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COVID-19 and the Future of Green Buildings

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Written By: Laura Turner

In recent years, the green building conversation has expanded beyond environmental sustainability to account for measures that relate to human health.

This reflects a growing consciousness about how buildings and the environment affect our well-being. While third-party sustainability certification systems have historically included measures such as increased efficiency and occupant behavior modification, we are entering a new era in which health and safety measures are becoming more prevalent in building certifications. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened this consciousness, making this a critical moment for healthy buildings and healthy building certifications.

Building certifications are valuable tools because they take a data-driven approach, describing clear sets of measurable targets for participating buildings. They provide rigorous frameworks for architects, engineers, and other building stakeholders to improve building design and functionality. In doing so, they also allow us to set industry standards and share best practices across market segments.

For nearly three decades, green building certifications have provided a road map for sustainability in the built environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR launched in 1992, and now benchmarks energy performance in commercial buildings, homes, and appliances. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) introduced Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) in 1994. It provides tiered achievement levels based on buildings’ resource use, carbon impacts, and energy performance, among other factors. New iterations of these certifications, and many others, are developed each year in response to a rapidly evolving market.

More recently, programs such as the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL Building Standard® and Fitwel® (launching in 2014 and 2016, respectively) focus on the ways in which the built environment impacts human health and wellbeing. The International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge goes even further. It sets an ambitious standard for buildings to enhance both human health and sustainability in a truly regenerative way, with little to no negative consequences for people or the environment.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has made this view of healthy buildings – one that surpasses environmental concerns - a hot topic for industry professionals and the general public alike.

Before the pandemic, the idea that buildings and public spaces affect our health registered on a surface level for most of the general public (that is, those outside of sustainability and public health fields). We understood that lead pipes and asbestos are bad for us. Many of us coveted office spaces with good ventilation and natural light, recognizing that it made us feel better, perhaps improved our focus and productivity.

Now, after spending months in our homes, avoiding crowded indoor spaces, and adjusting our entire reality around the threat of a novel virus, our relationship with the built environment has become more important than ever. People have developed an increased appreciation for indoor air quality, ventilation, access to natural light, and comfortable workspaces. These factors and more have become essential considerations for facilities managers and building engineers, who now have an increased responsibility to tenants’ health in commercial spaces.

As we fight to prevent the spread the COVID-19 and start to imagine a world in which we can return to offices, restaurants, and “normal” life, healthy buildings are more prevalent than ever before.

We’re now seven months into the pandemic and we’re well on our way, adapting our approach to whole-building systems and health concerns. These measures include capacity limits, staggered work schedules, arrangements for physical distancing, enhanced disinfectant procedures, and use of PPE.

Technology has also taken center stage as engineers rethink how building systems can mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Many building technicians have started using air filters that catch smaller particles and configuring HVAC settings to increase air flow from the outdoors. Other air purification methods, from enhanced filtration to irradiation and thermal strategies, are being implemented. Scientists are exploring how to leverage lighting technologies to kill the virus.

That new technologies and standards are being developed every day in response to COVID-19 makes us wonder – what will the built environment look like in ten years?

How will building certification systems reflect these potential new standards?

Building certifications have always demonstrated, in various ways, that buildings meet meaningful benchmarks for occupant safety and environmental sustainability. In a time when information is coming at us from all sides, organizations that develop these certifications are uniquely positioned to serve as trustworthy, transparent leaders on building safety. Their leadership is critical for building a new normal.

Many such organizations have responded to this demand.

ENERGY STAR updated their application process and requirements, allowing stakeholders to pursue certification despite the significant operational changes prompted by the pandemic.

Fitwel® launched their Viral Response Module, offering a breadth of science-based strategies that consider the long-term effects of the pandemic. The module provides concrete guidance for ensuring air and water quality, as well as implementing behavioral interventions to ensure proper hygiene and PPE use. It outlines policies and procedures related to living and thriving in a post-COVID world: trust, mental health, sick leave, and supporting working families long term.

Similarly, the USGBC introduced LEED® Safety First pilot credits, defining sustainable best practices related to virus prevention and preparedness. They enhance the program’s existing indoor air quality requirements and outline environmentally friendly cleaning strategies. Their approach also offers cities and workplaces tools to plan for and measure re-entry strategies. Notably, the Social Equity and Pandemic Planning credit focuses on equity concerns associated with pandemic responses.

Just as they have for decades, building certification systems are mapping the future of the built environment.

Concerns about safety and productivity are, rightfully, at the forefront of everyone’s minds as we figure out how to move forward.

Where human health was increasingly becoming a focus on the green building movement, it has now taken center stage. As we’ve seen with traditionally “green” building models, COVID-19 has essentialized a holistic approach to green building, calling on green building certifications to incorporate measures that account for the connections between human health and the natural environment.

As we rethink our relationship with the built environment in the coming years, building certifications are a promising tool for determining how to maximize that relationship - not just to prevent disease spread, but for the environment and health and safety more generally.

Want to know more about green building certifications or commercial real estate in the time of COVID-19? Reach out to for more information.


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