Healthy Building Strategies that Manage Risk
A closer look at the specifics, including examples from The WELL Building Standard™
With that background in mind, I am often asked for examples of the risks that healthier buildings manage, and the specific strategies.
In this article I tie risk management strategies to specific Features of The WELL Building Standard™ (WELL). The goal is not to provide an exhaustive list, but to give practitioners a more informed way of identifying and evaluating risk, and examples of tools they can leverage to advocate for healthier buildings.
Risk should always be analyzed in context.
Before we get into the specifics, I need to give a little bit of context about risk in the context of “green building.” Early in the green building movement, around 2008, there was some concern that a rush of litigation would originate from green projects, leading some practitioners to coin the term “LEED-igation.”
I’m a lawyer and sustainability consultant and I’ve read the “green building cases” that are out there. I put “green building cases” in quotes — not to be obnoxious — but because based on my review, these cases are just traditional design and construction claims that happen to originate from projects that were pursuing some type of sustainable outcome.
Put simply, LEED-igation never happened. And in my opinion, that is because the design, construction and insurance industries — which have been around for a significant period of time — are well-equipped to manage the evolving nature of their work. New construction products and processes have been introduced into the market for centuries, the industries have responded appropriately, and we have continued to design, build and insure projects.
The legal industry is really the one stifling sustainable innovation, by unnecessarily applying a “risk” label that often fails to consider the overall context.
This does not mean I am an advocate for recklessly ignoring risks; I’m actually quite risk averse in my own practice. That said, the great majority of times I have heard an allegation of “risk” originating from a green project or product, it was really just a potential, manageable issue that the lawyer (or insurance company) didn’t want to take the time to understand.
So they just labeled the issue a “risk,” and moved on. This type of blanket allegation is really the greatest risk of all, particularly when it comes to a tool like green buildings, which, given the significant contributions of “traditional” buildings to climate change, present so much opportunity.
Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of the wasted time that comes with stalling innovation via abstract claims of risk.
So, I’ll say it again, “healthy buildings are a risk management strategy, unhealthy buildings are a liability,” and in this article, I’ll give some specifics.
Healthy Building strategies that manage risk.
In this article, I pull examples from WELL because (1) it has experienced incredible market adoption (as I explain below) and (2) as a WELL AP, I’m very familiar with that framework. That said, WELL is obviously not the only healthy building certification program, and no one program is perfect.
Below are my top six risks and risk management strategies and the corresponding Features in WELL v2 (Q4 2021 Addendum and including Beta features):
- Early identification and resolution of potential issues.
- The evolving nature and importance of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors.
- The risk of poor air quality
- Failing to provide spaces that support occupants’ mental health and wellbeing.
- Failing to create spaces that support a neurodiverse workforce.
- Failing to adequately prepare for emergencies.
For those who are new to WELL, it is organized by big-picture Concepts (Air, Water) and specific strategies under each of those concepts, called Features.
I break the issues down by big picture risk, overall management strategy, and (a non-inclusive list of) examples of WELL Features that support the risk management strategy or strategies.
There are obviously more and other risks and Features, but this is a good starting point based on the most common issues that I saw in my previous work litigating construction cases and that I see in my current work as a sustainability consultant. It is also important to note that while I break these issues and strategies out into groups, largely for organizational purposes, they are inter-related and work together — we only pull them apart for academic purposes.
The Risk of Obsolescence
Before we dive into the top six risks that I see, I want to spend a few minutes on a general risk: the “risk of obsolescence.” This is really the risk that commercial and residential spaces will sit vacant because nobody wants to lease them.
We manage this risk by following the market and planning for spaces that provide services and support systems that are both needed now and will be needed in the future — many of the examples that follow fit into that category. The reality is that development and construction of commercial and residential spaces takes time — years, in fact.
So managing this risk means looking back at historical trends, combining that information with the current market, and applying a forward-looking lens.
Health and wellness in building design and operations
This should be obvious from the fact that this article focuses on healthy buildings, but it is worth highlighting the significant market opportunity that healthy buildings present.
Missing this market opportunity, or dismissing it as a fad, is a huge business risk.
Let’s use WELL’s explosive growth as an example:
As this chart demonstrates, the demand for WELL grew significantly during the pandemic and remains very high.
Giving some project specific context to this data, when David Levinson, chairman and CEO of L&L Holding, the developer of the first new office building on Park Avenue in 50 years (425 Park) was interviewed for the book Healthy Buildings, How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, he talked about how healthy buildings manage this type of risk.
He noted, “In an up market, I get the premium. In a down market, I get the tenant.”¹
This type of forward looking “future-proofing” is a key risk management strategy. Healthy buildings are not a fad. Just like “green” buildings, what the term “healthy” means will evolve and expand (it already has), but it will not go away.
So if you think about healthy buildings in the context of this demand, exploring any opportunity to improve the health and wellness of building occupants seems to like a pretty reasonable risk management strategy.
The top risks and strategies
With that context and background in mind, let’s take a closer look at the top six risks and strategies.²
Early identification and resolution of potential issues.
