Prioritizing health & wellness with Fitwel in response to COVID-19
Prioritizing health & wellness with Fitwel in response to COVID-19
In a webinar earlier this year, we covered the importance of prioritizing health and wellness at organizations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically focusing on the Fitwel building certification system. Zachary Flora, Associate Managing Director of Market Growth for the Center of Active Design, and Brian Seaman, Managing Director at New York Life Real Estate Investors, joined Michelle Winters, Goby’s VP of Solutions, and Nicole Phillips, an ESG consultant at Goby, to discuss the current state of Fitwel, provide an overview of the Fitwel certification, explain the benefits of getting certified, outline how this framework can help assist during these trying times, and review a case study of New York Life’s efforts to implement Fitwel across their portfolio. Below is a transcription of the webinar, and you can click here to view the recording.
Michelle Winters: First, hello and welcome to the Wellness First webinar about prioritizing health and wellness initiatives in response to COVID-19. My name is Michelle Winters. I’m VP of Solutions at Goby and I’ll be the moderator for today’s webinar. As you know, our webinar today will focus on Fitwel; one of the fastest growing health and wellbeing certifications. During the uncertain times that we’re clearly having right now, focusing on health and wellbeing of employees, tenants, residents, it’s really crucial for maintaining business continuity so really excited today.
During today’s session, we’ll explain what Fitwel certification is, why it’s so vital right now. We’ll also do a deep dive into the value provided by having this certification on a property. Some best practice strategies will help you succeed and allow you to overcome any potential obstacles and review a real-life success story. Our session today will run about 50 minutes and then of course we’ll have time for questions at the end. It’s also going to be recorded and emailed out to all participants. And so, before we begin, I’m going to introduce you to our speakers today.
So first, we’re very lucky to have Brian Seaman, the Managing Director at New York Life Real Estate Investors. So New York Life Real Estate Investors has already completed four Fitwel certifications and has sixteen more currently underway. We have Zachary Flora joining us from the Fitwel side. He’s the Associate Managing Director of Market Growth at the Center for Active Design. And then we also have Nicole Phillips, one of our ESG consultants at Goby who will support many of our project management aspects for our Fitwel side.
So to start us off, Zach is actually going to be providing a great overview of Fitwel and then we’re going to dive into a panel of questions. Please feel free to submit any questions throughout the webinar on the bottom right-hand corner and we’ll answer them as we get to the end. So, Zach, I’m going to turn things over to you. The stage is yours.
Zach Flora: Thanks, Michelle and thanks, Goby for having me. I love being part of your webinars and conversations and there’s always such a great audience in attendance. So let me just see if I can control the screen. There we go. So a little bit about what we’ll go over today. I know some of you are familiar with Fitwel and the Center for Active Design, but I’d like to give you just a brief ten to fifteen-minute overview of what Fitwel is, what the Center for Active Design is, that relationship, as well as some updates to Fitwel’s application and its development.
So before we talk about Fitwel, I’d like to talk about the organization that operates Fitwel which is the Center for Active Design. We’re a leading international non-profit that looks to advance health and wellbeing in building design and communities worldwide. So we actually were launched in 2012 out of the former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. He led an inter-agency collaboration to publish the Active Design Guidelines. And those guidelines were kind of a really transformative piece of literature. It was the first time we had looked at public health research and translated it into design and development practices for the real estate and design community. When it launched in 2012, it was received really well. There was a lot of excitement around it globally. And the center, or I’ll call it CFAD for the rest of this presentation, CFAD was launched to kind of continue the advocacy work of those guidelines and continue to kind of advance and translate the research.
So what we do in a nutshell, I’d like to say is we translate research into practice. So we take public health and professional research and data and translate that into practical and implementable design solutions for commercial real estate, municipalities, as well as the design industry. So you can see on the right-hand side, there you have the Active Design Guidelines which is that first kind of inaugural publication that led to the development of CFAD and you can see Fitwel there on the left-hand side.
And just to point out two other publications that we’ve worked on over the last eight years. The Office Guide to Building Health that was launched in actually 2019. It’s a publication we did in partnership with one of our Fitwel champions, QuadReal, which is a commercial real estate company out of Canada. They are implementing Fitwel to kind of their base buildings which is akin to kind of core and shell for those familiar with LEED. But they wanted a way to better engage their tenants and have their tenants implement health and wellbeing strategies within their own fit-outs. So we worked on this publication with them and they delivered it to all of their tenants to a really great excitement and have been able to drive health and wellbeing and maximize the impact within their building. And then under the Active Design Guidelines, you’ll see the Building Healthy Places Toolkit. That’s a publication we did in partnership with ULI that specifically speaks to developers and what they can do on their buildings and their sites to optimize those properties to support the health of those who are residing there, working there, shopping there, etc.
