For two decades, the green building movement has been propelled by a shared vision for market transformation. This vision was largely drawn from the energy efficiency community, and it has been rooted in two essential elements: (1) a shared definition of green building, and (2) the belief in the essential role of information in creating valuable opportunities for competitive differentiation.
Our community has created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system to provide a specific, actionable language around the essential features of green buildings. Simultaneously, we have recognized and rewarded the people, organizations, products, and services that have helped create and sustain this standard.
As a direct result of this vision, sustainable design, construction, and operation practices are increasingly mainstream within the global building industry. This has had an impact on millions of people, thousands of homes, commercial and institutional buildings in over 145 countries around the world. Here in the U.S., we estimate that over 4.3 million Americans live and work in LEED-certified green buildings each day.
Today, a new market demand is emerging within the building industry – to more intentionally address human experience, health, and wellness as core elements of green building practice. To date, these human-centric aspirations, while always implied, have generally not been prominent or intentional elements of language, tools, and advocacy advanced by the green building community engaged with the concept of market transformation. Yet today, we find leading investors asking fundamental questions about the relationship between their work and human experience, wellness, and health outcomes. Real estate owners increasingly speak to the importance of creating high quality environments in competitive markets. Professional groups are convening discussions and drafting plans. Grassroots stakeholders are asking building to do more. Project teams are responding.
For those not in the building industry, this may initially be surprising, and perhaps worth filing under the Onion-worthy headline, “Building industry discovers that buildings are full of people.” Funny to consider… yet, like many funny things, a ring of truth.
Architects have historically emphasized structure, mass, orientation, artistic expression, philosophy, and other similar considerations. Engineers focus on life-safety and code compliance. Builders emphasize execution. Facility managers focus on operations and trouble shoot complaints. However, there really isn’t a well-defined, professional niche or role focused expressly on the interaction between our built environments and people – the human experience of place.
For many owners and investors, it has not been clear that “health” or “wellness” is something you could specify and buy as part of a building. Yet, we understand that the nature of the built environment has profound implications for our health and wellbeing. Over the last century, we have made dramatic strides in using sanitation, hygiene, vaccinations, and modern medicines to tame infectious disease and other acute causes of premature mortality. Consequently, today we face the cumulative impact of long-term, chronic health impacts linked to our behavior, social context, and environmental exposures.
We know that our built environments mediate many of these factors. Building design, construction, and operation contribute directly to patterns of obesity, asthma, nutrition, recovery, infection, absenteeism, productivity, physical safety, and many other outcomes.
We are being asked to bring these considerations to the front of our movement. In other words, we are being asked to recognize that human outcomes: health, wellness, experience are the reason that buildings exist and a tremendous opportunity to create value.
We need to own this vision over the entire lifecycle of our built environment: planning, design, construction, operations, and end-of-life.
Fortunately, this effort can build directly on two decades of experience with green building practice, and many thoughtful practitioners have long-advocated for a strong, cross-cutting emphasis on health outcomes. We have the opportunity to build directly on this long-standing vision and leverage the body of expertise resident in our community. This will require a broad-based commitment to intentionally prioritizing these outcomes and ensuring results at every stage in the lifecycle of built environments.
As we consider the road ahead, it is instructive to consider how energy efficiency is addressed today. After 20 years of work, we are beginning to have an integrated process for understanding, delivering, and monitoring energy performance. This is partially codified in the new integrated process credit for LEED v4.
We now understand that energy efficiency is achieved through coordinated action over the entire lifecycle of an asset. Today, projects often begin with clear, measurable energy performance goals, often based on community-level Climate Action Plans or energy master plans. This informs the earliest stages of project planning with respect to issues like density, massing, and orientation. Green building project teams create documents called owners project requirements and establish lines of responsibility. This activates multiple phases of design and engineering often informed by multiple types of quantitative models. The intentions of design addressed through rigorous construction practices, sometimes including multiple rounds of on-site inspection. Finally, performance is carefully monitored during operations and linked to quantitative analysis and comparative benchmarking. Each step in this process is associated with overlapping teams of professionals and coordinated tools aligned to deliver targeted levels of energy efficiency.
No such coordinated or integrated process exists for health, wellness, or human experience in buildings. Imagine the equivalent professional and technical infrastructure. Early-stage planning that anticipates health impacts, prioritizes health outcomes, and sets specific requirements for occupants, visitors, society, and the supply chain. Owners place a priority on health outcomes and establish project requirements that clearly articulate measurable health goals. The design and engineering teams respond with rigorous, iterative analysis and options evaluation. These requirements are executed during construction and linked directly to on-going monitoring of health and experiential performance to inform iterative, responsive improvement cycles aligned with maintenance and capital replacement. The resulting data stream provides the basis for quantitative analysis, benchmarking, and reporting. Taken together, these elements envision an industry with clear human-centric goals, design and engineering that meets these challenges, rigorous operational evaluation, and iterative learning from real world experience.
This is a daunting shift in prevailing practice, yet it is not unprecedented. We have done it before with energy – leading to the remarkable success of the green building movement we have today. Moreover, we know that becoming more intentional about green building’s focus on human experience, health, and wellness is essential to our mission and a tremendous opportunity to create social and economic value.
The next phase of market transformation will be driven by green buildings that are healthier, more satisfying, and simply provide better experiences than their conventional peers. True to our traditions, we will find ways to do this that save energy, reduce emissions, and protect the environment.