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Leading beyond LEED: The future of the built environment is healthy buildings and an inclusive workforce

Retrofitting existing spaces to promote health for occupants and diversifying the facilities management workforce will foster the next-generation built environment.

building concept with hard hat

Image via Shutterstock/Treecha.

Americans, on average, spend about 90 percent of their time indoors — and today, ensuring that these buildings are both decarbonized and supportive of occupant health and well-being has never been more important.

At GreenBiz’s annual climate-tech conference, VERGE 22, sustainability professionals, policymakers and cleantech entrepreneurs gathered in San Jose, California, to discuss and collaborate on how to accelerate the solutions that will cut emissions and create a smarter, healthier built environment. 

The challenge might seem daunting: Buildings account for 39 percent of global energy-related carbon emissions. Nearly three-quarters of those are operational emissions, released by the heating, cooling and powering of buildings. Meanwhile, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, a renewed focus on workplace health and safety should critically examine how indoor environments contribute to physical and mental health.

And yet decarbonized, healthy buildings offer spaces that advance sustainable technologies, optimize energy performance and create comfortable indoor environments with less toxic chemicals and more fresh air and natural sunlight. They can deliver benefits, such as increasing worker productivity, improving tenant satisfaction, providing high-quality facility manager jobs and saving on operating costs. 

"Whether it’s building leases, attracting talent, retaining talent or compliance, all of these add up to a better health outcome and better economic outcomes," said Raman Tanwar, Honeywell’s general manager of healthy buildings, at VERGE 22's session "Anatomy of a Healthy Building: Trends to Follow."

Healthy buildings can deliver benefits, such as increasing worker productivity, improving tenant satisfaction, providing high-quality facility manager jobs and saving on operating costs.

Two levers to tackle this challenge have emerged in the greener, healthier buildings movement: upgrading existing buildings and fostering a more inclusive workforce of people who will do that. Seema Bhangar, senior indoor air quality manager at WeWork, described this dual approach: "We're talking about the people experiencing the building, but then there's all the people who are creating that experience," she said.

The future of buildings already exists

While the idea of constructing new sleek, sustainable buildings is exciting, existing building stock is the world’s best chance to create the next-generation healthy built environment. Consider: In 2040, about two-thirds of the global building stock will be buildings that exist today, according to Bloomberg, which can’t be forgotten.

"We can’t build our way out of the issues that we have today and nor should we," said Joanna Frank, CEO of nonprofit Center for Active Design, which uses design to foster healthy and engaged communities. "While many people might want to focus on new buildings, existing buildings are the biggest opportunity."

With the right simple retrofit measures, today’s buildings can transform into the buildings of tomorrow. Indoor air quality improvements, mold reductions, accessibility upgrades, integrated pest management practices and energy efficiency enhancements can all foster healthier indoor environments. Plus, often, these renovations are more cost-effective than new buildings.

"A lot of the things that actually increase the health outcomes of your occupants, they're not expensive," Frank added, describing these renovations as "subtle and incremental changes that result in actually really meaningful impacts as far as both your occupants’ health and also the value of your real estate."

With these types of small operational changes, Tanwar warned, operators must understand the tradeoffs. "You can definitely come up with guidance — maximum ventilation is the answer to better air quality, but it comes at a cost of energy — so how do you balance that equation?"

Developing a workforce for sustainable, healthy buildings

Who will manage the transition to these greener, healthier buildings? Most likely, this will fall to commercial facilities managers — the "unsung heroes in sustainability," said Maric Munn, principal of San Timoteo Energy Associates, which works with building operators and designers on green building operations, during the VERGE 22 session "Training the Facilities Workforce of the Future."

However, the facility management industry is at a crossroads, said Joe Fullerton, director of energy and sustainability programs at Prospect Silicon Valley. He described how the facility management industry itself is a $1.1 trillion industry, comprising 25 million facilities management practitioners around the world. In the U.S., men outnumber women in the industry at a ratio of around 8-to-2, and a majority of the industry is older and white. Beyond this, a drastic demographic shift is underway — over 50 percent of facilities managers will retire within the next 15 years. 

That will leave a massive "talent gap," said Irene Thomas-Johnson, global account executive at JLL, a global commercial real estate services company, calling for "new, fresh thought and minds of diversity into this field."

Many facilities managers, like Munn, are anticipating these changes and working to prepare. At San Timoteo, Munn founded a hands-on workforce development program to train the next generation of sustainability and facilities management professionals called the "Green Building Practicum." In the practicum, fellows learn the basic principles of building systems function, operations and maintenance, in both classroom training and on-site exercises in cost-effective, energy-efficient and sustainable facilities maintenance.

Training the facilities workforce of the future is one of the key answers to addressing the climate crisis and the many other ecologic and economic issues that we have around the globe.

In addition, Sam Steyer co-founded the startup Greenwork, which built a hiring platform for climate-tech companies to hire specialty contractors to install their products. Steyer described the company’s mission as "helping to elevate the value and the voice of tradespeople, electricians, plumbers, contractors, general builders, etc., and helping them find roots in the green economy." The company connects skilled trade workers in certain technologies, from solar to HVAC to manufacturing, with companies looking for trained labor.

Ensuring that this workforce is inclusive will unlock the promise of healthy buildings. "Training the facilities workforce of the future is one of the key answers to addressing the climate crisis and the many other ecologic and economic issues that we have around the globe," Fullerton added.

The call to action is urgent — and necessary

It’ll take all stakeholders — including facility managers, real estate professionals, energy managers, financiers and construction managers — to realize deep decarbonization and healthy indoor spaces. The experts at VERGE 22 agreed that the time for building owners, managers and investors to begin these changes is now. Tanwar noted that the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increased and sustained awareness of the health and safety of buildings from Honeywell’s employees.

"Now, in order to attract talent, you have to be able to demonstrate how you're promoting health," Frank said. "To attract tenants, you have to be able to demonstrate how your building is touching health. And to attract investors, you have to demonstrate how you are promoting health and how you are measuring that, and how you are able to then comply with their ESG aspirations."

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