So what is Fitwel? It’s a building certification system that looks to optimize the built environment to support health of the occupants and the residents. It was launched in May of 2017 and really has spread like wildfire over the last three years. I’m going to get to some of those numbers a little bit later in the presentation. But to talk a little bit about the development of Fitwel, it actually was not created by the Center for Active Design. Rather, Fitwel’s development was led by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the GSA or the General Services Administration. For those who aren’t familiar with that, it is the kind of landlord for the federal government.
At the same time, in the early 2010s when Active Design Guidelines were rolling out and LEED was really becoming synonymous with environmental impact of our buildings, they wanted a more human centric approach that looked at how they could translate a research that the CDC was sitting on and working on and turn that into a certification for buildings to use. They spent four years diving through about 3,000 literature studies, compiled the best practices and then went through a pilot phase of working with about 100 buildings to make sure that the certification was calibrated correctly to be able to apply to not only new construction, but existing buildings, projects in downtown urban centers, but also suburban and moral outposts as well.
When it was time to bring Fitwel to market, they put out an RFP which CFAD actually won in 2016. And as of today, CFAD is the operator and third-party certifier for the Fitwel certification system. So as soon as we won that RFP in 2016, we have been responsible for its enhancements, its growth and all updates to the certification.
Today, the certification system sits on a body of evidence. It’s about 5,600 plus research studies. So it has significantly grown since the 3,000 that it was originally built off of with the CDC. And part of that kind of exceptional growth in the science behind it and literature base is in the last ten years we’ve learned a lot more about the connection between our built environment and health. So an active design was kind of rolled out in 2010. There was a huge body of evidence specifically talking to physical activity and how communities and buildings can increase activity among those who occupy those buildings or those communities. Today, we know a lot more about items like indoor air quality, biophilia, natural daylight and how those types of elements and features play a role in not only our physical, but also our mental and social health.
This certification is built in terms of 70+ strategies. Obviously, with a research base of just under 6,000 studies, there are hundreds of strategies to choose from. We chose the seventy plus best that have the strongest evidence base and the highest known impact or the highest potential for impact on the occupants.
One question I get a lot is “how do we tie the strategies to the research?” So we do that through our seven health impact categories. So I’d like to say that these health impact categories are kind of buckets with which the research sits. So some of them might be very familiar to you. Things like “Enhances access to healthy food” or “Promotes occupant safety.” Some might be newer or less familiar such as “Instills feelings of wellbeing” which looks at the mental health aspect. And then “Impacts surrounding community health” which looked at how are these strategies you’re employing on site actually impact not only your occupants and your property, but also the broader community that it sits in.
Each strategy is then linked to at least one of these health impact categories. No strategies are linked to two, three or multiple. And that’s because Fitwel takes a very holistic look at its strategies and health and that one element and one feature does not alone impact one item, but rather it impacts your physical, mental and social health. So if you look at something like having a healthy food policy on site, that obviously ties very clearly into enhancing access to healthy food and your physical health. But there’s also a lot of research that shows that healthy eating can create better mental health outcomes as well and that can drive some social outcomes also.
One unique thing about Fitwel is that it’s not a one-for-one point system, so each strategy is not worth one point. Rather, they’re awarded points based off the strength of the research and the known impact. So some strategies might be worth four points, some might be worth two. Those with four just have a stronger evidence base and a more well-known impact. So we’re actually able to provide more credit to strategies where the research is more substantial and conclusive.
And what is the process of certifying Fitwel? I’ll be going through some of the nuts and bolts. It’s a six-step process, potentially seven if you look to recertify your buildings, but the first step is to register the project on the Fitwel portal. You can access the portal by going to app.fitwel.org or going to our website and logging in from there. But you’ll register your project in the portal, you’ll assess it against the digital tools that are available. We’ll call this benchmarking. That will give you a snapshot of where your building stands, how it relates to those seven health impact categories. There are also tools that will provide you a gap analysis to understand how you can get your building from where it is now at its benchmark score to whatever your goal score might be. You’ll submit the project and document it on the portal itself. So we don’t do any on-site auditing. The strategies are written in a way that allow for continuous monitoring or regular auditing of those performance standards that we look for.
