Insights 22nd September 2021 Building Wellbeing

building wellbeing

Workman is swiftly solidifying its position as the leading advocate for Fitwel in the nation. Fitwel is a global pioneer in certifying sustainability performance and enhancing occupier health and wellbeing within buildings.

Workman secured the UK’s first Fitwel certification for a business park, namely Arlington Business Park. Today, with a total of almost 2,000,000 sq. ft of office and business park projects in locations including Bristol, Leeds and London, Workman has achieved the most completed Fitwel certifications in the UK and Europe.

To explore how Fitwel certification drives value for landlords and occupiers alike, Vicky Cotton, ESG Director at Workman, spoke to Zachary Flora, Director of Market Growth at the Center for Active Design, developer of Fitwel.

Vicky Cotton: In what ways can achieving Fitwel certification benefit occupiers, and in turn, landlords?

Zachary Flora: The tenant-landlord relationship is a driving force behind the adoption of Fitwel and healthy buildings globally. In collaboration with UNEP FI and BentallGreenOak, we recently published a report. The report surveyed real estate investors. These investors manage assets totalling $5.75 trillion (USD).

Titled “A New Investor Consensus: The Rising Demand for Healthy Buildings“, the report made significant findings. It revealed that 95% of respondents view tenants as the primary stakeholder group driving demand. The demand is particularly strong in the office sector (87%) and residential sector (61%). Moreover, 91% of respondents highlighted tenant satisfaction as a key motivator. This influenced their decision to invest in their company’s health and wellness strategies.

Fitwel Certification helps the real estate industry leverage the built environment to promote physical, mental and social health. Implementing strategies like well-designed stairwells encourages physical activity among occupants. They are more inclined to use the stairs while moving between floors. Additionally, offering access to outdoor amenity spaces and indoor natural elements can enhance occupants’ mental health. This is achieved by providing exposure to nature and incorporating natural elements indoors.

This is crucial, especially considering that in the UK alone, 70 million workdays, or 2.4 billion hours, are lost every year due to problems associated with mental health.

Amidst growing uncertainty about office asset stability, healthy building certifications prove essential. They serve as a tool to retain existing tenants and entice new ones. Specifically, Fitwel can enhance a building’s performance and efficiency. This is achieved through evidence-based strategies and an intuitive web-based platform. The platform offers health metrics and datasets, aiding landlords in their ESG reporting and tenant engagement initiatives. To meet current demands, landlords are adapting their policies and approaches, a shift accelerated by the pandemic. This transition is notably towards prioritizing health and wellbeing concerns.

VC: What are the direct business benefits, in terms of employee productivity?

ZF: The bottom line is that investing in health is good for business. And when we specifically look at employee productivity, several Fitwel strategies have an evidence-base that is tied directly to that benefit. Take Indoor Air Quality, specifically ventilation rates, as an example. A study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that increasing ventilation rates can improve worker performance by 8%, which amounts to a possible $6,500 increase in employee productivity each year.

Other Fitwel strategies, such as an employee’s exposure to natural daylight, also have an impact on cognitive function and productivity. The pleasant environment created by natural light decreases stress levels for office workers and can improve sleep patterns, both of which can boost employee productivity. Further, an employee’s ability to control their work environment – through operable shading, thermal control and active workstations – can lead to increased employee satisfaction and productivity.

It’s also clear that chronic disease and mental health issues have a direct impact on an employee’s productivity. A continually expanding body of public-health literature underscores a strong correlation between productivity and specific strategies. These strategies include access to sunlight, provision of healthy food and beverages, having control over one’s workspace, and opportunities for physical activity during the workday. It’s hard to argue with the research.

VC: Health & wellbeing has climbed the agenda due to the pandemic, but what has changed? And what should asset managers be doing about it?

ZF: The pandemic has notably heightened awareness regarding the interconnectedness of human health and the built environment. This includes both our living spaces and workplaces. Tenants are increasingly recognising that a building’s design and operations significantly impact their health. Consequently, real estate investors and owners are swiftly acknowledging that prioritising health and wellbeing in assets results in increased safety, resilience and overall value. A study by the MIT Real Estate Lab found that effective rents for healthy buildings increased between 4.4% and 7.7% per square foot compared to their nearby non-certified and non-registered peers (based on data from Fitwel and WELL).

Asset managers should proactively respond to this heightened awareness by considering healthy building platforms. Fitwel’s platform stands out for its uniqueness. It enables asset managers to evaluate their buildings against the Fitwel Standard and offers a clear roadmap for incorporating healthy building practices. The platform effectively removes the uncertainty surrounding how to prioritise health and wellbeing. Asset managers can benchmark their properties, set a baseline, and progressively implement Fitwel towards achieving certification.

VC: How can Fitwel certification boost occupier confidence as employees prepare to return to the workplace?

