Defining Resilience: A People-First Approach to Protecting Places

Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position. Please refer to official GRESB documents for assessment related guidance.

In my years working at the intersection of health and design, I’ve noticed that something interesting tends to happen in conversations about resilience. Often, when the word is mentioned, everyone nods in vigorous agreement – while thinking of very different things.

In real estate, of course, resilience tends to be all about designing structures to withstand the increasingly violent consequences of a warming earth. The conversation might turn to things like base-isolated corporate campuses or minimalist modern floating homes.

But when my friends in public health talk about resilience, they’re typically focused on communities – on the health interventions that can make vulnerable populations less susceptible to adversity, both acute and chronic, and better able to recover from it. With them, the conversation tends to gravitate toward things like addressing racism and poverty, building communities that provide equitable access to nutritious food, and creating safe conditions for daily physical activity.

In a way, this isn’t particularly surprising – given a concept as broad and vital as resilience, each field will naturally focus on its own area of expertise. But I believe that both groups are seeing an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to resilience – and that conversations about resilience in all fields will be richer and more productive if we can learn to see the full picture.

My public health friends, for example, could benefit from remembering just how much of our health is shaped by the environment around us. My colleague, International WELL Building Institute President and CEO Rachel Hodgdon put it well: “Your physical and social environment — where you live, work, and play — has a greater bearing on your health and well-being than your access to health care, your genetics, and your lifestyle and behaviors combined.” You simply cannot have resilient communities if they don’t live and work in healthy, resilient spaces.

At the same time, my friends in real estate can learn something important from the world of public health: that just as investing in stronger physical foundations creates buildings that can withstand shocks, investing in well-being and equity creates communities better able to withstand shocks. And because of that, the steps you take to support the well-being of people inside your building make it more resilient, too.

Just look at the past year. Communities that had stronger foundations of well-being at the start of the pandemic – that reported better health outcomes and easier access to care – fared better when the virus struck. But the virus spread quickly and violently through communities that were already struggling.

Because of that, we saw many advanced, well-designed, supposedly resilient buildings standing empty. The past year illustrated a crucial fact: it doesn’t matter how cutting-edge your structure is if it’s vacant because the communities around it are falling apart.

That’s why, going forward, high performing companies will recognize that resilience is not simply about the steps they can take to protect their real assets, but – more importantly – how their real assets can protect people in times of stress.

We can speed this transition by getting better about the ways we measure – and thus incentivize – investments in resilience. Historically, assessments of resilience have tended to focus on risk reporting, often of passive metrics like the number of injuries in a given timeframe. They haven’t always taken into account more positive, active, health-oriented metrics that also build resilience. For instance, if a builder invests in better air ventilation and filtration systems now, that will have a major impact on the well-being of the people inside a building in case of, say, nearby wildfires. (It’ll also improve the cognitive performance and productivity of inhabitants, fire or not.) Leading real estate companies are now looking for ways to help improve health and build resilience not only for the people inside the buildings, but for the broader communities in which their assets reside, in order to better manage “social risk.” As investors seek to understand a company’s resilience, actions like this should be taken into account.

When it comes to tracking resilience, GRESB has already started to lead. In 2018, GRESB introduced the Resilience Module, designed to help investors and fund managers better assess resilience in the context of real asset investment. In the two years after its introduction, the number of real estate entities that participated in the model more than tripled, and the resulting data and insights have been integrated directly into the GRESB Real Estate and Infrastructure Assessments.

With more focus on resilience than ever before, we have a chance to widen our lens. To see that resilience is not just about practicing prudent risk-management in the structures we build and manage, but about creating buildings and communities that are strong to their core and can withstand whatever the future may bring.

This article was written by Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, Chief Medical Officer at International WELL Building Institute (IWBI)

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