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.
While creating healthier buildings has been an ongoing trend in the real estate industry, the outbreak of Covid-19 reemphasized the urgency and importance of building health and safety. Originally discovered in Wuhan, China, the highly infectious, deadly coronavirus shocked the world. Economies were disrupted, and ways of life were changed. More people started working from home, and social distancing is likely to become a new norm. Worse, people are experiencing mental well-being issues during quarantine.
Healthy buildings are playing a crucial role in fighting the virus. A sustainable and healthy built environment is not only beneficial to public health, but also helps with people’s well-being during the Covid-19 lockdown. Good ventilation, public health and green building design features are crucial to buildings’ health and well-being. Although the coronavirus pandemic has not yet ended, the industry should take public health and well-being into consideration to improve buildings’ health, especially in a densely-populated city like Hong Kong. The post-covid-19 era of green buildings has begun.
Public health and well-being design features of buildings
Maintaining good ventilation and air quality could avoid the transmission of coronavirus. The case of the Diamond Princess cruise has illustrated how poor ventilation could further aggravate the pandemic. At least 700 out of 3000 crews and passengers contracted the coronavirus during the quarantine in an enclosed area. Applying this case to the built environment, in general, the risk of contamination is very high in a densely populated area, due to the poor ventilation. According to a study published last year1, maintaining a minimum level of outdoor air ventilation could reduce the transmission of influenza as much as having 60% of vaccinated people in a building. This indicates the importance of having good ventilation in buildings to prevent pandemics. According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), “Ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems can reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 and thus the risk of transmission through the air.” Building designs should be improved in order to reduce the risk of airborne contamination in the built environment, especially in densely populated communities. Possible measures include adopting displacement ventilation to reduce the exposure time of the virus; and using chilled beams to reduce the risk of cross-contamination of coronavirus through the aerosol transmission.
Another public health consideration of building design is the drainage system. It is an understated, but crucial element related to the ventilation in the built environment. In Hong Kong, this has been an emerging problem since the outbreak of SARS, a coronavirus similar to Covid-19. Back in 2003, approximately 40% of the residents living in the private housing estate – Amoy Garden was confirmed with SARS. This led to the evacuation and quarantine of the whole building block of the residents in a holiday village far from the city center. The outbreak of the virus in Amoy Garden was due to the poor design of the building drainage system. The U-shaped trap of the drainages was too dry and failed to ventilate, where the virus was spread among different floors through the drainage pipe. However, the lesson was not properly learned after SARS in Hong Kong. In 2020, Covid-19 also broke out in a housing estate through the drainage system in a similar manner. The difference was that the anti-siphonage was not closely connected to the water closet and soil pipe, resulting in the leakage of virus. The same mistake should not be repeated more than twice. The future design of healthy buildings must consider ventilation issues from the drainage system, which include attaching the pipe from the wash basin to U-shaped trapped to prevent it from drying; separating the soil and waste pipe with the sewage pipe; and making the pipes visible for easier inspection.
Addressing mental well-being in the built environment is equally important as building heath, particularly under social distancing. Human beings are naturally social animals. During the lockdown of Covid-19, mental health issues have become a huge concern for society. With the lack of physical social interactions under the lockdown, more people are suffering from mental breakdown, or worse, trauma-related mental-health disorder. This is an significant issue even after Covid-19 is under control. A certain degree of social distancing is likely to become a new norm, with more employees starting working from home. The new way of living means that the chance of people staying at home is higher than the time before coronavirus. To address the well-being issues in the post-covid-19 era, greenery can be a viable solution. A recent study proves that the connection to nature can help to improve mental health. The rate of depression and stress were significantly lower neighborhoods with more than 20% of vegetation cover, where 30% of vegetation cover is associated with a diminished rate of anxiety2.
Covid-19 acts as an accelerator for building health and well-being
The outbreak of Covid-19 shows the significance of ESG performance. Building resilience is vital to surviving in a crisis like the pandemic. For forward-looking investors, healthy buildings are key to improving resilience in the real estate industry. As a result, the pandemic acts as an accelerator to the market trend of building health and well-being. A recent crosswalk by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and GRESB has shown how the market is moving forward. WELL Community Standard pilot is a district scale rating system that sets a new global benchmark for healthy communities. The crosswalk with GRESB demonstrates that WELL v2 pilot is in alignment with 2020 GRESB Real Estate Assessment, especially in the indicators of health and well-being3. “The Health and Well-being Module started the process of integrating health into reporting and benchmarking. Now the GRESB-WELL crosswalk brings this perspective into full view and provides a practical pathway to support continuous improvement in health and well-being,” said Roxana Isaiu, Director, Real Estate, GRESB.
Following the guidelines from the standards like LEED, Fitwel and WELL would lead to the improvement of buildings’ health and well-being. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council has released LEED Safety First Pilot Credits in response to Covid-19. Fiwel has also launched a Viral Response Module to set the industry standard for optimizing buildings in response to the broad health impacts of infectious diseases. Last but not least, WELL has started emphasizing more on the connection of public health and healthy buildings, by linking public health data into building design in the WELL v2 pilot4. It is time to take a step up for healthier buildings in the post-covid-19 era.
Acting as a market accelerator, Covid-19 did bring a significant impact in pushing the industry forward to healthier buildings with public health and well-being design. Organizations can follow the guidelines from standards like WELL and GRESB so as to incorporate public health and well-being into their future development comprehensively. All in all, good ventilation and green building design considerations should be the top priority to prevent the transmission of coronavirus, and to maintain people’s mental well-being respectively. To cope with the changes and risks in the post-covid-19 era, the world needs more resilient, greener, and healthier buildings.
1. Nature (2019). Assessing the Dynamics and Control of Droplet- and Aerosol-Transmitted Influenza Using an Indoor Positioning System.
2. Fitwel (2020). Research to Action: Building Health for All in the Face of COVID-19.
3. WELL (2020). IWBI and GRESB Deliver Report Demonstrating Alignment Between WELL and GRESB 2020.
4. WELL (2019). Using public health data to inform building practice.
This article was written by Nelson Fung, Assistant Consultant at Allied Environmental Consultants Limited.