The Healthy Building Movement: Impact on People, Planet, and Profit
Published on 23 October 2019
The link between people, planet, & profit—or the “triple bottom line”—was popularized in the 1990s, and has since become the mantra for many businesses and investors looking to maximize impact. As the effects of climate change have become more pronounced, the public health and sustainability communities have grown closer in their search for effective solutions. In addition to the increasing frequency of natural disasters, climate change has brought myriad health concerns, including diminished access to clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030 the health costs attributed to climate change will rise to between $2-4 billion per year.
The good news is that many of the same strategies popularized by the sustainability movement can also have a distinct and profound impact on population health. The rise of healthy development certifications, including the Fitwel® Certification System (“Fitwel”), has helped realize the full potential of tactics designed to reduce energy use, improve air quality, increase green space, and manage stormwater—all of which impact the well-being of our planet as well as its inhabitants.
Rising temperatures not only increase energy use, but also result in accelerated rates of heat-related illness and death. These concerns are especially relevant in urban areas, which often struggle to mitigate the impacts of heat island effect— a phenomenon where more urbanized areas are hotter than surrounding rural areas. According to the United States Environment Protection Agency, a city with 1 million people can have an annual mean air temperature that is 1.8 – 5.4°F (1–3°C) warmer than its surroundings. Fortunately, there are many strategies proven to reduce temperatures in urban areas, including installing green roofs, cool roofs, and cool pavement, and increasing the density of trees and vegetation.
Greenery offers a particularly powerful intervention that demonstrates the connection between people, planet, and profits. A study based in Singapore found that increased greenery has the potential to reduce the temperature in urban areas by up to 2 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, other studies have found that a 1-degree Celsius reduction in outdoor air temperature is associated with a 5% reduction in building energy consumption. In addition to decreasing energy use, this seemingly slight drop in average annual temperature also has the potential to save lives and decrease medical expenditures. This decrease in energy use associated with greenery lowers costs for building managers as well as individuals.
The benefits of greenery don’t end there. For example, park proximity has been linked to higher property values. In fact, a review of empirical evidence found that increased greenery in the form of parks is associated with as much as a 20% increase in property values in the surrounding area.
One by one, companies are beginning to see health as an essential priority for the sustainability movement. Fitwel user and GRESB participant, Gerding Edlen, is a real estate investment, development and asset management firm that has successfully used health to empower residents and educate them about the connection between sustainability practices and their personal well-being. Renee Loveland, Director of Sustainability explains, “For a long time, the conversation around health and wellness was missing. We knew we had to find ways to make sustainability more personal, so we created a robust tenant engagement platform to highlight the ways daily actions and personal choices impact our planet, our communities, and ultimately, our health. Today, healthy building certifications complement our programming and make it easier for tenants to see the connection between their well-being and sustainability.”
One priority for Gerding Edlen is biophilic design or the intentional use of strategies inspired by nature in the design of the built environment. Biophilic design utilizes a set of strategies, or “patterns,” to connect building occupants back to nature and as a result, enhance overall human health. Numerous studies have shown benefits, such as a 12% reduction in stress from just 15 minutes of exposure to nature. Many biophilic design principles are consistent with those of the Fitwel standard. Gerding Edlen’s Fenway Center, which consists of two multifamily buildings currently under construction in Boston, MA, showcases biophilic design features and is striving to achieve Fitwel Certification. Design elements such as an impluvium on the rooftop that creates a connection between indoor and outdoor spaces; flowing forms and textured decorative patterns in the amenity spaces; and areas of sanctuary and refuge juxtaposed with larger gathering areas combine to make spaces that support occupant comfort and well-being.
Another example comes from Kilroy Realty Corporation, a publicly traded real estate investment trust that has been named the North American Office Leader in Sustainability for five years in a row by GRESB. Education has played a vital role in Kilroy’s strategy to connect their sustainability efforts to their health and cost-saving priorities. As an early adopter of Fitwel, Kilroy has emerged as a leader in the healthy building movement, jumping on the opportunity to leverage green initiatives to promote the health of their occupants.
“Strengthening the connection between sustainability, health, and well-being is critical,” Maya Henderson, Director of Sustainability at Kilroy explains. “The climate and environmental challenges we face have real health impacts that our stakeholders recognize and want to address. Working with our vendors to help connect the dots and empower them to act, isn’t just smart business, it’s imperative.”
As a part of its efforts to promote health across its portfolio, Kilroy launched its Green Janitor Education program, which trained custodians on strategies such as green cleaning, turning off lights, and reporting leaks. Since launching, this program has spread across Kilroy’s Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego portfolios, reaching 93 janitors who are responsible for 4.9 million square feet, or 40% of the company’s portfolio. This innovative program not only provided members of the custodial staff with a unique training opportunity, a healthier work environment, and health benefits to building occupants—it has also resulted in annual cost savings.
As the connection between climate change and health becomes increasingly clear, the sustainability movement cannot be discussed without considering public health. Fitwel leverages environmental impacts to create a world that promotes, rather than diminishes, human health. To learn more about the design and operations strategies proven to build health for all, visit www.fitwel.org.
 Wong, N.H., et al. (2011). Evaluation of the impact of the surrounding urban morphology on building energy consumption. Solar Energy, 85, 57-71.
 Chen, Y., Wong, N.H., 2006. Thermal beneﬁts of city parks. Energy and Buildings 38, 105–120.
 Schmeltz, M.T., Petkova, E.P. & Gamble, J.L. (2016). Economic burden of hospitalizations for heat-related illnesses in the United States, 2001-2010. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(9).
 Crompton, J.L. (2001). The impact of parks on property values: A review of the empirical evidence. Journal of Leisure Research, 33(1), 1-31.
 Worden, K., Pyke, C. and Trowbridge, M. (2019). Health and Well-being in Real Estate: Green Health Partnership and GRESB Special Report. Retrieved from the Green Health Partnership website: https://www.greenhealthpartnership.org.
This article was written by Sara Karerat, Senior Associate at the Centre for Active Design
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