A new era for commercial real estate: In the built environment, health and wellness is now more important than ever
This article originally appeared in Real Estate NJ
By Ben P. Lee
Understanding market trends is a key of successful real estate development, and one of the most significant trends in today’s corporate America is firms’ growing emphasis on boosting performance and increasing productivity from their workforce.
In recent years, architects have been working with many major corporations to develop high-performance work environments as part of their business strategy. One new area of focus is health and wellness, as many corporations have initiated corporate wellness programs to improve their productivity and reduce health care costs. This new trend is the incentive for a new direction for building standards: the WELL Building Standard.
Recently adopted by the United States Green Building Council, the WELL Building Standard is a new certification program beyond the LEED certifi cations for green building design, which encourages new and existing office building owners to consider health and wellness as part of their building offerings. The program is based upon key research and evidence-based design, which has elevated the public’s understanding of how the built environment can impact our physical and mental health.
The advantage of WELL-certified buildings with proper exposure to daylight is significant, as they can help stimulate the circadian rhythm that regulates our internal body clocks and controls our physical well-being. Other architectural aspects of WELL-designed buildings achieve similarly beneficial results: Design features for sound and noise control can help to release stress, while active workstations and office environments can add to healthier lives. The intent of the WELL Building Standard for office buildings is to increase productivity, reduce health care costs and attract corporate tenants that recognize the primacy of health and wellness initiatives. Of note, the Los Angeles headquarters of CBRE — a major supporter of this initiative — became the first commercial building in the world to achieve WELL certification in 2013, and just a few years later, WELL certification has now been granted to approximately 300 projects around the world.
While the importance of maintaining health is nothing new, the fast pace of technology and the development of personal smart devices has raised significant awareness of wellness considerations. For an increasingly large portion of society, wearable gadgets have become an extension of our bodies, and as a society we’re more cognizant of our heart rates, daily steps, sleep patterns, food and water intake and exercise programs than ever before. As health-related technologies continue to proliferate, it is likely that soon we will have apps that reveal levels of daylight exposure, vitamin D, stress and more. Integrating these concerns into the workspaces, where we spend a large portion of our waking hours, is becoming a demand by the new generation of workforce.
At the same time, health care is becoming one of the most significant hot-button issues in the United States of today, as the country seeks to reduce skyrocketing health care costs and determine why we spend twice the amount as other developed countries but receive worse health care outcomes. With two-thirds of our population overweight (according to the BMI index) and one-third of the country classified as pre-diabetic at a very early age, the WELL Building Standard can play a major role in reversing that trend.
Of course, a WELL-certified building is only the first step. We need to create healthier communities by collaborating with our health care organizations, local municipal governments, county and regional planning agencies as well as leadership from our state legislatures and government. The goal of a public infrastructure that promotes health and wellness demands that actions be taken beyond office buildings. Once all the stakeholders come together, we can develop master-planned neighborhoods that include walking paths, bikeways, local parks and recreation spaces, as well as fully connected public transportation systems. Hand in hand with state policies that promote improved health standards for all of our communities, enhancing the built environment will go a long way toward improving the country’s collective health profile.
As an architect, I am keenly aware of the impact that buildings can have on humanity, and the benefits of responsible and safe design are manifested in the spaces we live and work in across the state and beyond. The New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects recognizes the importance of initiatives that help us build healthy and livable communities, and as an organization, we work actively to advocate for their adoption. If the stakeholders in the development, construction and political realms will join forces with us to advance the mission of a health-oriented built environment, we can make this vision a reality.
Ben Lee is the New Jersey chapter president of the American Institute of Architects and has more than 35 years of experience in the field of architecture. The managing principal and chief financial officer at NK Architects, Ben’s specialized experience includes health care, behavioral health and senior care. He is a board-certifi ed health care architect by the American College of Healthcare Architects. He is a registered architect in 25 states and Washington, D.C.
AIA is the professional organization that helps architects serve the public’s needs and builds awareness of the role of architects and architecture in American society. AIA New Jersey has 2,000 members in six local sections and has served as the voice of the architecture profession in the Garden State since 1900.