How certification standards provide practical pathways to safety, health and well-being in our office buildings

In its definition of health, the World Health Organization (WHO) is clear to highlight that it is not only the absence of disease or illness, but rather a holistic comprehensive state of wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental and social.

Prioritizing employee health and wellbeing presents corporates with strategic bottom-line benefits and creates competitive advantage as a safer, healthier workforce is also more productive, loyal and creative. Studies show that better indoor air quality and air supply rates can improve cognitive function and productivity by 8-11%; that employees in offices with good natural daylight can benefit from around 45 minutes more sleep than their counterparts working in artificial lighting; and productivity can drop by between 4-6% in an office that’s either too hot or too cold. 

Organizations certifying their workplace go on to boast considerable reductions in staff turnover and absenteeism, meaning their return on investment in wellbeing is often paid back in months, rather than years.

An increasing number of businesses report the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) performance of their property assets or portfolios into global reporting and benchmarking standards such as GRESB. A recent paper written by the organization, in collaboration with the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), found that the achievement of a WELL certification meant that points could be achieved in up to 45% of GRESB reporting indicators. This presents a clear and material business case for investing in credible health and wellbeing building certifications.

There are now an array of certification strategies available that can optimize buildings health, safety and wellbeing. This is particularly important given the pivotal role the built environment now plays in regards to the environmental and social health of society. 

Good examples are the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel, which are both designed to measure, improve and certify our interiors and buildings for health and wellbeing performance. They are based on scientific evidence and industry research, are technically rigorous, and their adoption figures are growing. Between them there is a methodology to suit every building size, project stage, sector and workplace culture.

When planning an entirely new build construction or major workplace renovation, it is hard to beat the WELL Building Standard for its rigor and emphasis on building performance. When its principles are embedded into a project at concept and design stage, healthy features such as operable windows, accessible staircases, external and internal green architecture, safe materials, and touch-free sensor equipment can be ‘designed in’ from the outset for healthy outcomes at project completion. 

In the absence of a major renovation or fit-out opportunity, or for organizations who occupy an older building but still wish to assess and improve workplace wellbeing within the constraints of their existing base build, then the Fitwel certification fits the bill. It is perhaps slightly less prescriptive overall than WELL, but instead focuses more on how wellbeing outcomes are achieved, rather than measuring shell and core performance.

Both WELL and Fitwel take a balanced scorecard approach to health and wellbeing certification but each favors a slightly different set of project conditions and budget. Achievement of either strongly signals health and wellbeing has been prioritized, that impactful features and policies have been implemented and most importantly, that measurable outcomes have been achieved. 

Even more specialist is RESET Air, which provides a specific route to certification for indoor air quality in buildings. Commercial grade monitors are installed in accordance with strict guidelines to monitor and measure indoor air quality both within commercial interiors and shell and core properties. 

Reported in real time on an analytics dashboard, air quality parameters are measured against standard RESET Air thresholds. This includes particulate matter (PM2.5), total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs), and carbon dioxide levels (CO2). Temperature and humidity are also monitored, as they directly impact on these measured pollutants. 

What is interesting to see is how the various  wellbeing frameworks are evolving to help reinforce employee and occupier peace of mind during this pandemic. They are also aiding building owners and facilities management teams, enabling them to bolster their workplace re-entry strategies of their occupiers, both through visibility and engagement of operational practices and procedures.

More specifically perhaps, the IWBI and Fitwel have also  both recently launched stand-alone specialist Covid-19 -response modules, which they’ve called “WELL Health-Safety Rating” and “Fitwel Viral Response module”, respectively.

Whilst much more streamlined and focused, crucially they remain third-party verified and adopt a “safety-first” approach to operational building wellness certification. They focus on a building’s facilities management protocols and regimes around cleaning, air and water quality, emergency preparedness, mechanical plant maintenance and stakeholder engagement, and require evidence to be submitted and verified before a building is rated as safe and healthy for (re)occupation. 

RESET Air is also introducing its own real-time index, which aims to provide much needed transparency around a building’s indoor air quality and how this relates to occupier health. It will leverage the real-time data currently gathered as part of the RESET Air methodology to generate new viral-response indicators, which are designed to show how a building’s performance contributes to the reduction of possible aerosol-based viral transmission. 

RESET’s new Index, which is currently still in testing, will also provide information on indoor cleaning products, live occupancy, air change and broad spectrum particle data.  However, they are clear that this does not replace other viral response practices such as mask wearing and social distancing, but presents an exciting opportunity to measure, benchmark and optimize the built environment’s ability to minimize airborne transmission of pathogens and viruses, such as Covid-19.  

Ultimately, all of these certifications are helping to make the invisible visible especially when it comes to health, wellbeing, safety and air quality. By providing practical, and in some cases real-time, operational indicators, based on scientific research and industry expertise, they should help provide the peace of mind required to encourage people back into our buildings for good.

This article is written by Maria Garcia, Associate Director at Savills; Senior Sustainability Consultant; WELL AP; ESG and CSR Practitioner