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USGBC’s Ramanujam Unpacks Org’s “Healthy Places” Initiative

The group outlined several actions it will take in the coming weeks and months to help promote healthy and sustainable tactics.

In a reality in which we’re going to be living with COVID-19 for years, the measures building owners will need to adopt to keep people healthy have increasingly come into view. Now the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has stepped forward with a bold new strategy, Healthy People in Healthy Places Equals a Healthy Economy, which will include adjustments to its benchmark LEED program, as well as other measures meant to support buildings and communities in a post-pandemic world.

According to the association, “The strategy is guided by the idea that prioritizing the health of people, communities and the planet is the fastest way to rebuild a healthier, more sustainable economy. A series of actions are underway, including launching emergency guidance and upgrades to the LEED green building program to ensure that it reflects the realities that buildings, and more importantly, the people inside them, will face in the near future.”

USGBC will update current LEED strategies in LEED v4.1 that “support indoor environmental quality, cleaning, occupant comfort, operations, better materials and risk management, while finding opportunities to introduce new approaches given the current public health crisis.”

The group also outlined several actions it will take, including introducing new LEED pilot credits to support social distancing; nontoxic surface cleaning, air quality and infection monitoring; the formation of regional CEO advisory councils; accelerating the implementation of its USGBC Equity program; calling for ideas from the market through public forums; amending its LEED review process to incorporate the lessons learned over the last two months from COVID-19; and publishing a series of best practice guidance reports.

Mahesh Ramanujam, president & CEO of USGBC, sat down with NREI to discuss the new initiative.

This Q&A has been edited for style, length and clarity.

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NREI: Can you explain the overall vision behind the “Healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy” initiative?

Mahesh Ramanujam: Our world has been turned upside down by a global pandemic that has forced us to change the way we live and do business. The world we return to might look nothing like the one we left behind. While COVID-19 has changed the landscape forever, at USGBC we know that a strong global foundation for sustainability will help businesses and governments recalibrate and recover from this vulnerable moment. We believe that prioritizing healthy people in healthy places is the fastest way to build a healthy economy. It’s not about choosing between public health and a healthy economy. The future will require both to thrive and that is why the strategy we are introducing outlines a series of immediate and long-term priorities to support the global recovery effort.

Over the past few months we’ve engaged with our members and partners to understand the challenges they’re facing. We’ve also taken a closer look at our LEED green building rating system to reevaluate what is currently being addressed and what else we need to consider. We’ll be introducing updates in the next few weeks, but this is just the beginning. We will also continue to promote the WELL Building Standard along with LEED. In order to support a strong recovery, we need consistent feedback and engagement from the industry to help shape and inform our next steps and recommendations. While recovery may seem like a long road, it need not be that way. If we can quickly rebuild trust in people that their spaces are safe to reenter and they can stay healthy in them, then the economy will quickly rebound. LEED and WELL certifications play a critical role in ensuring spaces are healthy.   

NREI: What sort of benchmarks go into the new LEED pilot credits around social distancing, nontoxic surface cleaning, air quality and infection monitoring? Does that involve working at all with other organizations?

Mahesh Ramanujam: The specific metrics around the new LEED pilot credits will be outlined in the coming weeks. As we consider metrics, we need to be aware that this is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis and will require us to adopt new practices at a rapid pace. Our new strategy will be a critical component in helping the industry take necessary new and next steps.

For more than a quarter century, USGBC and its members have been a leading voice when it comes to building sustainably. Our rating system has become a global standard with more than 102,000 projects in 178 countries and territories because we engage others to help inform LEED’s development. As part of this new strategy, we are also planning to launch a call for ideas and organize an event to seek perspectives from our members and the broader market on how LEED can better evolve to deliver on the new reality we’re facing. As the marketplace changes, so must LEED and as we embark on this new chapter, the input from our larger community will be an invaluable part of the journey ahead. 

NREI: There are a lot of ideas floating around on how the built environment will need to change. Some of the changes will vary by use. (i.e., offices spreading desks apart; retail lowering density within stores or encouraging one-way traffic flow or doing more curbside pickup; among countless others). In your view, will these kinds of changes be temporary or permanent or a mix of both?

Mahesh Ramanujam: At this point it’s hard to tell. I think some could be temporary, depending on how quickly a vaccine becomes available. Other changes might be more permanent if there’s a case to be made that they support general health and well-being. What’s most important now is that we come together and share both the challenges we’re facing, as well as our best practices and resilient behaviors so that as an industry we can all benefit from lessons and support innovation that will ultimately make us stronger and champion a better quality of life.

NREI: Some more universal ideas I’ve heard include things like more rigorous and frequent cleaning of spaces and extending hours of operation of various things in order to spread out use and lower density at peak times. What do you think of these kinds of tactics? Do those run counter to Green Building principles at all (i.e., extending hours could mean running buildings systems for more hours of the day)?

