Healthy People in Healthy Places Equals a Healthy Economy

Healthy People in Healthy Places Equals a Healthy Economy

A new tagline underscores USGBC’s commitment to health and wellness, while also addressing the most pressing challenges facing people and businesses today.

Summer 2020 | Written by Calvin Hennick

Human health and wellness has always been a crucial component of both green buildings and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. But over the years, that messaging has sometimes been lost amid impersonal statistics about climate change and carbon reduction.

While the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is certainly not shifting its focus away from the impact of green buildings on the environment, the organization is doing more to communicate the human-scale benefits of sustainability. That means emphasizing not just climate change, but also the health and wellness and economic benefits of going green.

USGBC’s new organizational vision, “Healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy,” was being workshopped even before the COVID-19 crisis hit the United States in March. But the coronavirus crisis has, coincidentally, illustrated the importance of our buildings and spaces to both human health and the larger economy. People are afraid of entering crowded indoor spaces, and they’re also afraid of losing their jobs.

Although the principles behind the tagline are timeless, the “Healthy people in healthy places…” message is made for the current moment.

Here, USGBC president and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam discusses the shift in messaging, the impact of the coronavirus on the green building industry, and why he thinks the idea that companies will move to a permanent work-from-home model is overblown.

Mahesh Ramanujam is the president and CEO of USGBC.

USGBC+: What do you hope to communicate with this new messaging?

Mahesh Ramanujam: Throughout our history, USGBC has really done a good job of talking about green buildings, climate change, carbon reduction, materials, waste, energy efficiency and water quality. We have really done a phenomenal job of defining what green buildings are and driving transformation around the world with LEED. In the past 10 years, it has become clear to me that if we want to accelerate market transformation, then it’s not enough to just ask businesses to do the right thing, but we must continue to answer the question, “How do LEED or green buildings actually benefit us, the human beings?”

To me, green buildings are about people, planet and profit. But still, we have not always done a good job of talking about or quantifying the human health and economic benefits of green building. Even today, most of our communication narrowly focuses on concepts like climate change and carbon mitigation—which are important but abstract concepts for a layperson to follow.

This has led to a false narrative that LEED or green buildings are just about the planet and not about people. On the contrary, since its inception in 1998, LEED has always prioritized human health strategies within buildings, making it clear that environmental, occupant and economic health are inextricably tied together. This is why we also launched our Living Standard campaign in 2018 to educate everyone that better buildings equal better lives—and through this awareness, drive the adoption of LEED.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought a heightened awareness among everyone about how their living environment impacts their health and that of their families. And the global lockdown has triggered millions of job losses and imploded the global economy. While we are heartbroken by this pandemic, we saw a unique opportunity to both help the global economy and to encourage people to adopt LEED in order to help make their spaces healthier.

It is our belief that the fastest way to restore the global economy is to help people know that they are living, working, learning and playing in healthier places. This is why we announced our new vision of “healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy”—so we can simultaneously help with the global economic recovery, fight climate change and contribute to improving quality of life. This vision builds on our past to respond in the present and is also intended to position us for the future.

USGBC+: How has the new messaging been received so far?

Mahesh Ramanujam: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Even our veteran stakeholders, who have been engaged in green buildings for a long time, are energized by the new message, as it is timely, simple, direct and transformative. We are glad to receive this validation from our own community, as that means we can accelerate and realize our vision both within and outside our community.

I have also heard some other interesting comments. On a recent call, someone asked me, “What happened to the green buildings? Why are you not focusing on climate change and carbon reduction? Why this new focus on health and wellness?”

I had to respond back with a series of questions: “How can you separate planetary health from human health? How can you separate environmental health from an individual’s health?” Because, really, this is not a new strategy. We’ve always emphasized the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. This is nothing different. We’ve always focused on health and wellness, but now we are communicating more directly to our stakeholders. This is what is new. And that’s what this vision is about.

USGBC has outlined the following near-term responses to the coronavirus crisis

Immediate Response…

1. Upgrades to LEED v4.1: USGBC will make a series of upgrades to LEED v4.1 that will be available later this year.

2. New LEED Pilot Credits: On an emergency basis, USGBC will release LEED pilot credits to support social distancing, nontoxic surface cleaning, air quality and infection monitoring.

3. Call for Ideas: USGBC will launch a call for ideas to hear perspectives from the broader market on how LEED can better evolve to address current conditions.

4. CEO Advisory Councils: CEO Advisory Councils will advise and support USGBC’s CEO on how the entire organization and its programs can adapt and move forward.

5. Accelerate USGBC Equity: The USGBC Equity program, announced at Greenbuild Atlanta in 2019, will be accelerated in order to help stakeholders address the social, health and economic disparities within their communities.

6. Adapted Review Process: GBCI will amend its LEED review process to incorporate the lessons learned about COVID-19 response.

7. Guidance Reports: USGBC will publish a series of reports offering specific guidance on best practices to help project teams assist their occupants as they reenter their spaces.

