation in Australia approached their colleagues within facilities management. They enquired about the quality of air filtration, asking, “How many MERVs do we have here?”
The breaking down of silos that exist between human resources and building practitioners and management is not unexpected. Dr. Joseph Allen, co-chair of the International WELL Building Institute’s Task Force on COVID-19 and assistant professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has said that “your building manager is likely to have a greater impact on your health than your family doctor.” Many of us who work in the healthy buildings movement have advocated the benefits to human health, productivity and engagement for the last decade or more. Why has it taken a public health crisis at the scale of a global pandemic for the broader community to understand the impact that buildings have on our health?
This phenomenon isn’t new. The greatest public health responses and innovations across the last two centuries have typically come from the greatest health and societal challenges. Sanitation and vaccine development are two examples. While COVID-19 is the greatest global public health emergency in living memory, it has spurred the need to do things differently and to do things better. And it’s put the attention on the places where we spend the vast majority of our time: our buildings.
Emergency management, sanitisation support and procedures, reduction of occupancy densities, ingress and egress management, surface touch reduction, and air ventilation and filtration have all long been considerations for building industry professionals focused on good design, construction and operations. In fact, they have been important components of the WELL Building Standard (WELL) for many years. These considerations are now being prioritised by a broader community that needs to manage hundreds and thousands of people returning to offices, schools, restaurants, hotels, retail establishments, manufacturing plants, warehouses and even sports stadiums and theatres following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The good news is that many of the evidence-based strategies for addressing COVID-19 are fundamental for advancing health and well-being in buildings, and in many cases, require no additional capital expenditure to implement. Despite this, many of these strategies have not been not widely executed here in Australia outside of the market leaders. And when they are implemented, they haven’t always been communicated to the most important stakeholders, namely the people inside the building or the HR professionals who support them. Therefore, it’s important that the Australian property industry refocus its attention on these fundamentals for supporting people’s health and well-being inside the spaces where we live, work, learn and play. Further, these strategies must be combined with stakeholder communications to ensure they’re implemented properly and they need to be third-party verified so that the building and their indoor spaces actually perform as intended.
This is one of the reasons why IWBI has seen a significant increase in organisations registering for WELL Certification in recent months—both globally and across the Asia Pacific region. Every day projects encompassing more than 100,000 square metres of space register to pursue WELL Certification, and this is taking place across more than 60 countries. Demonstrating a focus on the health of the people inside our buildings and spaces will be a critical task in restoring trust and instilling confidence amongst our broader community. The need for third-party verification of that focus through verifying performance is only expected to grow as more organisations prepare their spaces for re-entry after the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’re now firmly in the midst of a healthy building revolution. Our buildings and the way we work will certainly look different in the future, so we must take the tremendous opportunity that this moment provides to improve them for the long-term. In a post COVID-19 world, a building that is independently verified to support health will go from being a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have.” And soon we hope that it’s not just HR or facilities management folks who’ll be asking about it, but the wider public, too.
By Jack Noonan, Vice President, Asia Pacific