So you’ll upload all your documentation on the portal and submit the project there where it will go through a certification period of about twelve to sixteen weeks. Twelve weeks for our Fitwel Champions and Fitwel Ambassadors, sixteen weeks for our general users. During that time, there will be an initial review phase where you’ll actually have dialogue with the certification team to understand what they’ll need from you to clarify some of the documentation provided or answer any questions they have regarding some of the documentation that you provided. At the end of step six, you’ll have an applicable Fitwel star rating and a Fitwel score and your certification.
The Fitwel portal, again, is just where everything happens. I’d like to just say here on this slide that the Fitwel portal is two things. It’s user-friendly and data-driven. We’ve created this over the years in partnership with a lot of our large users who are using Fitwel at scale across their portfolios to understand what they wanted out of the portal and what they wanted to see within their projects or within their portfolios. So there’s a lot of information there for you to track your entire portfolio or individual assets. You can see the health impact categories there on the upper right-hand side. It’s a great project managing tool and again, the entire project lifestyle will happen here on the portal.
Fitwel certification is based off a star rating. So it’s one to three stars; three being the most rigorous. Ninety points is the threshold for achieving a Fitwel one-star rating. Similar to other certification systems, once you achieve certification and your star rating, you’re able to order a plaque or a decal for your building or your fit-out to show your leadership and your strength in optimizing your space or your building to promote health.
And how can Fitwel be applied? The question of the hour. Fitwel can be applied to both new construction projects so buildings that are in the design or construction phase or existing projects that are completed and occupied. Either way, the project will achieve a full certification that’s valid for three years. At the end, they’ll have the opportunity to recertify against the most recent standards.
As far as what types of assets, Fitwel can be applied to workplace, multifamily residential or retail. Retail being our traditional malls or lifestyle centers. Multifamily residential being residential buildings with five or more units. And then workplace is broken down into various scorecards. One being base building which is again akin to core and shell if you’re familiar with LEED, commercial interior space for those individual tenant fit-outs as well as single tenant buildings which are for owner occupied spaces.
Our site scorecards are really exciting. They launched in January of 2020. These don’t necessarily look at the asset themselves, but the context of which these assets are located. Assets of the community can be applied to things like campuses and master-planned communities as well as entire neighborhoods. They went through a large pilot process and we’ve seen some international communities already certified using this community scorecard. It really builds off of the expertise and knowledge CFAD has in relation to neighborhood design and neighborhood scale promotion of health.
The commercial site scorecard is another exciting one. This can be used for industrial properties or I should say light industrial properties and light retail. Again, not certifying the actual building, but the context in which the building is located. It can be also used for large business parks with maybe multiple buildings if the owner is not interested in certifying each building individually but wants to certify an entire kind of campus at one time.
In the eight years that CFAD has been around and the three years that Fitwel has been on the market, we’ve seen a really huge interest in this connection. And I think everyone is somewhat aware of the connection that the built environment has in the places that we live and work and learn that how those places impact our health. And from the Global Wellness Institute, one reason I think for that interest and that kind of wildfire spread of Fitwel is that you know the wellness real estate sector was estimated at 134 billion in 2017 and it’s expected to grow to almost 200 billion in 2022. So a lot of investors, a lot of portfolio owners, asset owners and companies themselves are aware of the way they operate and design these assets and communities play an important role in the health outcomes of those communities. And not just for those who work and live there, but also their families, the other stakeholders in the process.
And I think to bring it to today, the current situation with Covid-19 and the pandemic that we’re all currently living through has only heightened that awareness. I think more and more people every day are kind of seeing and understanding how the way we operate and design our buildings does impact our health. And Fitwel sits on a body of public health research that has always included a specific section for things like infectious disease control and viral transmission. So when Fitwel launched in 2017, it included strategies in terms of having handwashing signs in bathrooms, cleaning protocols for shared spaces as well as strategies to optimize your indoor environment.
Over the last three years, as the research has grown and become more conclusive, we’ve been able to kind of enhance and refine their strategies to be more impactful. So today, I think a lot of people are looking back and saying what can we do to improve the health and wellness. And that heightened awareness I think has driven people to understand that some of these strategies can help them not only now in the short-term as we all find a way back to work and find a way back to some type of normal over the next you know zero to eighteen months, but also for the long-term planning. How can I plan to create a healthier and sustainable and resilient portfolio?
And to wrap up here, I’d just like to share some numbers to show off a little bit, I guess. But in the last three years, Fitwel has been able to certify over 400 projects. So that means that 400 projects either achieved certification or had been submitted or going through that twelve to sixteen-week certification period. We have another 1,000 or more than 1,000 projects that are registered on the portal. These projects are going to the assessment and benchmarking phase and preparing for submission. We have a presence in over 40 countries with over 3,000 global users. So again, Fitwel is one of the newer certification systems I’d say, but its impact is global and we’re seeing interest in uptake not just North America, but across the globe for people looking to optimize their assets and portfolios to support the health and wellbeing of their occupants. With that, I’ll pass it back over to Michelle. Thank you.
