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Pathway to a Healthier Building

By Dorothy Hamilton, Managing Director of Property Management | Washington, DC

We strive to offer clients the option to work toward specific certifications through our Property Management platform at Stream Realty Partners. Here, Dorothy Hamilton in the Washington DC office discusses the WELL Building Standard and what occupiers are looking for in the marketplace based on what brokers, tenants and clients were telling them. We started looking at the WELL Building Standard and WELL Health and Safety as the globally recognized options for certifying a building as “healthy.”  Here we discuss not only what we’ve learned, but a possible path forward for occupiers and asset owners.

A Time of Heightened Awareness

The pandemic has drawn a massive amount of media attention to the quality of our work environments, as one of many measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. As we return to the office, what can be done to help occupants feel comfortable about being back in the workplace?

Property Management (PM) professionals have performed tests and checks to maintain and improve the interior and exterior quality of the buildings they manage for quite some time. However, there is now a heightened awareness, especially toward air quality and movement designed to promote social distancing. Clients are asking not only what they can do, but how they can demonstrate their progress and achievements to their building’s occupants and the wider market.

There are many levels of certification available. Questions owners often ask include: What is a healthy building? Can all buildings reach certification? How does it work? What is the cost? And of course, what are the benefits?

What is a Healthy Building?

Creating and maintaining what are now referred to as “healthy buildings” can be achieved through attention to the following design and operations elements.

Infographic 10 Concepts of Well Buildings Standards
Source WELL Building Standard: 10 Concepts

There are a number of certifications and designations available. The WELL Building Standard is the global standard for excellence and has been rolled out in over 4,000 projects across 60 countries. The WELL Building Standard is evidence-based and third-party verified, focusing on reaching and maintaining standards in the 10 concepts that impact on health and wellness.

The healthy building movement was established to create a positive human experience through workplace environments. It is essentially a way to receive a positive return on investment by investing in people. The WELL Building certifications work alongside other globally recognized green building rating systems such as LEED, BREEAM, Greenstar, and Living Building Challenge.

Can All Buildings Reach the WELL Building Standard?

The WELL Certification is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the building features identified above that impact on health and well-being.

If a building is designed around health, with the certification or at least with the common elements of a well-balanced interior environment in mind, it is far easier to reach the standards required, than it would be to retrofit an older building. Similarly, newer buildings can often be adapted and upgraded to reach the standard if their systems are generally well designed. For some larger organizations with ESG governance requirements, certification will demonstrate commitment to achieving those goals.

With an older building, changes or additions can be most efficiently and cost effectively completed during periodic renovations. The older the building, generally the more difficult it is to get that WELL Certification. In fact, some existing buildings might not be able to attain WELL Certification if their systems are too old or poorly designed, because you would have to tear everything out and replace it in order to reach the certification standard. In DC we have buildings that are 100+ years old, so many of those would not be suitable candidates for the WELL Building Standard, but there are still elements owners can adopt to improve the internal environment in those properties.

Due to the fact that WELL Certification isn’t a fit for all buildings or budgets, we have also been working with United Labs (UL) to identify an alternative starting point and the best pathway to guide our clients—because they are ultimately the ones making the decision.

How Does it Work?

UL has a three-tier performance-based system which is evaluated by an external assessor for the following categories:

  • Tier 1: Indoor air quality
  • Tier 2: Water
  • Tier 3: Indoor acoustics

There is also a WELL Building Certification for Health and Safety, which covers more than the UL Tiers, so there are a number of options for clients to choose from. Owners have the option to acquire the certification for each of the UL tiers, which may also be applicable to existing and older buildings and apply them as incremental credit towards the WELL Building Standard.

 To reach the WELL Building Standard is about a five-year process and must be renewed every five years. WELL Health and Safety is initially achievable in a number of months but must be renewed annually (both by a third-party assessor). It is necessary, once a building does reach a certain level or standard, to consistently maintain or improve on those standards so the property will be ready for the next assessment. Records can be kept simply with spreadsheets or something more sophisticated can be developed, like a programmed dashboard—depending on the client’s requirement.

 What is the Financial Commitment?

Owners are already spending between $3,000-$5,000 for annual air quality assessments, so upgrading to the UL certification is likely to be an additional $10,000, which as part of the big picture budget may be acceptable to most. At the moment of course indoor air quality is the number one concern, so UL Tier 1 is the perfect place to start.  Costs for each of the above-mentioned categories depend on building size but fall in the following ranges:

  • $15,000 for the UL tiers
  • $50,000 for a WELL Health and Safety Designation
  • $150,000+ for the full WELL Building Standard

Often trophy buildings or new Class A office spaces are good candidates for the WELL Building Standard, which takes about five years to attain. The WELL Health and Safety standard is more affordable and attainable for older or smaller buildings. One size does not fit all, and we appreciate that different options can be achieved at a pace and a cost that makes sense for most

The Benefits: Healthy Building, Healthy Balance Sheet

Attracting and retaining tenants, investors and clients impacts the asset value. From the owner’s perspective, as well as building brand equity through leadership and innovation, ongoing pandemic concerns have magnified the importance of cleanliness, air flow and ventilation; but improving these elements is and always was important. The truth is, raising the standard of a building’s interior environment differentiates and future proofs the building for the long term in a competitive marketplace where tenants and investors who have many choices, are increasingly motivated by health, wellness and sustainability.

The Story So Far

Stream’s Pathway to a Healthier Building. At Stream, we have created a pathway of incremental steps to help clients identify and reach their goals, whether that is a full WELL Building Certification, working through the UL tiers or establishing their own program to improve the environment within their buildings to show occupants that their health and wellbeing is a priority.

We have always promoted a healthy interior building environment as a way to attract and retain tenants, but with heightened awareness because of Covid-19, client questions and demand led us to create the Stream Pathway to a Healthier Building, to help clients navigate the options to improve their buildings for their occupants. I’m working with Stream’s Mike Burnett, our SVP of national building operations, to roll out the Stream Pathway to a Healthier Building for our clients nationally. 90% of our time is spent indoors, the quality of our buildings matter.

I think we can all agree that it’s important now and going forward to deliver thoughtful and intentional spaces that enhance human health and well-being.

About the Author

Dorothy Hamilton serves as Managing Director of Property Management in Stream Realty Partners’ Washington, DC office. Dorothy’s role is to help manage and grow Stream’s property management platform throughout the Mid-Atlantic. She brings with her over twenty years of commercial real estate experience.

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