As organizations ponder what the future of the workplace looks like, making the case for prioritizing human health and wellness has never been more relevant. Even prior to the pandemic, the connection between employee wellness and company financial success emphasized the need for high-performance buildings. Now, as workforces embrace hybrid models of in-person and remote work, office environments must evolve beyond functionality to address the physiological needs of their occupants.
High-performance buildings support company culture, operations and environmental, social, and governance goals. They contain design, construction, and operational strategies focused on retaining a company’s most valuable asset—their people.
But where do real estate professionals begin to ensure they invest wisely? Here, we outline defining elements of high-performance buildings, certification standards that provide a framework for their design and construction and key considerations for ongoing operational monitoring to ensure wellness and sustainability goals are consistently met. With this primer, commercial real estate executives can begin to support their organization’s bottom line by enhancing employee productivity, retention and health through their workplaces.
What Makes a High-Performance Building?
High-performance buildings are designed to enhance occupant experience and financial performance while mitigating the environmental impacts of commercial real estate. Traditional building models prioritize upfront costs as the driving force behind most design and construction decisions. In contrast, high-performance buildings aim to create spaces that provide a larger return over the life of the real estate investment through strategies that address indoor air quality and ventilation, thermal comfort, lighting, noise and acoustics, views and more.
Five core elements mark a high-performance building:
- Enhanced occupant experience – Embed human health, wellness and comfort into every aspect of the design, construction and operations of a building or space within a building.
- Optimized resource efficiency – Provide greater value with less input by using the earth’s finite resources without risking the future generation’s ability to utilize those same resources.
- Minimized environmental impacts – Use strategies, from design to demolition, that significantly reduce or eliminate negative impacts on the natural environment without jeopardizing the intention or function of a building.
- Embedded resiliency – Build in the capacity for spaces, buildings, landscapes, communities and regions to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.
- Improved financial performance – Deliver a higher financial return than traditional buildings of the same use type, due to thoughtful integration of sustainable design principles.
Certification Standards: A Framework for Healthy, Sustainable Workplaces
While there is not a single authoritative checklist that defines a high-performance building, established third-party green and healthy building rating systems provide a framework of options that support the creation of high-performance buildings. Rating systems such as LEED, the WELL Building Standard, the Living Building Challenge and BREEAM provide both guidance and a level of assurance to occupants that organizations are implementing evidence-based measures shown to improve physical spaces and promote wellness and healthy behaviors.
The strategies in these third-party standards are based on decades of research focused on optimizing building performance and enhancing human well-being. The frameworks are applicable to a range of building-use types and include strategies that can be incorporated at various stages of the real estate life cycle—from informing real estate selection to ongoing monitoring throughout occupancy of the building. These standards are continually evolving and are updated to be more streamlined, incorporate the most up-to-date research at the intersection of buildings with human and environmental health, and push the boundaries of what is possible in the built environment.
As an example of this evolution, WELL and LEED have both recently released frameworks specifically focused on COVID-19 safety as people begin to return to public indoor environments. Each provide mainly policy-based strategies for ongoing operations and maintenance that help create safe and healthy spaces for occupants to return to post-pandemic. Check out WELL’s Health Safety Rating and LEED’s Safety First Pilot Credits to support a return-to-office approach.
Operational Considerations: Tracking and Enhancing Wellness in Real Time
High-performance buildings implement performance verification and measurements throughout operations to ensure organizations stay on track with their sustainability and wellness goals. This ongoing review of data identifies gaps where they may be falling short—a key missing component of most buildings. Common ongoing operational monitoring includes:
- Regular water quality testing
- Ongoing or regular air quality testing
- Lighting quality testing
- Thermal performance testing
- Acoustic performance testing
- Annual building user surveys to evaluate qualitative aspects
In addition to the practical side of ongoing measurement, the data can be displayed publicly within the space for educational purposes and to provide peace of mind to those spending significant amounts of time in the space. This type of transparency can demonstrate an organization’s commitment to its employees.
Incorporating human health and wellness into the workplace does not have to come at the expense of an organization’s bottom line—in fact, it adds value when done right. By setting goals early, using established frameworks to guide decision-making, and following through during operations, commercial real estate executives can support employees and the bottom line through high-performance buildings. A well-versed, integrated project partner can help guide teams through the process, uncovering an aligned approach to drive value through the real estate lifecycle and ensure a wise investment in an organization’s core—its people.
Kristen Hershowitz and Brittany Saulsbury are consultants with Stok, a provider of sustainability and high-performance building services. Based out of the company’s San Francisco headquarters, Hershowitz and Saulsbury lead corporate clients through strategic sustainability planning tailored to global portfolio-level real estate including developing and implementing scalable design standards that enable companies to achieve corporate sustainability goals through their real estate assets. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.