Insights 22nd September 2021 Building Wellbeing

Workman is rapidly establishing itself as the nation’s foremost advocate for Fitwel, a global leader for certifying sustainability performance in buildings, and the enhancement of occupier health and wellbeing.

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. We recently published a report in coordination with the UNEP FI and BentallGreenOak that surveyed real estate investors with assets totalling $5.75 trillion (USD) in assets under management.

The report, A New Investor Consensus: The Rising Demand for Healthy Buildings, found that 95% of respondents identify tenants as the leading stakeholder group driving demand, with most of that strong or moderate demand coming from the office (87%) and residential sectors (61%). Further, 91% of respondents said tenant satisfaction was a driving force behind 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. Strategies like open, accessible and well-designed stairwells support increased physical activity among occupants who will be more likely to take the stairs when moving between floors. Similarly, providing access to outdoor amenity spaces and indoor natural elements can help promote mental health of occupants by providing access to nature and natural elements.

That’s important when we look at the fact that, in the UK alone, 70 million workdays, or 2.4 billion hours, are lost every year due to problems associated with mental health.

For landlords, Fitwel Certification offers a way to mitigate risk. With rising uncertainty about maintaining office asset stability, healthy building certifications act as a tool to retain current tenants and attract new ones. Further, Fitwel can improve a building’s performance and efficiency through evidence-based strategies and the intuitive web-based platform which provides health metrics and data sets for landlords to use in their ESG reporting and tenant engagement initiatives. Landlords are evolving policies and approaches to meet current demands, and the pandemic has certainly shifted those demands toward health and wellbeing.

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. An ever-growing body of public-health literature demonstrates a significant connection between productivity and strategies such as access to sunlight, healthy food and beverages, having direct control over one’s workspace, and having access opportunities to be physically active during the work day. 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 certainly led to an increased awareness of the link between human health and the built environment, including the places where we live and work. The fact that a building’s design and operations play a vital role in the health of their occupants is soaring among tenants. And real estate investors and owners are quickly realising that assets that prioritise health and wellbeing are safer, more resilient and more valuable. 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).

One thing asset managers should be doing to respond to the increased awareness is exploring healthy building platforms. Fitwel’s platform is really unique as it allows asset managers to assess their buildings against the Fitwel Standard and provides a roadmap to help them integrate healthy building practices. Our platform takes the guesswork out of how to approach prioritising health and wellbeing by allowing asset managers to benchmark their properties, establish a baseline and work to implement Fitwel in order to achieve 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. If we look at the growth of the Fitwel Viral Response Module, launched in September 2020 in response to Covid-19, we’ve seen more than 100 million square feet of real estate achieve 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. It also ensures that we learn from all we have experienced since the start of the pandemic and keep integrating that 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 encourages maintenance of HVAC systems, something that is often overlooked, which can play a significant role in maximising efficiency of these systems and thus reducing energy usage. Other strategies found in Fitwel aimed at promoting public transportation and active transportation can also help building achieve 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 the workplace include 70+ strategies across 12 sections and look at everything from building location, indoor air quality, building circulation and emergency-preparedness. One unique aspect of the Fitwel Certification is that there are no prerequisites, meaning property teams can decide which strategies they want to pursue based on a variety of factors, including building location, asset type, occupant profile and, of course, 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.