…And Future Planning

8. Launch LEED v4.1 Regional Working Groups: USGBC will establish groups in the United States, Canada, Europe, North Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America to provide recommendations to the LEED Steering Committee and Technical Advisory Groups.

9. Take Advantage of the Human Experience Certificate: USGBC will leverage the Human Experience performance certificate in Arc to deliver a workplace reentry or healthy space report or certificate for spaces to monitor and improve their occupant satisfaction, comfort and confidence.

10. Invest in Better Materials: The Better Materials platform will continue to improve, curating and highlighting products that improve occupant health, wellness and confidence.

11. Focus on Advocacy: By intensifying efforts with federal, state and city governments, USGBC will advocate for policies, guidance and incentives in support of the organization’s vision.

12. Research: USGBC will conduct focused and timely research projects, publish a series of reports and initiate a LEED ROI study to demonstrate both return on investment and impact of green building.

13. Greenbuild: USGBC will bring the green building community together to celebrate their progress and support for this new vision.

TCF Convention Center in Michigan. Photo: Michelle Gerard

USGBC+: The focus of USGBC may not have changed, but the world certainly has. With the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the associated increase in unemployment, how does this new messaging address the current moment?

Mahesh Ramanujam: Right now there are 40 million people out of work in the U.S. That is really bad for the country and for people. And this pandemic is going to set us back as a country, making it more difficult to address future challenges like this one.

When you consider the economic situation, it’s going to be hard to get people to care about the environment. I’m sorry to say that, but right now most businesses and people are not going to care about sustainability. They are going to only think, “How do I keep my people in their jobs, how do I get my paycheck?” These are basic necessities.

In India, we have a saying that everyone has three basic needs: the bread, the clothing and the roof. Those are also universal priorities. The economy and health are so inextricably linked, and it’s more obvious now than ever because of COVID-19. And even the layperson now understands that the environment is the common denominator for personal health and prosperity.

Now, let’s take our new vision: “Healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy.” Let’s think about this a little differently and read this right to left. You start with the healthy economy, and then healthy places, and then healthy people. So if you want a healthy economy, then the places need to be healthy, which means people must stay healthy in those places.

NYU Langone Health facilities converted nonclinical spaces such as storage and conference rooms into clinical facilities.

USGBC+: Are LEED buildings better equipped than traditional buildings to keep people safe and healthy from this new threat?

Mahesh Ramanujam: I believe that the core tenets of LEED, like the indoor air quality, green cleaning, designing spaces for social interaction and daylighting will serve LEED building occupants well when they are back in their spaces.

Now, we don’t have data to prove that LEED buildings, at scale, have been able to prevent or insulate their occupants from COVID-19 infection. However, we’ll get more information as reentries happen, and we will know what has worked and what has not. This means we will be enhancing LEED to help in the fight against future pandemics like COVID-19 and also to make the necessary changes to LEED’s core strategies so that it remains relevant in the post-pandemic world.

But intuitively, we know that LEED buildings are in a better position than traditional buildings, as we have all the relevant strategies in LEED to support human health. How could this have not helped?

USGBC+: How are USGBC’s member companies responding to the current public health crisis?

Mahesh Ramanujam: I have been very impressed with everything our members have done so far in support of their communities. There are hundreds of heartwarming stories about how our members are on the frontlines supporting this crisis. This is because USGBC members have always believed that the greatest investment we can make is in one another.

One of my favorite stories is of our Gold-level member Johnson & Johnson. Since the beginning of the crisis, they’ve been making huge donations of PPE and funds to support frontline health workers. They are also doing a “30 Days of Action” campaign to channel everyone’s collective gratitude for frontline health workers, while working hard to deliver a vaccine. This is phenomenal leadership during this crisis.

In addition to these types of stories, there are also stories about how our members are adapting their spaces to support their communities. Two stories stand out for me.

First, we have the NYU Langone Health facilities that are certified Platinum under both LEED and PEER. As NYU Langone was able to integrate their clinical-side practitioners early on during their building design and LEED certification process, during this crisis they were able to convert their nonclinical spaces, like conference rooms, to clinical facilities. This is a lesson that we will incorporate into the future versions of LEED for Healthcare.

Second, we have TCF Convention Center in Michigan, which is the largest LEED-certified building in the state. During their pursuit of certification and recent renovations they made to the convention center, they installed an HVAC system that allows them to create negative air pressure throughout their entire facility. That has enabled them to convert the convention center into a temporary emergency hospital, because the negative air pressure allows them to approximate conditions in a regular hospital room and prevent cross-contamination between rooms. This is also a lesson that we will incorporate into LEED to support our community centers.

Creating healthy spaces for people to work has always been a goal in Gensler’s designs. Shown here is the new LEED-certified Knoll showroom in Chicago. Photo: Courtesy of Gensler, © Eric Laignel

USGBC+: Many businesses are saying that they’re seeing high levels of productivity with employees at home, and some say they’re not going to ever bring back some of their workers into an office setting. Is there going to be a different—or even decreased—role for office space (and, by extension, USGBC and LEED) going forward?

