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The case for a human-centered sustainability strategy

The goal of green building is to make the building perform better. Historically this has led to a focus on energy, water and materials, with a heavy emphasis on predicting performance on such things as energy usage but not measuring it for long, if at all. 

Energy Star, LEED and the Living Building Challenge are rating systems that quantify that performance — in kilowatts, gallons and milligrams — and then set ever-tightening rules for use in the world. This has driven the real estate industry to create professional accreditation programs and training focused on better building science. 

While this focus has created higher performing buildings, it has not led to a watershed shift outside the real estate industry. In some ways, development is a fire-and-forget business: buildings become fungible assets that are traded on the open market, and the green attributes may become lost in the marketing message. And if the ever-evolving standards create buildings that have expiration dates, some things are better left unsaid. 

The need to reduce energy and water use and its associated costs is not going away, and it’s even getting a little harder. But organizations are increasingly focusing their sustainability strategies on the needs of the people inside the buildings. 

A human-centered sustainability strategy better engages occupants, creates business results and generates impacts that move beyond the building walls. 

Trends driving the next wave of transformation 

I believe a major trend driving this shift is the gradual replacement of the boomer generation in the workforce by the millennials, and the dynamic between these two cohorts. 

As boomers age, they increasingly focus on their health in a bid to extend their professional and personal youth. Economically, many people in this generation are motivated to stay in the workforce, and as incumbents at the top of the pyramid they have discretionary authority to focus on a healthy workplace.  

Studies have shown that while millennials aren’t as concerned with medical care as previous generations, they do expect leaders of their companies to provide a workplace that encourages balance. Thus, the boomers' increasing focus on a healthy workplace directly reinforces the millennial expectations that employers will provide them one. If a business can harness the implicit bargain of the relationship between the two generations, staff become loyal net promoters for the company.  

How does this relate to buildings? Health and balance in the workplace must encompass more than a wellness plan or yoga classes at lunch — the building itself must reflect a company’s commitment to wellness. Millennials also care about authenticity, and a wellness program conducted in an ailing building will not fly. 

How healthy workplaces will make business — and people — thrive 

Another catalyst of the health and wellness movement is the idea that making the insides of buildings better enables its occupants to perform better. A multitude of studies have demonstrated the link between strategies such as daylighting, fresh air and healthy materials to productivity and employee satisfaction. 

However, this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Occupants must become active participants in the operations of the buildings — not only to ensure that companies can reap the benefits of a high performance building, but also as a way to make occupants feel they are actively participating in the creation of a healthy work environment and for companies to learn what strategies create the most positive impact in their people. 

Examples of engagement strategies include early stakeholder meetings with occupants to get their feedback on a sustainable, healthy workplace; robust education programs that include in-person trainings and multiple communication touch-points; and apps, dashboards and displays that demonstrate real-time operations of the building and how they directly benefit the people inside.

Occupants may not care that a building’s highly efficient ventilation system saved so many kilowatts of energy — but they do care that it improved their air quality and helped them avoid catching colds. 

Focusing on wellness prioritizes green building features towards most businesses’ single biggest cost: the people. This approach allows companies to better engage employees around a sustainability program, attract and retain talent and gain measurable business benefits. 

Of course, commercial real estate is not the only market focusing on occupants. Healthcare is increasingly using evidence based design to develop facilities that promote healing and influence the wellbeing of patients and staff. The hospitality industry is also embracing wellness as a strategy to market a guest experience that revitalizes both mind and body. 

Thus, people, sustainability and an organization’s business or mission driven goals are becoming inextricably and authentically linked. I anticipate the focus on buildings and human behavior will continue as designers and businesses narrow in on what makes people thrive and directly contributes to business results.

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