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Coronavirus Means Building Owners, Companies Need To Look At New Health Standards

CORRECTION, APRIL 2, 10:45 A.M. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated IWBI scrapped its WELL 2.0 revision. The organization put releasing it on hold until the task force reviews if more updates are needed in light of COVID-19. This story has been updated.

The International WELL Building Institute, an organization focused on the health and wellness of commercial real estate, planned to unveil an updated set of standards March 13. Then the coronavirus started spreading.

In light of the pandemic, the IWBI paused releasing its new standards and put together a task force of health experts and academics to review its list and potentially add recommendations to combat future pandemics in the workplace.

The International WELL Building Institute is re-examining its certification benchmarks in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"In this moment, WELL and anything that really stresses the importance of place in our health and well being ... has never been more relevant,” IWBI President Rachel Gutter said.

Similar to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification for a building's carbon output, IWBI's WELL Building Standard is a certification program aimed mainly at commercial real estate landlords and businesses' office space. But IWBI's focus is on addressing the health and wellness of workers within those spaces, everything from physical health, better food offerings and mental health policies.

As the organization was set to reveal a revised set of standards for its certification program, COVID-19 made company officials realize they needed to revisit those standards and add requirements to address commercial real estate and business operations during a pandemic, Gutter said. IWBI certifies more than half a billion square feet of commercial space in 58 countries.

The task force it formed includes the former CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, who also is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania; UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Dr. Jonathan Fielding; former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona; and Harvard Assistant Professor Joseph Allen, who wrote the book Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity.

The task force was formed March 17 and has not developed any specific recommendations yet, Gutter said. But she expects there to be changes, including new focuses on ventilation systems and having remote-working policies in place.

Many companies were caught flat-footed as municipalities and states issued shelter-in-place orders, forcing the businesses to ask employees to work from home and develop protocols and processes on the fly.

Health and wellness may go beyond having yoga as a building amenity in a post-pandemic world.

Viruses can transmit person-to-person through a variety of different ways: through droplets, on surfaces or just floating around in the air, said Allen, who teaches exposure assessment science at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Usually, a virus will have a preferred mode of transmission. But with COVID-19, early indicators appear it can move person-to-person in all three ways just as easily, Allen said. That fact will force building owners to rethink and update many of their aging systems, especially to protect against airborne viruses.

“We have to think about the other things we're doing in a building as it relates to ventilation,” he said.

Older mechanical systems were not focused on filtration, and most windows in office buildings are immobile. Now there could be needs for air purifiers and the simple ability to open windows.

“Over the past 50 years, we started to choke off buildings,” Allen said. “We're talking about getting back to basics here.”

Building managers are now having to learn new tasks and preventive measures in an age of pandemics, QuadReal Property Group head of special projects Cheryl Gray said. Gray also is the president of the Institute of Real Estate Management, which recently published new guidelines property managers could follow during the coronavirus outbreak.

Modern Class-A and trophy buildings already have very stringent design standards, because developers and their client companies have been heavily focused on recruitment and retention, part of which includes worker wellness.

But now wellness may mean more than just yoga studios and gyms as building amenities. It may mean having a plan in place for employees to not have to show up to work and still get their jobs done.

“Instead of pushing people to come into work at all costs … we need to find a middle ground that puts us in a better place in the future,” Gray said. “The standards by which you're building today from a wellness and sustainable standpoint are the best-case scenarios.”

Employees may begin to expect more from their companies as it relates to their personal health, Gutter said. This is something that IWBI has already seen in China even before the coronavirus outbreak, especially given the country's poor air quality.

“[Employees] want to know what the building does to protect the health and well-being of their family,” Gutter said. "So they expect filtration at higher levels, they expect operable windows. And I think that's coming for all of us as well."

Businesses and governments may also start adapting behaviors seen in South Korea, which include wide-scale testing, taking temperatures of people as they enter buildings and isolating those who exhibit any symptoms early on, Allen said.

Those moves were considered culturally awkward in America before this pandemic, he said. That may now change. Many health experts hailed South Korea as an example of how to protect from the spread of contagion without shutting the country down.

“I'm pretty confident we'll see a lot of that in the U.S.,” Allen said. “People are going to look at their buildings differently. They already are. Next time you step in your office, you're going to look around and wonder if you're in a healthy building.”