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As society continues to battle the annoyingly named “new normal,” brought on by recent events, there lurks a continued curiosity of how this will affect the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) community going forward. Specifically, what will be the immediate impact versus the potential long-term impacts? Will there be differing demand for what services are requested and provided? In short, what will the so-called new normal be for the AEC industry?

The AEC community is often looked to for solutions and to become change agents, to provide the innovative ideas that allow will aid in the evolution of these unique times. Historically, projects are designed to serve occupants. With public safety, health and welfare being paramount to all stakeholders, the AEC community is responding to the changing needs and demands of these occupants evolving to include not only physical but mental wellbeing considerations.

The pandemic and other recent societal unrest have highlighted the importance of incorporating design strategies that support health, promote wellbeing, address inequities and encourage investment. A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that 19% of factors that affect health and wellbeing are directly related to the built environment, making the AEC community key to protecting public health.

With an increasing amount of time that humans spend inside, estimated to be approximately 90%, according to the Harvard University Press, the time for innovative ideas and a change in how AEC services are provided and executed is now. The innovative designs for wellbeing are not limited to only health care facilities, but to many sectors like hospitality, restaurants, workplaces, landscape architecture and even commercial mid- and high-rise residential properties.

AEC Community Response for Policy Change

Change is often met with resistance; change is hard, but necessary. With an ever-evolving world, many associations and governing bodies have pushed for change on a global basis in providing services and raising the bar for the built environment.

A recent petition was signed by more than 680 design professionals from over 50 countries sent to the director of the WHO, pushing to raise the standard on which our built environment addresses wellbeing. Due to the airborne transmission of COVID-19, much of the focus has rested on the increasing standard for indoor air quality, however many other areas of design should not be ignored. Experts are providing guidance on strategies to maintain high indoor air quality, and building owners are relying on design professionals to provide guidance on implementation of these strategies.

In June of 2020, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) provided its support in the safe reopening and cleaning procedures to provide guidance to building owners in the sustainable and safe return to their spaces. This release was coupled with four new LEED Safety First Pilot Credits, added to a total list of six Safety First initiatives, which outline best practices for the following:

  • cleaning and disinfecting;
  • re-entry to the workspace;
  • building water system recommissioning;
  • managing indoor air quality;
  • pandemic planning; and
  • social equity in pandemic planning.

These practices not only touch on the physical structure, but the social determinants of health and incorporating them into operating standards.

According to the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), 60% of homeowners are willing to pay more for a healthy home. Also, 95% of homeowners consider their health and wellbeing important in relation to their home. This outlines the growing demand for heightened focus on physical and mental wellbeing in the providing of AEC services.

Guidance to Promote Physical and Mental Wellbeing in the Built Environment

There are many resources for AEC community members to look to as roadmaps and guideposts to implement change and provide these services to building owners and developers. As a basis for healthy, human-centric design and construction specifications, many are using either the Center for Active Design (CfAD) and the Fitwel Certification or the IWBI and the WELL Building Standard for guidance.

CfAD and Fitwel Certification

According to the CfAD website, “the Center for Active Design is the leading non-profit organization using design to foster healthy and engaged communities.” The CfAD aims to transform design and development to support health and equitable communities to drive the optimal quality of life. The CfAD achieves this mission by being the operator of Fitwel, the world’s leading certification system that optimizes buildings to support health. Fitwel was created as a joint initiative of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the General Services Administration.

Fitwel benefits from the ongoing input and expertise of national and international health and design leaders as well as a deepening trove of academic research at the nexus of design and wellbeing. Fitwel is a third-party verification system. It has three levels of certification based on the number of points earned during the scorecard audit process. The highest level of attainment is three stars whereas the base level is denoted by one star. Unlike LEED, Fitwel does not have prerequisite conditions, only optional credits as points.

IWBI and WELL Certification

IWBI defines themselves as leading the global movement to transform buildings and communities in ways that help people thrive. This is achieved using the WELL Building Standard that the IWBI is dedicated to adapting as the world changes. The design elements that the WELL Certification encompasses include air, light, sound, community, water, movement, materials, innovation, nourishment, thermal comfort and mind. WELL certification is also third-party verification system. Like LEED, WELL has prerequisite conditions. Each project going through the certification process is evaluated using a scorecard. As a project attains more points, a certain level of WELL certification is achieved (silver, gold and platinum levels).

CONCLUSION

As recent events have thrust the impacts the built environment has on our physical and mental wellbeing into the focus, it underscores the imminent need for a change. With the support of many associations and governing bodies, the AEC community is once again leading the charge in raising the floor for our society and the built environment. With the active leadership of the CfAD and IWBI, the AEC community will create a built environment that helps make our communities healthier, safer and more equitable to all occupants.

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