Michelle: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Zach. That helps give a really fantastic overview to set the stage for those that may or may not be familiar with Fitwel. I do want to remind everyone to please feel free to add questions to the webinar link area. I’m already seeing a few come in, actually quite a few more come in which is fantastic. Please keep them coming. I do have a couple that we’ll kind of start with to get the conversation going and then we’ll go into the open questions as well. But really, so to kind of kick off our panel here, Brian you get to go first in kicking us off. So I mean New York Life has had an impressive number of Fitwel projects that you’ve already completed and that are under way. What was the driver maybe prior to COVID and now kind of after COVID and how do you see this changing now with everything that has been taking place?
Brian Seaman: Sure. Thanks, Michelle. Let’s be honest here. GRESB, it started with getting GRESB points which is an indicator of a company’s ESG abilities. So certifications were the first interest, but it also seemed like a natural transition after the Green Building Certifications such as LEED, BREEAM or Green Globes. What’s next, right? Health and wellbeing of our occupants was a logical choice. Plus, with the amenity race happening, being behind us, the next step was making the building a curated experience for all of our occupants and a part of that is, again, health and wellbeing. And lastly, in addition to the GRESB, it’s marketing to investors as we and a lot of other firms are overseas looking at foreign investment dollars. ESG is a large department in Europe as compared to the U.S. so it seemed like a logical marketing approach. And honestly, I’d rather spend ten, 20,000 dollars getting a Fitwel certification than paying brokers to drink my Chardonnay and eat my shrimp. I think it’s a bigger bang for the buck for that. So pre-COVID, those were some of the main drivers.
Post-COVID, all the same reasons. A lot of the things that Zach had on his slide, but even more focused on our occupants and our customers wellbeing. Perception is a big part of reopening. Similar to the idea of having security cameras. Do they work? No. Do tenants feel better having cameras there? Yes. Same thing with the Fitwel. It’s nice to have. Is it going to make our tenants healthier? I don’t know. But is it going to make them feel like they’re healthier and safer? Yes.
Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. And although I would argue that Fitwel certification program is just as much fun as the Chardonnay with the brokers. So you mentioned that re-entry with your tenants kind of coming back into your space. I know a lot of us are working from home right now. If you see my child running in the background, don’t be surprised. But it’s this part of, is Fitwel, moving forward, going to be one of those strategies in your communications with tenants, kind of re-engage them to feel that comfort level back in the property? You kind of alluded to it, but will that be part of that just outward communication strategy?
Brian: Oh, for sure. This is an opportunity for us to get in front of our tenants and the more communication options we have, the better. And it’s all about making our tenants feel comfortable and safe to come back to the work environment. We don’t want to have our tenants call us and say half our employees don’t feel safe coming back to your building. We want them to be able to feel like they can all come back and being visible is a big part of that. Whether it’s actually posting pictures of your crew sanitizing the space, we want to get in front of our occupants and show them what we’re doing. So yeah. So we are saying hey, these buildings have been certified or these buildings are going through the process right now. So yeah. So it’s an added arrow in our quiver, I guess, to make our occupants feel safe and comfortable.
Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. And I know on the Goby end, we’ve been getting a lot more questions about Fitwel, about WELL Certification. And Zach, I’d be curious, you touched on it a little bit in your presentation on the relation or alignment that you can have through Fitwel and what’s being presented from COVID impacts. How has that conversation been for you recently? Has that really been increased interest in the certification? Are you seeing that from others? What are some of your thoughts and what you’re indicating?
Zach: Absolutely. I think, as I mentioned, everyone especially real estate owners and operators are understanding just how closely linked you know buildings and human health are. This pandemic has only highlighted that and I’d say heightened our collective awareness of the role that these public spaces will play in our health and wellbeing. We’ve certainly seen increasing demand to learn more about Fitwel, learn more about the standard and the certification process.
And I think companies are coming forward for two reasons. One, what Brian mentioned, is that building trust aspect and the short-term needs of getting people back to the office and making sure that their tenants or their residents of their multifamily spaces are comfortable living there, are comfortable coming back to the office and knowing that the building and the landlord has taken the necessary steps to make it a space that they feel safe and comfortable coming back to. But also, a lot of these companies are looking at the long-term; the long-term how are they creating these healthier and more resilient communities and buildings. And they want to know how Fitwel and the Center for Active Design can play a role in that. It’s sort of saying not just what can we do today, but how can Fitwel certification play that long game in terms of our ESG ratings, in terms of looking at our portfolios at scale and in terms of being a more health-promoting company. That will be really important.
