Image supplied by ASHRAE

Image supplied by ASHRAE

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased pressures for companies to ensure workspaces are better ventilated. However, eco-friendly design guidelines call for ensuring that energy heating or cooling such spaces is not wasted. In the first instalment of this two-part article series by ASHRAE we will examine whether the simultaneous need for healthy buildings and green buildings places these two requirements in conflict.

Two global crises — the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change — have forced us to rethink the way we operate buildings. But what happens when the precautions taken to combat each come into conflict?  Business leaders not paying attention to these potential issues could soon be caught off guard.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: Covid-19 is caused by a virus spread nearly entirely indoors in under-ventilated spaces. A key control strategy has been to bring in as much outdoor air as possible. What was once vague and hand-wavy (“bring in more air!”) is now being codified. Late last year, a Lancet Covid-19 Commission Task Force comprised of experts from around the world put forth new enhanced targets for ventilation, in a move that marks the start of big changes. In the United States, for example, the CDC is developing new standards, and most recently, under pressure from the White House, ASHRAE — the standard setting body for building systems — announced that it will release its own new standards for higher ventilation rates in buildings. This is important because ASHRAE standards ultimately become code.

However, bringing in more outdoor air comes with an energy cost and appears to be at odds with our climate goals. Buildings consume 40% of global energy — 70% in some major cities — and are thus a major contributor to global warming. So, governments and businesses have put forth ambitious proposals to reduce that carbon footprint. New York City, Boston and Seattle have all introduced new laws with aggressive energy-reduction targets for buildings, and just recently the US announced a new performance standard that targets 30% reductions in energy use.

Are healthy buildings and green buildings in conflict? The short answer is that they don’t have to be. There is a path forward.

The necessity of both movements

First, let’s recognise that we can’t favour one course of action over the other. Here’s why both are necessary.

Articles in top scientific journals like The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, and Science have made it crystal clear that airborne transmission is the dominant mode of spread for Covid-19, which has already killed more than 6.7 million people worldwide and is poised to kill more than 100 000 a year from now on, as well as many other respiratory diseases. Scientists, doctors, government officials, corporate leaders and any well-educated people on the street now know that fresher air means less community spread. Social and traditional media are on high alert for new or resurgent infectious diseases, from monkeypox and RSV to polio and influenza. And the public now has relatively cheap air quality sensors to assess how well your office, store, or factory is ventilated. Heightened awareness of respiratory disease means higher expectations for buildings.

The White House started with its Clean Air in Buildings Pledge, to which major technology, higher education, and commercial real estate companies and non-profit groups have signed on, but it has since announced a holistic approach to improving indoor air quality: tax credits, new research dollars, walking the walk by requiring its portfolio of more than 1 200 federal buildings to adopt a healthy building strategy, and steering remaining American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds toward clean-air goals. This has prompted ASHRAE to say that it will put out new ventilation standards in six months (blazingly fast for this organisation), and we can expect those guidelines to be adopted as code.

Finally, the business benefits of healthy buildings are becoming obvious. I previously wrote in HBR about the positive correlation between indoor air quality and cognitive function, where costs to implement are (USD40 per person per year) are dwarfed by the productivity benefits (USD6 500 per person per year). We’ve since had similar findings in a study of office workers across the United States and another year-long study of more than 300 people across six countries. In our book Healthy Buildings, John Macomber of Harvard Business School and I showed how investments in building health can lead to productivity gains that result in 10% improvements in organisational profitability. MIT researchers found that healthy properties rent at 4% to 7% more per square foot, and at a macroeconomic level, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab estimated that simple improvements to indoor air quality could generate more than USD13 billion in benefits for the US economy.

With pressure from the bottom up (the public), the top down (governments and standard-setting organisations), and outside (the scientific community), companies will find it difficult, if not impossible, to eschew the healthy building movement.

Of course, the same is true of energy-reduction efforts. Customers, employees, investors, and governments are all calling on corporations to reduce their carbon footprints, and buildings provide a huge opportunity.

Investors are leading the charge in demanding information on the sustainability performance of real estate. Consider GRESB, the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark, a tool that now assesses and ranks more than 1 800 entities and is used by 170 institutional and financial investors with more than USD51 trillion in collective assets under management.

Increasingly, buildings’ achievement of energy-efficient goals are not just a nice-to-have or something optionally reported, but a must-do. For example, new city-level mandates – like Local Law 97 in New York City, which aims to reduce building energy use 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050 – comes with significant fines to building owners if they’re not met. Boston and Seattle’s rules are similar, and you can be sure other U.S. cities will follow.

There’s a pure business case for investing in energy-efficient buildings, too. My colleagues and I have estimated that over a 20-year period, U.S. companies that adopted green building standards saved a collective USD6.7 billion in energy costs, not to mention the knock-on health benefits from reducing pollution, including averting hundreds of premature deaths and tens of thousands of missed workdays, which generated an additional USD4 billion in savings. This green building movement has been led by US Green Building Council’s LEED certification, but new initiatives like the World Green Building Council’s “Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment” are setting even more stringent goals.

All that to say, we’re seeing pressures on the climate side like those on the health side, with buildings in the middle of this tug-of-war.