Mahesh Ramanujam: Nothing should be off the table, and when it comes to green building, we know it’s about finding the right balance. If some spaces find they need to increase their energy use, maybe it becomes an opportunity to integrate renewables. What we need to remember is that there is always some decision we can make that allows us to improve. Continuous improvement has always been a hallmark of LEED and it has allowed project teams to take a holistic look at building systems so they can make the most informed decision about [the building’s] design, construction and operations. Green building is ultimately about people and right now we need to find the solutions that reflect the realities that buildings, and more importantly the people inside them, will face in the near future. This is why we are planning to do a comprehensive review of our latest rating system, LEED v4.1, to ensure we are factoring in the lessons learned from this pandemic.

NREI: What aspects of green building specifically promote health and wellness? Is this part of LEED as is or is this part of the expansion you’re talking about?

Mahesh Ramanujam: Protecting and enhancing health has always been a goal of LEED. In fact, about 70 percent of the credits in the rating system positively impact human health. The LEED rating system adopts a holistic approach for addressing the connections between building and human health. It enables creation and operation of buildings that enhance occupant health and address public health concerns. Some of the strategies LEED encourages includes views to the outdoors, access to daylight and fresh air, better indoor light quality and acoustic controls, natural ventilation, thermal comfort, air quality testing and management, green materials usage, green cleaning and ergonomics. LEED also includes walkability, access to public transportation and onsite green space creation. Each of these is directly tied to a human health and wellness benefit and contributes to reducing stress, reducing the number of sick days and increasing job satisfaction and a sense of productivity. This translates to benefits for the employer as well as the person. LEED is already helping teams assess how well a building or space is performing for occupants, which is why now is the time to double down on those existing strategies.

This current situation is revealing that we need to look closer at how we address issues like infectious disease and what existing practices might need to be enhanced. Our new strategy will help guide that process, but certainly we’ve already laid the foundation for how we can generally support health in buildings. As mentioned earlier, we also encourage LEED projects to pursue the WELL Building Standard, as both LEED and WELL together maximize the opportunities to establish a healthy space for people.

NREI: What kinds of stakeholders are you looking for in building the CEO Advisory Councils?

Mahesh Ramanujam: We are looking for leaders across geographies and sectors who can provide advice on how to prioritize our actions and enhance our programs to recover, rebuild and strengthen the economy. We need leaders who have a deep understanding of economic, health and environmental disparities and can guide us on how sustainability can help overcome these disparities.

NREI: Do you anticipate this period overall will alter interest in Green Building best practices?

Mahesh Ramanujam: What lies ahead is a responsibility for us to design a more resilient future. It’s a chance for us to champion a better quality of life for millions of people around the world. The current pandemic is reinforcing the need for our buildings and spaces to support our health, but buildings are complex. Green building programs, like LEED, provide a roadmap for how investors, owners and managers can standardize design, construction and operations in a way that promotes health, reduces environmental impact, minimizes climate risk and delivers financial benefits through cost savings.

The business case for green building is clear. A 2015-2018 look at LEED buildings showed $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings and $715 million in maintenance savings. The U.S. $16 trillion commercial real estate industry is currently suffering from a swath of empty properties because of the pandemic, so these savings could certainly be a critical strategy moving forward. During the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the real estate sector doubled down on LEED certifications as it helped them not only to differentiate themselves, but meet the demands of their occupants. I expect this trend to continue during this recovery phase. As part of our economic recovery strategy, we are also planning on initiating a LEED ROI study to further demonstrate both return on investment and impact, and I am confident these results will further support those findings.

NREI: Does acceptance/adoption of Green Building practices vary at all by nation? Where does the U.S. sit relative to other nations?

Mahesh Ramanujam: The U.S. is the uncontested leader when it comes to the adoption of LEED green building. While LEED originated in the U.S., countries all over the world are now adopting the rating system. Other countries leading the way include Canada, China, India, Mexico and Germany. The motivations are the same in terms of reducing their environmental impact, creating healthier spaces for people and reducing operating costs. What often changes are the strategies utilized in each of these countries or even regions. India, for example, is rapidly urbanizing, but at the same time grappling with a large portion of its population lacking access to basic needs, like clean water and electricity. Factors like this will certainly impact the types of strategies and priorities project teams consider. It is just another reason why LEED is a global leadership standard. The rating system accounts for differences like geography, yet still provides a standard roadmap for how to approach green building projects that are applicable to virtually every building type.

This becomes critical when considering that multinational companies are looking for ways to standardize the design and operations of their global facilities. Colgate-Palmolive is a great example of a company that’s committed to green building. They’ve certified about 19 facilities around the world to LEED and about 30 percent of their manufacturing facilities under our TRUE Zero Waste program. They also have the first building to achieve our LEED Zero certification in all four categories of net zero energy, carbon, waste and water. It’s a manufacturing facility in New Jersey and the work they’ve done really shows that no matter what type of building you’re operating, there are opportunities to improve.

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