The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series: “Reimagining the Policy Framework”

SOURCE: International WELL Building Institute


In September 2021, IWBI released an in-depth report that lays out research approaches and specific operational strategies as the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepares for acute health threats into the future. Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report integrates proven strategies from the WELL Building Standard (WELL) and actionable insights garnered from IWBI staff and nearly 600 members of the Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections.

Over the next few months, we will repost a chapter from the report every week to help highlight specific themes and insights. The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series continues with “Reimagining the Policy Framework,” authored by Jason Hartke, Ph.D., Executive Vice President, External Affairs.


Excerpt republished from: Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a glaring omission in the sustainable building policy framework. While there are three pillars of sustainability—planetary, economic and human health—for years, policy has been designed as if there were only two.

The past few decades have brought incredible progress on the first two pillars. While much of the world was still waking up to the basic facts about climate change, policymakers across the globe have passed energy standards that helped support energy security while reducing greenhouse gases and other harmful outdoor air pollutants. Then they tackled expanding beyond energy efficiency and put in place smart guidelines that encourage water efficiency, sustainable siting, better materials, daylighting and location and transportation efficiencies. These policies have had significant economic benefits, and as a result, consumers now save $800 billion each year in energy costs alone.

Yet for all this progress, human health—the third essential pillar of sustainability—has been largely ignored. For example, in an article titled We Spend 90% of Our Time Inside - Why Don’t We Care that Indoor Air Is So Polluted?, authors Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber juxtapose the policy fixation on outdoor air compared to indoor air. Even though indoor air can be significantly more polluted than outdoor air—and even though we spend a lower percentage of our lives outside than whales spend on the ocean surface—our regulatory system is focused on the outdoors. “In the United States,” the authors write, “we have the Clean Air Act, but what about a ‘National Indoor Air Quality Standard’? No such thing.” That’s of significant concern during the best of times. During a health crisis brought on by an airborne disease, it’s an inexcusable oversight.

If we are to fully realize the triple bottom line of sustainability, we must reimagine the existing policy framework to include human health. Today’s clarion call must be to build on these decades of progress and set a new bar for policy, one that integrates human health into building outcomes, prioritizes equity and protects health policy gains by fostering resilience.

Bringing Health to the Fore
One major reason why human health has been so ignored in sustainable building policy is that too often, we have relied on a dangerous assumption: if a building supports planetary health, it will support human health, too. While that is broadly true, relying solely on this assumption can be problematic for several reasons.

First, while policies that support planetary health in buildings generally benefit human health, they do not in and of themselves include a comprehensive health strategy. For instance, high performance in water conservation is far from tantamount to high performance in water quality. The latter is a major focus in the healthy building construct, but one that could easily be overlooked in today’s sustainable building conversation. When we focus exclusively on planetary health, key human health interventions can be overlooked.

Second, when we consider health benefits implicit in sustainability interventions, we fail to measure and track them. As a result, we often underestimate the true value of specific interventions. Recent research conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory demonstrates this quite compellingly. The research examines a handful of distinct energy conservation measures (ECMs) that have the power to boost economic returns 50- to 100-fold based on their health benefits. Understanding the health benefits of these particular ECMs would make them no-brainer strategies in virtually any energy efficiency project. However, these same ECMs—specific measures related to indoor air quality, thermal comfort and lighting—can often be overlooked because, when evaluated on energy alone, they appear to have only a modest return on investment. In a case study of one building, the energy-related net present value over 10 years was $44,000. But, when health and productivity were factored in, the net present value over 10 years jumped—increasing by more than $3 million.

Future policies will need to integrate evidence-based strategies that advance human health and well-being, such as those in the WELL Building Standard (WELL). Fortunately, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were seeing some progress on this front. In 2018, then New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo passed an executive order called “Incorporating Health Across all Policies into State Agency Activities.” The order required all agencies—not just health agencies—to evaluate the health ramifications of all their policies and programs and take action to minimize health risks and maximize health benefits.

Following the pandemic, leaders could follow New York’s lead and begin examining all policies through a health lens. For effective policy implementation and delivery, accountability will be key—just as it has been for green buildings. Performance can be tracked, monitored and third-party verified across various indicators of human health. This way, the health benefits for people will no longer be implied; going forward, they can be understood, prioritized and measured.

Prioritizing Equity in Our Policy
As we integrate human health into sustainable building policy, we must always remember that time and time again, the most polluted, destructive and unhealthy environments are most commonly in places populated by people of color and people living in poverty. As Renee Skelton and Vernice Million of the Natural Resources Defense Council, write, “Communities of color, where disproportionate numbers live in poverty, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts—say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the [environmental justice] movement rightly calls ‘environmental racism.’"

Underscoring the state of these disparities, Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University notes, “Too often, ZIP code and race are the best predictors of health and well-being.” Those words were written long before the COVID-19 pandemic, yet tragically, they have once again proven true. People from disadvantaged communities are significantly more likely to contract and die from COVID-19.

To ensure equity in this new policy standard, we will need to be much more deliberate about delivering health benefits to everyone, everywhere. As Van Jones, who has led critical work bridging social and environmental issues, said in an interview in 2015, “We should green the ghetto first. Those communities that were hit first and worst by everything bad in the pollution-based economy shouldn’t then benefit last and least from everything in the green economy.” Echoing Jones, the hardest hit communities—particularly people of color, seniors and all those working on the frontlines in healthcare—should be the first to benefit from healthy building solutions.

On this front, there has been important progress. A recent policy resolution passed in 2020 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) titled “Places Matter: Advancing Healthy Buildings in the Fight Against COVID-19” stated explicitly: "Resilience and recovery will only be possible if the benefits of healthy buildings are widespread, especially as COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact low-income communities and vulnerable populations.” The USCM resolution goes on to highlight the importance of prioritizing policy and public funding to address critical building sectors, such as affordable housing, senior housing, hospitals and schools.

Fostering Resilience
Lastly, the policy framework needs to better recognize structural vulnerabilities and prepare for future disruptions, disasters or pandemics. Resilience is, in the words of one World Economic Forum leader, a “defining mandate of our time.” Up to this point, many of the actions that organizations have taken to maximize resilience have focused on preparing for financial and environmental shocks. But as the past year has proven, if we don’t also prepare for health shocks, our organizations, communities and nations will remain vulnerable. We’ll need to bake in resilience and preparedness considerations in order to protect healthy building policy gains and the improvements they deliver.

“Professionals in architecture and engineering will certainly appreciate what I’m about to say—when it comes to health, we need an integrated design approach to policymaking,” said Brooks Rainwater, who for seven years has been the city solutions guru at the National League of Cities (NLC) and who, before that, oversaw public policy and local advocacy for the American Institute of Architects (AIA). “For the past 20 years, building professionals, and particularly our most creative and pioneering designers, have coalesced around the concept of integrated design, which, simply put, is leveraging a holistic approach to ensure we capture benefits across multiple priorities, like climate, resilience, equity and, of course now, health.

“It’s past time we make this a reality in our policymaking, too. Smart building policies will need to address multiple problems, and health has to be key to the equation.”

Read the conclusion, Future Outlook: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?, and find the full section here.

Tweet me: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an omission in sustainable building policy framework. While there are three pillars of sustainability—planetary, economic and human health—for years, policy has designed as if there were only two. @WELLcertified

KEYWORDS: International WELL Building Institute (IWB)


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