Mahesh Ramanujam: In the past few years, we have seen the rise of coworking spaces. And we were almost made to believe that the idea of independent offices was over. But this did not happen, right?

I can see why certain companies see this crisis as an opportunity to consolidate and reduce their investment in real estate and physical office spaces. It’s not just about productivity, it is also about reducing real estate costs. I don’t think this is going to be a real trend.

On March 6, I initiated a lockdown for USGBC offices well before the global lockdown came into effect. I simply did not want to risk the safety of our people, whom I deeply care about. I saw what was coming and that our staff needed to prepare to support their spouses, kids, elders, and, potentially, even their sick relatives. I didn’t think that our employees could handle all of that stress simultaneously and, hence, wanted to give them the time to emotionally prepare themselves for what I knew was going to be an extended period of lockdown. It has worked out well for us, as everyone seems to have coped well. The funny thing is that now even the staff who were asking to be remote before are begging to come back.

Most definitely, the next two to three years could be a rough period for the commercial real estate sector. We will see some new construction slow down, but I predict we’ll correspondingly see a renewed focus in existing buildings. And we will start to see existing spaces redesigned to support social distancing and other needs related to COVID-19.

When we bring people back into the office, it may be more like a community center or an interaction center than an office. It could be a place where people will come in two days a week to meet with clients and their colleagues. The use, for sure, will change—maybe for educational sessions, videoconferencing, presentations or for just a coffee meetup. But people do want workspaces. We are humans, right? We like connectivity. We are not hermits. We need that connectivity, and that happens in the workplace.

Even before the 2020 coronavirus crisis, many companies were making moves toward a model that incorporates telework—with 75% of employees saying their companies offer flexible work arrangements and 32% regularly working remotely.

SOURCE: “Modernizing Meetings: The Ultimate Guide to Conference Room Technology,” Samsung

The Office of The Future

How will the coronavirus crisis affect the office environment? Here are some predictions from business and facilities experts.

More Solo Spaces – Facility Executive magazine notes that employees were demanding solo spaces within open office layouts even before the coronavirus crisis hit. “Now, with added health threats, facility managers will need to finally address having an overabundance of conference room space designed for large groups of people versus smaller conference rooms,” the publication writes. “Employers will also begin to take a more active role in ensuring that employees are adequately distanced as they work in solo-oriented workspaces.”

Rotating Schedules – The BBC reports that a “staggered” workforce may become standard, with smaller groups coming in on alternate days and working in shifts that will help them to avoid peak hours on public transit systems. The BBC quotes an expert who says some workplaces are capping in-office staff numbers at 30% – a “sweet spot” for social distancing.

Small Changes Throughout the Office – CNBC reports that, as offices open back up, they may feature wider corridors with one-way foot traffic, improved air filtration, touchless elevator controls and videoconferencing, even among colleagues in the same building.

Redesign Based on Business Priorities – “We all have ideas about what a typical office looks and feels like: a mixture of private offices and cubicles, with meeting rooms, pantries, and shared amenities,” writes McKinsey & Company. “Few offices have been intentionally designed to support specific organizational priorities. Although offices have changed in some ways during the past decade, they may need to be entirely rethought and transformed for a post–COVID-19 world.” For instance, McKinsey writes, organizations might create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely.

HOK office in Washington, DC. Photo: Jeffrey Totaro

USGBC+: The organization was already shifting toward this message of healthy places and healthy people. In a way, is COVID-19 doing some of that messaging work for USGBC? Are people more aware of the health impact of our buildings than they were just a few months ago?

Mahesh Ramanujam: You’re absolutely right. It’s like having insurance for your car. You never know its value until your car is in an accident.

I think in a bizarre way—a very unfortunate way—you’re right. COVID-19 has really compressed our next 10 years of outreach to a few months. We’ve been saying for decades that the environment, individual health and the economy are all connected. I don’t think enough people heard us, and now COVID-19 has kind of put all of that on steroids.

It is unfortunate we have to learn this way, but now we are raising awareness among everyone. We are all working together to find solutions to this crisis.

USGBC+: What are USGBC’s next steps for this messaging effort?

Mahesh Ramanujam: It’s very simple. It’s the same thing that we started with when we founded USGBC in 1993. Our work is not done until all these green practices are no longer optional, but essential.

I was in India right before the COVID-19 crisis, and I asked a group of people a question about the country’s air pollution, which was really bad at that time. I asked, “If you have to drink everything you are breathing now in a glass of water, would you drink that glass of water?” And the instant response from everyone was a profound “no.” Pollution is an invisible thing, right? And people tend to always discount the invisible things.

So, how do we make people see all the invisible things that can impact their health? I think COVID-19 has taught us a great deal about that.

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