Health and wellness are not new concepts for IREM members. But the past year has seen a marked increase in their level of awareness as CPMs strive to ensure they’re doing all they can for the safety and happiness—that’s right, happiness—of their tenants and residents.
Jesse Anderson, director of sustainability for Blanton Turner, AMO, says that prior to 2020 and the arrival of COVID-19, health and wellness were table stakes. “All of the firms in this region were already pushing for healthier buildings,” he says. But the pandemic upped the ante, and “we’ve seen a prioritization, especially as it concerns indoor air quality.” For the record, Blanton Turner oversees some 1.5 million square feet of commercial properties throughout the Northwest in addition to 5,500 multifamily units, giving more than enough cause to take seriously the health of its buildings.
Erin Hatcher, the VP of sustainability for AMLI Residential in Chicago, agrees. “There’s been an interest in health and wellness for quite a few years now,” she says. “I wouldn’t say there’s an added interest, because it’s more than that. It’s risen in urgency as we try to find solutions that have immediate and long-range results.”
Health and safety beyond masks
Entry-level solutions such as masks, plexiglass barriers, and sanitation stations might have filled the bill in the early days of the pandemic. But, with those protocols now a foregone conclusion, the industry is turning to longer range operational solutions.
“In the fourth quarter of 2020, we saw a massive increase in certifications,” reports Reena Agarwal, COO of the Manhattan-based Center for Active Design, the exclusive global provider of Fitwel building certifications. Much like LEED or UL evaluations, Fitwel certifications are tantamount to a seal of approval for operators of healthy buildings, providing third-party verification that all of the deep-dive protocols and processes (beyond the masks and Purel stations) are in place.
Just as property managers had been striving for health and wellness prior to the pandemic, Fitwel’s growth also predates COVID-19. Agarwal states that the three-year-old certification program grew in applications by 82% before 2020 and is “on track for growth of 136%. So certainly, there’s a trend both in the conversations we’re having and in actual certifications.”
Anyone can play
Of course, early adopters, such as Blanton Turner or AMLI, were better suited to pivot toward COVID-19 strategies, and so it could be easy to assume that such preparedness was exclusive to midsized and larger firms, especially due to their deeper, broader resources. Not so, says Agarwal.
“It would seem to make sense,” she says, “but I haven’t seen that to be true. It’s more a matter of leadership priorities on health and well-being as well as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies generally. We’ve seen small companies hold very strong health and well-being and ESG strategies. In fact, they were among the first to use our Viral Response Module.”
The module is the result of the Center’s research into a variety of public health documents, mounted in response to the industry’s demand to “understand the science behind transmission,” she says. “We translated that research into the module.”
But, to judge by the frequency of updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that science is in constant need of updates and revisions. Nevertheless, certain truths seem to hang on.
“We always knew air pollution has negative implications for our health,” Agarwal says. “Research has pointed toward long-term exposure to small increases in air pollution being associated with increases in the COVID-19 death rate. And now we have a better understanding that COVID-19 survives through air transmission.” As a result, companies have upped the urgency of mechanical enhancements such as upgraded HVAC filtration and airflow.
“Before, we were looking at more generalized upgrades,” says Anderson, who is also a member of the IREM Sustainability Advisory Board. These upgrades revolved largely around energy and water efficiency. Those are still important, of course, but the list now includes a “greater focus on indoor air quality.” A move to MERV-13 HVAC filters and the use of UV germicidal treatments are key to that operational initiative.
What might be seen as simple technologies, such as touchless faucets and fixtures, largely remain with those properties where they were installed previously, and neither Anderson nor Hatcher have reported a mad rush to refit kitchens or restrooms.
However, “budgets have been reprioritized to ensure we can continue operations the way we need to,” says Anderson. “Obviously, one of the ways we work with our clients is to make sure that when we see cost upticks, we create positive results elsewhere and find creative ways to get there.” In terms of pass-backs to tenants, he explains that it’s still too early in the game to provide a definitive, overarching policy. Hatcher adds that, for residential properties, the solution has been to close amenities areas as a matter of overall safety, rendering the question of touchless fixtures a nonissue.
Don’t worry, be happy
Operational enhancements, such as improved HVAC filtration, greater airflow, and touchless fixtures, are the backbone of tenant and resident comfort, which by extension means happiness, as Hatcher explains.
“Programs like LEED certification embed health, wellness, and, therefore, happiness, into the benefits we offer,” Hatcher says, “and those features are more valued now than ever. HVAC systems with upgraded air filters and fresh air ventilation are valuable features for our residents.” By adopting such enhancements, firms are also making upgrades to the comfort of residents, she adds, adding a degree of confidence and (by extension) happiness to those critical stakeholders.
In fact, AMLI, a private REIT that owns and operates 76 apartment communities with over 24,000 units in nine regions across the U.S., was among the first in line back in 2018 to win a Fitwel certification, in addition to its USGBC (LEED) and ENERGY STAR® activities. Of course, Hatcher acknowledges happiness is good for goose and gander alike, in that it also leads to re-leasing.
It should be noted that tenant and resident surveys used to gauge degree of comfort, confidence, and happiness are standard operating procedure for the folks of AMLI and Blanton Turner, as is the vital input of property managers engaged in casual, face-to-face interactions with their customers.
But there’s also another, subtler side of comfort—mental health. Not unlike COVID-19 infections themselves, mental health issues don’t discriminate, and tenants, occupants, and staffers can all fall victim to their grip, especially given the increased stress that this past year has flung our way.
“Mental health has suffered during the course of the pandemic,” Agarwal says. “In the U.S., 56% of adults said their mental health suffered in 2020. Companies that were early adopters have already established policies and protocols that will help build the confidence of their tenant base and help them feel safe and less stressed.”
And, to the extent that office workers want to come back (especially as we endure a renewed spike in COVID-19 cases), “tenants need a sense of safety as they return,” adds Agarwal. “Those with a full pandemic response plan, including higher air quality, are contributing in some way to the mental health of all of their stakeholders.”
Talk about stress. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of property managers. But one of the essential tenets of IREM during the pandemic has been for property managers to direct their communities to helpful resources—financial to be sure, as the unemployment rate continues to hover in the high single digits, but also for more personally focused resources. There are also even more direct paths that our members can choose. (See below, “Music has its charms.”)
Anderson reports that the IREM Sustainability Advisory Board is constantly at work to keep standards current with changing protocols. But he adds that nailing them down with any clarity is also an ongoing challenge.
“That’s a work in progress,” he says. “There are a lot of moving parts that are necessary to get it right.” After all, he says, that sort of guidance, updated frequently and disseminated to IREM members, “is an ongoing measure of building success.”