With limited exceptions, nearly every construction project is unique. This means that despite the best planning, there will inevitably be issues. Whether these issues turn into problems often depends on how early they are identified: generally speaking, issues that are identified earlier in the process are often easier (read: cheaper) to resolve.
What’s the risk(s): issues are not identified until they are expensive and / or irresolvable problems.
How do we manage: emphasize and incentivize communication and input from all project team members as early in the process as possible.
Specific Features that help manage these risks:
- C02 Integrative Design — requiring an inclusive and collaborative planning process.
- I01 Innovate WELL — opportunity to push the envelope and develop strategies that honor the unique challenges and opportunities of every project.
- I02 WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP) — leverage training to identify issues.
The evolving nature and importance of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors.
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is clearly here to stay and quickly becoming (it arguably has already) business as usual. Failing to keep up with the latest regulatory and market drivers is one of the biggest risks for businesses.
This means that failing to set projects up to align with ESG factors also presents significant business risk.
And, while some ESG factors are policy-driven, we can translate certain ESG objectives into the design of physical spaces. One key example is inclusive restrooms, which I will discuss later.
To meet the existing market demand and the expected regulatory requirements, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) has created various resources that demonstrate alignment of WELL with ESG reporting metrics. You can download and view those resources here, here and here. These resources detail how WELL Features align with common ESG reporting frameworks, including UN Sustainable Development Goals (WELL-alignment resource, here), GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards, GRESB, and others.
Companies are already leveraging these resources. Here’s one example, from Uber’s 2020 ESG report:
Workplace wellness: We believe the health and wellness of Uber’s workforce is and integrally related to environmental sustainability in the workplace. We are pursuing the LEED and WELL building certifications for close to 3 million square feet of office space around the globe. Key features of focus include enhancing indoor air and water quality, designing the space to maximize daylighting, increasing occupant thermal and audio comfort, and preferencing non-hazardous, recycled materials in our furniture and materials. (p. 36)
Here’s another example from Prologis’ 2020 Sustainability Report, in a section that highlights WELL as a tool to solve customer labor shortages:
As e-commerce continues to grow, our customers consistently tell us that attracting and retaining qualified logistics talent is one of their biggest pain points. We can help. By leveraging our scale, reach and future-oriented thinking, Prologis is driving innovative new solutions that benefit our customers, their employees, and our local communities…
Designing our buildings for sustainability doesn’t just benefit the planet and our customers’ utility bills; it also provides safe, healthy and appealing environments for the people who work there. We optimize factors such as indoor air quality and lighting and provide natural outdoor amenities, so that our buildings promote workforce wellness, boost engagement and productivity and support our customers’ talent attraction and retention efforts. (p. 32)
Again, because WELL Features are third-party verified by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), either via documentation or on-site testing, the data reporting is already more robust and closer to the level that is expected for ESG reporting.
What’s the risk(s): falling behind on ESG reporting, missing the real market opportunity to differentiate your company / project, and being ill-prepared for regulatory mandates.
How do we manage: focus on Features that align with ESG frameworks and support ESG metrics.
Specific Features that help manage these risks:
In addition to the third-party verified nature of WELL, and the alignment with ESG reporting frameworks, there are some specific Features worth highlighting.
- I05 Green Building Rating Systems — balancing commitment to environmental sustainability with human health. Because we cannot ignore the impacts of carbon emissions on human health (and the built environment’s significant contributions to those emissions), both buildings and human health have to be a part of any climate conversation.
- I06B Carbon Disclosure and Reduction — recognizing organizations that set and make progress towards carbon goals.
- C12 Diversity and Inclusion — implement and report on policies that support diversity and inclusion.
- C13 Accessibility and Universal Design — integrate Universal Design principles to create more inclusive spaces.
Risk of poor air quality.
This risk really has two parts.
First, the latest research demonstrates that humans do not perform well in spaces with poor air quality and that even minimal improvements in building design and operations can significantly improve performance.³ Not capturing this opportunity is a business risk and ignoring this research presents the risk of potential liability for fostering unsafe spaces. You can read more about that research and the associated risks, here and the articles I linked at the beginning.
Second, for now, and into the foreseeable future, any Features that reduce airborne viral transmission are key risk management strategies and also critical for getting occupants back into office spaces (and realizing the value of these spaces). They also build resilience into the building and the organizations that utilize those spaces, as we work to manage the impacts of the current pandemic and future pandemics.
What’s the risk(s): reduced performance and increased absenteeism due to poor air quality; increased costs and potential liability for poor air quality and potential viral transmission.
How do we manage: focus on Features that address air quality.
Specific Features that help manage these risks:
- Essentially all Features in the Air Concept, including those that increase filtration and ventilation and control air pollution sources, specifically:
A01 Air Quality, A03 Ventilation Design, A05 Enhanced Air Quality, A06 Enhanced Ventilation Design, A07 Operable Windows, A08 Air Quality Monitoring and Awareness, A12 Air Filtration, A13 Enhanced Supply Air.
