Building for Health

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Over the last two decades, the rise of efficient, green buildings has shown that thoughtful design, construction, and operation can create buildings and even entire communities that benefit people and the environment. Today, the focus of sustainability in the real estate space is shifting toward the opportunity to create buildings and communities that intentionally promote health and wellness. These trends raise important questions:

  • Who will lead this generational change in the real estate industry?
  • What kind of skills and expertise will be needed to navigate these far-reaching and fast-moving issues?

These questions mirror an on-going conversation within the global GRESB community.  This year, we have identified health and wellness as a critical “development topic” for the GRESB survey.  GRESB has convened a member working group to discuss the issue and identify specific pathways forward.  This work builds on ongoing leadership by GRESB participants and a core set of questions within with GRESB survey, for example:

  • Regency Centers – a GRESB member and green bond innovator – reports that 80% of its employees participate in voluntary corporate wellness programs, including comprehensive health screening.

The issue of health and well-being is also subject to academic research, such as a recent review of the business benefits of a healthy workforce.  A new publication from Loeppke and a large group of collaborators evaluated a wide variety of approaches to the promotion of workplace health and wellness.  Their review includes one study that found that companies with strong health, safety, and environmental programs outperformed the S&P 500.

The emerging focus on health and wellness requires new tools, perspectives, skills, and expertise for investors, fund managers, and allied real estate professionals. Leaders will need to build awareness of the science connecting the built environments and public health, develop a new technical vocabulary, and prepare to guide interdisciplinary teams in applying new strategies and tools. Leaders need to be able to envision management processes that can be used by projects and entire portfolios to create and differentiate health-promoting properties as a superior class of real estate.

GRESB is collaborating with Harvard University and the USGBC on health research and education. This includes an upcoming offering from the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Building for Health, September 29 through October 1 at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I will be part of the faculty to engage and support leading sustainability executives from around the world.

As part of the Harvard course, we will share findings from GRESB’s new research collaboration addressing longstanding gaps in the availability of practical tools to promote healthy places. With support from the Robert Wood John Foundation, GRESB is working with partners to develop and apply new integrative processes to help real estate portfolio managers systematically understand and promote health and wellness issues.  The research includes evaluating opportunities to adapt an ISO 14001-style framework to provide an actionable road map to link plans and policies, property-specific interventions, relevant performance monitoring, and responsive management.  We believe that these processes will allow managers to more effectively address specific health challenges, such as physical inactivity and asthma, which contribute to rising health care costs. This is important for real estate investors, as ultimately, healthy buildings will be more attractive buildings for occupiers and future owners.