ZF: Achieving a third-party certification is a strong indicator that a company is hyper-focused on specific efforts and initiatives. In the real estate industry, building certifications are an important tool used to convey a company’s values and priorities to stakeholders. Pursuing and achieving Fitwel Certification is a definitive way for companies and buildings to demonstrate their commitment to occupant health and well-being. The report we co-authored, A New Investor Consensus: The Rising Demand for Healthy Buildings, found that tenants are driving demand for healthier buildings. And it suggests that failing to focus on health and well-being could result in assets losing out on tenants.

The pandemic has placed extra importance on boosting occupier confidence in building health. Examining the growth of the Fitwel Viral Response Module, launched in response to Covid-19 in September 2020, reveals a significant achievement. Over 100 million square feet of real estate has obtained Fitwel Certification using the Viral Response Module.

Many of the strategies included in the Viral Response Module are specifically focused on building occupant confidence and trust, such as establishing a communication plan. The research indicates that engaging in frequent and open communication is a necessity given the ever-evolving pandemic situation. This approach guarantees that we assimilate the lessons from our experiences since the onset of the pandemic. We continuously integrate this knowledge into a contagious disease outbreak preparedness protocol. The Fitwel Viral Response module provides guidance for both of these protocols by supporting a company’s efforts to help tenants and employees return to the workplace.

VC: How can healthier buildings contribute to the race to Net Zero, and allay environmental damage?

ZF: Properties working to achieve Net Zero will see overlap with those initiatives and the strategies found in Fitwel used to promote occupant health. Street trees are a good example of this. An urban tree canopy not only encourages use of outdoor spaces and promotes mental health, but also contributes to lower temperatures, supporting reduced energy use.

Another example linking Net Zero goals and health and wellbeing goals is Fitwel’s IAQ policy strategy. This strategy emphasises the importance of maintaining HVAC systems, a frequently neglected aspect. Proper maintenance significantly enhances HVAC system efficiency, leading to reduced energy consumption. Fitwel incorporates various strategies, including promoting public and active transportation. These strategies contribute to buildings aligning with Net Zero goals.

Many of our property managers see health and wellbeing as an extension of the sustainability movement. For our UK buildings, Fitwel’s partnership with BREEAM has streamlined their sustainability and health and wellbeing goals so buildings can help combat climate change and the human health impacts associated with global warming.

VC: In the UK, how many properties currently hold Fitwel certification, and is this an upward trend?

ZF:  Fitwel launched for public use in March of 2017 and has grown rapidly ever since. One of my favourite Fitwel facts is that since its launch, the global real estate community has registered about half a million square feet of space each day. It’s truly incredible to see the widespread adoption of Fitwel by such a diverse set of users from so many different regions.

The UK is one of the fastest growing markets for Fitwel Certification and one of the top three countries for Fitwel Certification. As of Q2 2021, the UK has 100+ properties registered on the Fitwel platform and 50+ certified properties. We are definitely seeing an upward trend across the UK in both certifications and registrations. And this growth is across a variety of asset types, including commercial office properties, multifamily residential, student housing and senior housing. The UK is also home to 205 Fitwel Ambassadors who are helping to lead the adoption of Fitwel and have supported many of the UK properties that have achieved Fitwel Certification.

VC: What are the key strategies most often implemented by property managers in order to achieve Fitwel certification?

ZF: Fitwel Scorecards for workplaces encompass 70+ strategies categorised into 12 sections. These strategies cover a range of aspects, including building location, indoor air quality, building circulation, and emergency preparedness. A distinctive feature of Fitwel Certification is its absence of prerequisites. Property teams have the flexibility to choose strategies based on factors such as building location, asset type, occupant profile, and budget.

Strategies like access to transit, providing outdoor space and adopting an emergency preparedness plan have been popular among various asset types. And since the start of the pandemic, property managers are choosing certain strategies more often based on tenant demands, such as IAQ policies and IAQ and Water Quality testing. Making these kinds of strategies top priorities helps property teams prioritise occupant health, and show how they are optimising their buildings in the face of Covid-19.

VC: how does Fitwel certification ensure compliance with the rules relating to health & wellbeing in UK buildings?

ZF: We work at length to ensure that Fitwel is the leading global healthy building certification. A large part of that effort comes down to ensuring the Fitwel Standard can be applied to assets and portfolios across the world, taking into account global guidelines and certifications. Our advisory council includes individuals and companies working in the UK market who help inform Fitwel’s development and ensure our standard takes into account rules and regulations specific to UK buildings.

We also design individual Fitwel strategies to go above and beyond local code. While some elements of building code – particularly those focused on safety – may touch on local regulations, strategies around stair design, automatic external defibrillators and food-handling policies should not be used as a replacement for local regulations. Rather, Fitwel strategies allow companies to build upon local rules to impact occupant health and well-being to a greater extent.

We believe this level of thoroughness around the overall standard and individual strategies is one of the reasons for Fitwel’s incredible growth over the past four years, including Fitwel’s 190% growth in registrations year-over-year from 2019 to 2020.

Click here to find out more about Workman’s Fitwel assessment programme.

Read more about our wider ESG services here.