As companies start bringing people back to in-person work at offices and facilities, the health protocols of those work environments are more top-of-mind than ever, often in ways that never occurred to people before the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature of how office spaces are designed will likely change as well, moving from high-density workspaces to reconfigurations that allow for greater distancing, changing utilization patterns, and more opportunities for employees to control their work environment — building job satisfaction and ensuring staff feel safe.
No matter what, people will be more likely to demand to know that their work spaces are healthy. To that end, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) built upon its widely adopted WELL Building Standard to develop the evidence-based, third-party verified WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management for building managers to both help protect occupants from COVID-19 today as well as build resilience for the future.
Released in July 2020, the new rating includes more than 20 features across five core areas: Emergency Preparedness Programs, Cleaning and Sanitization Procedures, Health Service Resources, Air and Water Quality Management, and Stakeholder Engagement and Communication. At least 15 of these criteria must be met in order for a space to be rated.
When considering a well-being rating for a building, emergency preparedness may not come immediately to mind, but having a plan in place to effectively and efficiently handle an emergency ensures that a building owner is equipped not only to immediately address a crisis, but also successfully recover in its aftermath. Consider how, in March 2020, most offices shut down at once when the coronavirus began to spread. Now over a year and a half later, those same building owners have to figure out how to safely return to operation. Lessons learned from responding to the pandemic can also apply to preparing for other emergencies.
According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, natural disasters have killed more than 410,000 people in the past 10 years and have affected a further 1.7 billion. Stress, a common side effect of surviving a natural disaster, can weaken the immune system, putting people at greater risk of contracting viruses like COVID-19 and encountering other health problems. The pandemic itself is an emergency that has moved with alarming speed due to factors such as international trade and travel and increased urbanization, infecting over 213 million people and counting.
Therefore, in considering what core areas should comprise the rating, IWBI naturally went to emergency preparedness as one of them. “Building code sets a foundation for several types of emergencies,” Nathan Stodola, chief engineer at IWBI, told TriplePundit. “For example, requiring strategies to fight fires and allowing for egress, or structural seismic design requirements in areas prone to earthquakes. But this only touches the surface of what those in a building should be preparing for, with gaps in topics such as entry requirements and business continuity plans.”
Understanding exit during and reentry after a disaster is critical for continuing business operations in the aftermath of an emergency. On average, about 25 percent of U.S. small businesses do not reopen after a natural disaster, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The lack of an appropriate emergency preparedness plan thus affects not only the building owner, but also its occupants and the broader economic health of the community.
In determining what the emergency preparedness pillar of a building standard would look like, IWBI first had to decide what constitutes an emergency. “We include a number of categories that are relevant to most buildings,” Stodola told TriplePundit. These include the obvious like natural disasters, fires and health events, as well as others that are less expected, such as technological emergencies and human-caused events. “Within these categories, different buildings will have different emergencies that are most relevant,” he explained. “For example, a building in Japan might need a tsunami response plan while one in Oklahoma would more likely need to prepare for tornadoes.”
Further, preparing for emergencies like global pandemics means having a clear exit strategy as well as a plan to ensure that the building is a healthy place for people to return to when it’s safe.
IWBI consulted with 600 public health experts, virologists, government officials, academics, business leaders, architects, designers, building scientists and real estate professionals around the world while updating its WELL Building Standard Version 2 to identify pandemic-related needs, and it crafted relevant features into the WELL Health-Safety Rating. The rating is third-party verified.
The features of the rating “draw on recommendations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and leading academic research,” Stodola said.
The rating requires building owners to develop an emergency preparedness plan that lays out procedures and protocols for reacting to an emergency situation when it arises. This feature already exists in IWBI’s WELL Building Standard, and is one of the most frequently pursued in the WELL Health-Safety Rating. Other features include requirements to develop a business continuity plan to preemptively prepare for operating during emergencies, and a plan for a healthy re-entry back into the building during or following an emergency.
Based on the experience with COVID-19, the core area has a recently-added feature, which requires building owners to establish health entry requirements. “This newest feature rewards buildings that, when there is a heightened risk of infectious respiratory disease transmission, require individuals to be vaccinated against the disease or present a recent negative test,” Stodola explained.
In the past year and a half, as most people have worked remotely, a work environment that prioritizes health has become even more expected. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and anxiety about shared work spaces will likely increase. Knowing that a building owner has put in place certain safeguards to promote the health of the people within the space is reassuring.
Still, far more needs to be done to prepare for emergencies and unforeseen events into the future. As we witnessed during the pandemic, in addition to physical health, people’s mental health has also been impacted. Companies need to be prepared for any kind of catastrophe in order to protect their long-term viability and, of course, the well-being of their employees. A healthy building can help address both.
This article series is sponsored by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: Stocksy via IWBI
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.