Amid a growing awareness of environmental impact on health and wellness, more and more buildings are being developed to encourage physical activity, featuring gyms, bike storage and championing stairs over lifts, for example.

“To date, sustainability of the built environment has largely been focused on the carbon footprint of buildings. Given the importance of global real estate for total greenhouse gas emissions, this is both logical and necessary,” says PGGM’s senior director, private real estate, Mathieu Elshout. “However, sustainability of real estate is a broader topic than greenhouse gas emissions only. People across the world spend approximately 90 percent of their time living, working or playing in buildings.”

The impact that the characteristics of buildings can have on health and well-being is only just starting to be measured and, as such, better understood, Elshout adds. “Advances in sensor availability and reduced pricing are helping to give more insight into the effect of building characteristics on factors such as sick leave, productivity and general well-being, but much more work still needs to be done,” he says.

Good for the bottom line

Indeed, the hypothesis is that environments which promote health and well-being, drive productivity and reduce absenteeism improve tenants’ bottom lines, commanding higher rents and boosting investment returns. But it can be challenging to correlate these ‘softer’ factors to financial performance while data sets remain immature.

Nonetheless, many managers now view health and well-being as a successor to energy efficiency, which at one time seemed equally nebulous, but is now integral to value creation strategy. Nuveen, for example, is increasingly prioritizing air quality, natural light and the incorporation of plants into buildings, according to the firm’s head of sustainability Abigail Dean.

And, in addition to a slew of research from firms like the BRE Group and the World Green Building Council, several international healthy buildings standards have been launched including the WELL Building Standard, with rapid take-up across the sector, according to Guy Grainger, chief executive at real estate advisors JLL.

“The latest innovations are around using smart buildings sensors to track and optimize the indoor environment,” Grainger says, but notes that the emphasis has so far been on office buildings, and more needs to be done around healthy housing.

Roxana Isaiu, director, real estate, at GRESB, meanwhile, says health and well-being has become an increasingly important issue for the industry, but a lack of standardization in the strategies being implemented persists.

“While leading companies have comprehensive programs, structured to cover employees, tenants, communities and supply chain, lagging companies still have disjointed, incomplete processes for health,” she explains. “Measures for employee health and well-being take priority and include design for social interaction, access to mental and physical healthcare, access to daylight and recreational activities. Going forward, companies should focus on increasing the use of metrics to understand the impact of health strategies on their employees, as well as their tenants and building occupiers.”