And we’ve answered a lot of those questions. I think I’ve kind of tried to answer that demand through our “Research to Action” series. So it’s a series we launched earlier this month. It’s about five chapters. I think the first three are out right now, but it really was launched to respond to the community demand of we need more information. And the Center for Active Design really leaned back into our model of saying what we do is we translate research into practical and implementable strategies. So we’ve taken what we know and what is evidence-based out there and put into these what I call very concise, but powerful chapters to let our community know, you know understand more about what’s happening now in terms of COVID-19, the pandemic, what they can do.
Chapter two is all about kind of building trust within the workplace and how you can go about kind of communicating with your tenants and working with your tenants to make sure that they feel safe. Chapter three is all about looking at the residential setting and the mental health implications. A lot of people have come forward. So the study is showing that this has led to increased stress and anxiety among our populations. So how can you as a residential owner who’s dealing with a large number of people living on-site and working on-site. How can you kind of optimize your spaces and your program and your communications to create spaces that are actually impacting the mental health of these residents who might be under stay-at-home orders or working from home for an unknown period of time?
Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the other item I know we had talked about that we wanted to maybe mention there really are probably two key building level certifications that are out there today as it relates to real estate’s focus on health and wellbeing. Fitwel obviously which we are talking about today. WELL Certification is the other one that comes up really frequently. Can you just briefly give a description for the audience on the differences between each? If there are different factors or recommendations for considerations maybe based on property type, et cetera. Could you just give an overview for us?
Zach: Absolutely. So WELL and Fitwel both operate in a healthy building certification space and I think that’s our primary similarity. Like I said that everything else is really different. We’re very different systems in terms of the certification process, the tools we provide, the content. A few things that make Fitwel unique, to me, one is the ability for Fitwel to be designed and used at scale. We really wanted this to be a certification system you can use portfolio-wide. And its development with the CDC, again, it was calibrated to make sure it could be used for new construction, existing buildings, rural, suburban, urban.
Over the last three years, we’ve added the new construction pathways and major innovations to allow you to actually implement that. Because we talked about ESG strategies and that long-term resilient health-promoting portfolio, we want to make sure it’s something that you cannot just, that it’s not just reserved for your one legacy project, but it’s actually where you can implement across its scale and impact all of your employees or all of your tenants. I mean really have that impact. So that portfolio-wide application is really important and I think you’ll see that the process for certification and the price point for certification all reflect that value of making sure that companies can use this across their buildings. Not just on one or two projects a year, but we have several champions who are committing to six or more projects a year and getting them through the pipeline.
The second thing is the evidence base and it’s 56 research studies. It’s based on public health research. The initial R&D was done through the CDC and the GSA. That’s really, really powerful stuff and I think that body of public health research allows us to look at health in a multitude of ways and continually can refine the strategies and work with them to include what’s emerging, what’s the latest research. And we have that kind of support to say by achieving a Fitwel certification, you’re showing your leadership. But there’s also a really strong strength to the certification with the CDC being our continued research partner and helping us understand what’s out there and understand how we can shape the current strategies and refine new ones. And I think, again, that has only been highlighted by today’s current situation.
But a lot of our users are using both. I’d say that when you look at companies out there, they’re looking at their own goals, their own vision for their company, their own ESG initiatives and saying, “Which one fits into what I’m hoping to get out of the certification system?” Several companies have chosen Fitwel because they’re able to apply it portfolio-wide and have a broad impact and then it fits really nicely within an overall, overarching ESG initiative. So when they’re going to GRESB, when they’re going to GRI or SASB, they’re able to have this Fitwel certification and the commitment across several years of implementing Fitwel as something they can leverage to improve those ratings and improve those scores.
Michelle: Yeah. And I think that was actually a perfect segue into some of the other thoughts as well that we’re continuously hearing which is fantastic that I love you know different organizations are connecting on and Brian touched on as well. One of the big drivers for Fitwel for him was GRESB which is great. I’m willing to take on any way that it contributes to each other, but Zach, are there other benchmarks? We know GRESB, we know LEED, you just mentioned SASB. Are there other frameworks that you would suggest or throw out there as additional alignment that you see now or potentially in the future?