- Features in the Materials Concept that relate to air quality and pollution source control:
X01 Material Restrictions, X02 Interior Hazardous Materials Management, X05 Enhanced Material Restrictions, X06 VOC Restrictions, X07 Materials Transparency, X08 Materials Optimization, X11 Cleaning Products and Protocols.
Failing to provide spaces that support occupants’ mental health and wellbeing.
Experts have noted that beyond the physical impacts of the pandemic, there will be long lasting mental health impacts of an unprecedented scale.
Buildings play a key role in this discussion, because they are designed to bring people together — the exact behavior we need to avoid during this pandemic. Going back to the places we have been advised to avoid for more than two years is, to say the least, daunting and stressful.
There are many ways we can design spaces to support mental health — including but not limited to, the transition back to the office, in whatever format that ultimately takes. These strategies generally translate to both support services/policies and quiet, safe spaces where occupants can seek a moment (or more) of refuge.
What’s the risk(s): distracted, unhappy, and generally unwell employees who need support, are at greater risk of a variety of issues, and more likely to leave the organization.
How do we manage: create spaces that foster mental health and overall wellbeing.
Specific Features that help manage these risks: there are various Features (both policy and design driven)⁴ within the Mind Concept that provide mental health support.
- A few of the relevant Features in the Mind Concept are:
M01 Mental Health Promotion, M02 Nature and Place, M03 Mental Health Services, M04 Mental Health Education, M05 Stress Management, M06 Restorative Opportunities, M07 Restorative Spaces, M08 Restorative Programming, M09 Enhanced Access to Nature, M11 Substance Use Services.
Additionally, many Features from the Movement Concept, and general strategies that relate to concepts such as Biophilic design, access to nature, views and daylight (in addition to M02 and M09), also provide support for occupants. A few additional examples:
- L03 Circadian Lighting Design — exposure to light that is consistent with a natural day/night cycle.
- L05 Daylight Design Strategies — integrating natural daylight and providing access to windows.
Failing to create spaces that support a neurodiverse workforce.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to do their best work. Yet, we have historically designed spaces that only support a narrow range of the human experience. This needs to change.
Additional research, largely from designers at HOK, has been published which outlines the design strategies that can provide support for a neurodiverse workforce and highlights the companies that have benefitted from implementing design strategies that support all users.⁵
What’s the risk(s): spaces that do not adequately provide support for all users.
How do we manage: implement strategies focused on lighting, acoustics and access to nature, as well as clear way-finding and appropriate (not overwhelming) levels of color and pattern.
Specific Features that help manage these risks:
- L04 Electric Light Glare Control
- L07 Visual Balance — creation of a visually comfortable lighting environment.
- L08 Electric Light Quality — accounting for light characteristics including color rendering and flicker.
- S02 Maximum Noise Levels
- S03 Sound Barriers
- S04 Reverberation Time
- S05 Sound Reducing Surfaces
- S06 Minimum Background Sound
With the increasing demand for spaces that better support all users, those that don’t will quickly become obsolete.
Failing to adequately prepare for emergencies.
Was your organization prepared for the pandemic? Very likely not. Do you now understand how resilience is a key part of sustainability, health and wellness? Very likely yes.
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but worth noting.
What’s the risk(s): business interruption and all the associated impacts to employees and tenants from an emergency, whether viral, environmental, climate-related, or technological.
How do we manage: ensure a robust emergency plan is implemented, updated and communicated to all users.
Specific Features in the Community Concept that help manage these risks:
- C03 Emergency Preparedness, C14 Emergency Resources, C15B Emergency Resilience and Recovery
Circling back to the point about future-proofing and a forward-looking lens, I would be remiss if I did not mention the importance of water conservation, capture and storage to any conversation around resilience. Currently, there is a Beta Feature, W09B Onsite Non-Potable Water Reuse that is worth noting.
The bottom line is that sustainable, healthier buildings don’t create risks; they help manage those that already exist and some that we largely choose to ignore.
Apply these tools and strategies to advocate for more inclusive spaces that support the health and wellness of all users. Because everyone deserves the opportunity to do their very best work and have their best lived experience; the physical spaces where we spend 90% of our time should be a key part of those conversations.
 Allen and Macomber, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, Harvard University Press (2020), p. 168.
 I need to be really clear that this is not an all-inclusive list of risks or strategies, and I’m not saying that green or sustainable or even healthy buildings are risk-free; I’m saying that the potential risks are often outweighed by the benefits of innovation, given the context of a rapidly changing climate (among other factors). If you are looking for more explanation, read the articles linked in the introduction.
 You could also argue the same is true for aspects like thermal comfort and lighting, but based on my review, the research regarding air quality is so strong that it is the biggest risk, which is why I’m highlighting it here.
 I mention both policy and design strategies because if a project is already far along in construction, it is important to note that there are still opportunities to provide policy support, even if the opportunity for design changes has passed.
 For more information on the importance of inclusive restroom design, read this article, here. And check out resources like the REFUGE app, here.
This article is not legal, medical or any other type of advice. Please utilize common sense.