By Rachel Gutter
From the October 2020 Issue
It has been six months since my organization powered down our New York City headquarters and sent our team to work remotely. We cherish our Platinum WELL Certified office and so many of us are craving a return, but if COVID-19 has taught us one thing it is that public health is everyone’s responsibility—we all have a role to play in keeping each other healthy and safe. Our team at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) has the luxury of working from home in the midst of this pandemic, and thus we continue to do so.
Those who have returned to operate and maintain our buildings, and those who never stopped, are frontline caregivers in the fight against COVID-19; the spaces that they tend to can contribute to the spread or be vehicles for slowing it. And yet, fortifying our spaces to make them safer and healthier can’t be solely dedicated to the facilities team. Rather, it requires everyone’s participation, because until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, a building is only as healthy as the way all of the people inside of it are interacting.
At IWBI, we recognize that our buildings, organizations, and communities are our most powerful tools in supporting health and well-being. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the majority of what influences our health and well-being is based on the physical and social environments in which we live and work.
The WELL Building Standard (WELL), a framework utilized by 4,400 projects across more than 630 million square feet, supports the creation of physical and social environments that give occupants an opportunity to be the healthiest versions of themselves. With its foundation in research and evidence, as well as global focus, WELL translates what we know into what we practice. Many of the research-backed strategies within WELL—spanning from building design and operations, to company programs and policies—provide an actionable framework.
COVID-19 Task Force Leads To WELL Health-Safety Rating
At the outset of the pandemic, to determine how WELL could be strengthened to support prevention and preparedness, resiliency, and recovery, IWBI formed a Task Force on COVID-19, comprised of nearly 600 public health experts, virologists, government officials, academics, business leaders, architects, designers, building scientists, and real estate professionals. As a result, IWBI created the WELL Health-Safety Rating for buildings and facilities—an evidence-based, third-party verified designation focusing on operational policies, maintenance protocols, and design strategies to address acute health threats in the built environment.
The WELL Health-Safety Rating provides a centralized source and governing body to validate efforts by owners and operators. It leverages insights drawn from the IWBI COVID-19 Task Force, in addition to guidance on the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections developed by the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Department of Health and Human Services pursuant to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and leading academic and research institutions, as well as core principles already established by the WELL Building Standard.
Participation in the program requires submission of policies, protocols, and strategies for third-party document review and annual verification, and results in a seal that building owners and facility management to help communicate this achievement.
Facility management leaders know that you can’t design your way out of COVID-19. You can make every best effort through design, operations, and protocols, but when an infected person walks into a building without PPE and sneezes without covering their mouth, anyone within range is at risk. So, facility management has a critical role, but these efforts need to be supported and resourced by leadership. And, new policies and protocols must be upheld by every person who enters the building.
We saw an example of exemplary leadership from the facilities team at the New York Yankees, leading one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world to one of the earliest WELL Health-Safety Rating victories. In August 2020, Yankee Stadium became the first sports and entertainment venue in the world to achieve the WELL Health-Safety Rating for their efforts to implement policy-based strategies that prioritize the health of staff, players, and fans. Yankee Stadium pursued the rating to inform and embolden their COVID-19 response and to have a third party validate these actions and strategies.
The Yankees demonstrated leadership in air and water quality management, cleaning and sanitization procedures, emergency preparedness programs, health service resources, and stakeholder engagement and communications. As a result, players, staff, and fans can feel confident that the Yankees have implemented science-backed strategies to provide a safer and healthier environment.
For some organizations, such as RMZ Corp, the WELL Health-Safety Rating supports efforts to apply proven strategies at scale across an entire portfolio. Implemented at 41 of RMZ’s properties in India, the rating served as a tool to meet the company’s urgent need to deliver high health and safety standards in all of its spaces. As the first organization globally to achieve the WELL Health-Safety Rating, RMZ buildings now feature touchless elevators and touchless water and hand sanitizer dispensers, as well as rigorous cleaning protocols and increased cleaning frequency.
Many fundamental shifts in building practices have been borne of crisis—from natural disasters to national tragedies. Facility management experts have been a first line of defense in emergencies. The power of place and the notion that our buildings can act as defensive mechanisms are gaining broad recognition. What is happening today will fundamentally change the way that we think about health and safety in our facilities and in our homes. The WELL Health-Safety Rating is both a roadmap to help navigate this unprecedented moment and a shorthand for communicating the depth of these efforts.
Learn more about the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management here.
Gutter is President of the International WELL Building Institute, a public benefit corporation with a mission to improve human health and well-being through the built environment. Gutter came to IWBI after nearly a decade at the U.S. Green Building Council, where she served as senior vice president of knowledge and was Founding Director of the Center for Green Schools. In 2016, as IWBI’s chief product officer, Gutter expanded the WELL Building Standard to address all building types, as well as whole districts and communities. She has been President of IWBI since 2018.
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