Zach: Absolutely. So I mean I think our goal is to allow for the ease of use of Fitwel. So you can see that within the Fitwel strategies themselves, we call out certain benchmarks that if you’ve received credit for those, you can receive credit for Fitwel. So within strategies, you might see a callout of LEED or BREEAM or RESET. By achieving certification through those benchmarks, you’re able to achieve certification through Fitwel. But similar to what Brian mentioned, a lot of the companies, a lot of Fitwel Champions who are using Fitwel are doing it because of their reporting for GRESB and other benchmarks like GRI or SASB. And having Fitwel’s certifications does improve your standing with those disclosure programs and helps contribute to them that more robust kind of initiative or broad outreach.
Beyond those traditional benchmarks, I think we’re seeing, we also are implementing other partnerships with some lenders out there. So in terms of Fannie Mae, we have our Healthy Housing Rewards partnership. That’s kind of being modeled on a more local basis with organizations like the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. These relationships are leveraging affordable housing and offering developers a fifteen basis-point discount on their loans for optimizing their buildings for Fitwel and creating healthy promoting environment. So if an affordable housing building achieves Fitwel certification, they can receive a fifteen basis point discount on their loan which is a huge benefit to a lot of the developers. So we’re trying to, again, look at some of the long-standing environmental rating systems, look at those reporting systems and benchmarking systems they’re using, but also look at the lending side too and say how can we get Fitwel to be part of all of these different avenues and all these different sectors to really have that transformative change we’re looking for in the marketplace.
Michelle: Yeah, fantastic. No, I think that’s kind of great to see as you indicated that that overall transformation how it can be applied across these benchmarks. Well, Brian I’m going to head things back over to you for a couple of minutes. I think a lot of our listeners might be interested in hearing you know you’ve had a few Fitwel certifications now under your belt. What are you hearing or seeing as some of the benefits through Fitwel? Is there anything beyond just that GRESB mission that you’re making straight? Are there other stakeholders that may have been getting involved with this and what are some of your general thoughts so far?
Brian: Sure. Now, unfortunately it’s a little bit early. So the four certifications we got were three office buildings and one apartment complex and we did it in third or fourth quarter of last year. And then you have the slowdown of the holidays and then COVID happened and pretty much killed all of the inquiry. So super early to tell. We have had some prospective tenants in Florida inquire if the building was certified. And it wasn’t the first go-around, but hopefully it will this year. As we are seeing it, obviously, I expect it to be on questionnaires going forward from brokers. It might not be do you have a gym or a bike rack. Is your building WELL certified? Fitwell certified? Going forward for sure.
Stakeholders, first and foremost, it was the asset managers across our company. Getting them to buy in as to the benefits of this for the releasing and for the broader organization what was paramount. And then once they were and, again, it just made the process that much easier between us and Goby. And then portfolio managers, I think they were the easy sell here. It’s a low-cost alternative to get certification. It’s only going to help their job at marketing to new investors.
Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. And Nicole, even from our team obviously you’ve been lucky enough to work on some of these projects with Brian and his team. Were there challenges or really great highlights that are worth noting that maybe we came across during these projects, best practices that maybe came out of it that are worth touching on?
Nicole Phillips: Yeah, definitely. It’s a benefit to us to work with so many unique and different properties across the country with New York Life’s portfolio. So it’s definitely enjoyable going through our Fitwel readiness assessment with each individual property identifying what are the strengths, what are the opportunities at each property. And it has been really great working with each property management team. We spend about an hour, hour and a half, sometimes two hours on the phone going through these Fitwel readiness assessments, walking through the scorecard and really highlighting the building strengths. And then kind of figuring out what we can look at to improve on or enhance on at the building. From these readiness assessments, we can automatically immediately see where the building scores. It’s really great seeing where they land even with no additional work or effort and then identifying the particular strategies that we’d like to improve and enhance on. So it’s definitely different across the board, across the country too, but they’re all looking really good so far.
Michelle: Well, it’s good to hear, right Brian?
Michelle: Well, perfect. And Brian is there anything else just when you’re deciding which properties to pursue Fitwel at maybe pre- and post-COVID, I guess, to an extent? I don’t know if that’s impacting the investments that you’re willing to put into especially if you’re thinking about amenities in these spaces. But what are some of those factors that maybe you’re looking at specifically?
Brian: Sure. So last year when we looked at, I think we did assessments on a dozen properties. We chose as a first task, the four easiest ones, the low-hanging fruit that would require hopefully little capital and that was the case and those were easy. I wish I would’ve done more last year as easy as it went. So this year we’re looking basically across almost our entire office portfolio to either get those certifications from the prior assessments or to perform assessments this year. So we see it as, again, just something that needs to happen. It’s not really a question anymore. So the factors, as you mentioned Michelle, all those pre- and post-COVID factors come into play now.
Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. All right. Well, I think that kind of does a lot of the main questions that we were thinking about. I think the only other one that I really had, Nicole you already started to touch on. So, and maybe I’ll even take myself, but we frequently get asked on, a lot of our clients these days, I don’t know if you guys are seeing this, please feel free to comment as well, but the increased ask about Fitwel or WELL and how do we start, where do we look and you know. You just talked Brian for a couple seconds on the factors that you’re looking at specifically. And Nicole mentioned too the readiness assessment I think is a good way of really getting into identifying where you are at today and what potential strategies to grow upon. But Zach I think maybe one of the last questions I’ll throw to you before we dive into the open questions, is there anything else that you would maybe recommend in terms of looking at what would make a good potential candidate for Fitwel? Is it a newer building? An older building? A specific asset type of building? Any and all buildings? What would be your thoughts there?
Zach: Absolutely. So I mean coming from the place of CFAD looking to make transformational change, every and all buildings is a good candidate for Fitwel.
Michelle: Love it!
Zach: But I like to say that when you’re looking at your portfolio, we’re looking at assets and comparing them. It really comes down to that each building is going to be really unique. So doing those readiness assessments is going to be really important. And whether you have a consultant that is supporting those or if you’re using the tool, the Fitwel poral itself has a tool. So log all of your you know to register all of your assets, use the benchmarking tool to understand where they stand and then using the gap analyses reports that are provided on there to say this is where we stand, this is where we’re going to go.
Now, you can register three projects, one is at 90 points, one’s at 70 points, one’s at 50 points. Maybe you do a few low-hanging fruits to make the 90-point one a little bit stronger so you can submit that and get it in the process. And then focus your time on the strategies that you can implement across both you know the 70-point asset and the 50-point asset to maximize improving those projects along the way. But using those tools and using those assessments is really important.
Now, one thing I’ll mention that I haven’t yet is that there are no prerequisites to Fitwel. And what makes that really special is that every building is allowed to kind of choose which strategies they need the most. You know here in New York City, we have access to highly walkable neighborhoods, lots of public transit, but oftentimes our food environment is lacking. We’re always able to basically get any food we want any time of day. So if we’re having an office space or an asset, really support promoting access to healthy foods is really important in our downtown Manhattan office. But in a maybe office based out in the suburbs of New York or in New Jersey where you do not have a high walk score, there’s no public transit, you might be able to benefit from having kind of a lower price point per square foot. So you can implement those kinds of amenity spaces, you can implement the walking trails and the outdoor features that you just aren’t able to do at a higher price point and have a central business district.
Though I love what Nicole said about assessing each building individually and looking through the opportunities and the strategies and understanding where you can go about having the strongest impact. And even with the benchmark, you’ll be able to look at those health impact categories and say 75% of the strategies I’ve implemented are improving physical activity of my occupants, but only 47% are increasing access to healthy food. So if we really want to make a difference here, let’s look at some of the ones that are connected to that healthy food impact category and implement those so we can actually drive this particular field or this particular outcome that we’re looking to have.
Michelle: Yeah. I think we hear frequently that we love the “no prerequisites” are associated with Fitwel, but you have a minimum number of points so there’s that.
But yeah, I think that’s a nice one to be able to help you dictate the strategies that are going to be most impactful at your individual locations. So absolutely on board with that approach. So we’ve gotten quite a few questions. I’m the only one that can really see them. Well, Nicole and I. So poor Brian and Zach are going to be called out here, but Zach I think specifically for you to highlight maybe a little bit more specifically. Are sites such as like manufacturing locations, industrial, retail, those are all ones that I’m seeing in different questions, are they all good candidates for Fitwel? And if so, kind of where would they fit in those categories that you were referencing earlier?
Zach: Sure. So your traditional malls or enclosed multitenant lifestyle centers, those can use the retail building scorecard and certify the asset itself. For things like your manufacturing or distribution centers or production centers, data centers or even the light retail so kind of like the strip retail that you might find, those can use the commercial site scorecard where you won’t be able to actually certify the building and the asset itself, but you will be able to certify the context of which that asset is located. So you’re really looking at the things that you have control over.
We know from going through the pilot process that many of our manufacturing or distribution center owners are really just delivering core and shell boxes and they’re not able to do the actual fit-out, but they’re able to say we can make this site more walkable. We can improve the access to amenities on this site, we can link it better to the surrounding community or make sure that its impact on the surrounding community is reduced. We can look at how we educate and engage the future tenants of these sites so that they are able to implement strategic strategies within their own fit-outs to improve the health and wellbeing of the occupants that eventually will work there. But, again, industrial, light industrial, say manufacturing, warehouse, production, all that can use the commercial site scorecard which is available on the portal and free resources at fitwel.org. And then kind of enclosed retail, the traditional malls, those can use the retail building scorecard to certify the asset itself.
Michelle: Perfect; super helpful. And then I’m going to put you on the spot again kind of as a follow-up question on that. Actually, a couple of the questions that I’m seeing are just maybe tips you would recommend for embedding health and wellness in those asset classes as maybe it’s not as easy to do. So specifically, one of the questions was associated with retail warehousing, but maybe just like retail in general. I feel like office is a little bit more straightforward, but on some of the other ones, what are you typically finding to be successful?
Zach: Sure. So for enclosed shopping centers, we’re really looking at the, again, the spaces that the property owner will have control over so the common spaces and the property management area. So you’re looking at creating a more friendly site to access. So I know we know if you’re familiar with shopping malls, especially in the U.S., they’re surrounded by a sea of parking lots. There’s no kind of bicycle infrastructure or no pedestrian infrastructure. Making sure that we’re looking at the site itself and saying, “Are there crosswalks and safe street infrastructure?” Like stop signs and things around that asset so that people coming to the building or walking through the parking lots are safer. Is there bicycle parking so people can access this through other forms of transportation besides those single occupancy vehicles?
When you’re inside, things like indoor air quality testing and indoor air quality policies. Are you able to monitor the air quality inside and look for things like TVOCs, carbon dioxide? As well as, are you adding those elements that are really helpful in terms of mental health? Or is there daylight available in common spaces? Is there greenery and biophilia throughout the retail center? And also, what foods are you providing. Is there a farmers’ market on site that could help kind of bring the community together? Do you have benches on your sidewalks? Landscaping within your parking lots.
So there are a lot of things you can do outside of telling retailers this is the retailers that we have, but looking at the building in terms of its policies and procedures and the site which it’s located and how people are accessing it. I think Brian said earlier you know this is creating an experience and health and wellbeing being experienced within the space that you occupy. And I think we see that very, very clearly when we look at those retail centers that when you have the choice to shop online or to shop at a mall or to shop at street retail, you’re going to go to the place that provides one of the best experiences for your entire occupants so from accessing to shopping to moving through this space. So the Fitwel scorecard allows you to create kind of that wonderful experience, if you will, that can drive health and wellness for everyone that visits that site, but also works there.
Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. Sorry, you’re going to get a lot of my questions, Zach. So there’s a lot of questions associated with Fitwel during COVID, just from like a technical standpoint on you know being able to do different air quality testing, as an example that might be taking place with the properties that are maybe not fully occupied. How are you seeing this impacted right now? Do you think there are going to be any allowances given COVID? What are kind of the internal thoughts?
Zach: Sure. So I think a lot of projects have been either put on hold or are trying to move forward. And we are working with those users incredibly closely to understand their needs. So if places where you are unable to go out there and do indoor air quality testing, you are maybe unable to put out an occupant satisfaction survey to your employees at this time. We’re working with those projects one on one to understand what they’re able to do and how we are able to provide kind of some leverage or some leeway within this certification itself. So I think we’re taking that case by case.
We’re seeing a lot of our users, again, pivot to, again, preparing for their return. So I think a lot have pivoted from maybe testing the indoor air quality to shoring up some of the policies that how we operate our buildings and how filtration and ventilation practices, looking at signage for handwashing, looking at things like cleaning protocols and making sure that not only do you have it in place for your vendors or your cleaning staff, but also that you’re communicating this policy to your tenants and to your occupants.
So for me, it has been a big shift from we’re focusing on some of these performance standards that we are unable to you know actually take care of because there’s no testing happening to what other strategies can we focus on and make sure those are in place and those are communicated very well. But if there are projects that are looking to kind of full-steam ahead and get certified before maybe they’re able to do testing, I’d say reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let them know your circumstances and we can certainly see what we’re able to accommodate based off your location and the strategy that you’re requesting.
Michelle: Okay. All right. Brian, I’m going to send a question over to you. So obviously, one of the things that has been kind of emphasized in Fitwel is looking at availability of outdoor space and just kind of you know access to healthy amenities, things to that extent. I think this is a really just general question that I’m also curious on. Are there any adjustments that you’re looking at in this world of COVID? And maybe you don’t have a full answer yet so I could be calling you out, but really just looking at providing those kinds of healthy amenities, are there things you’re starting to think about to still encourage that outdoor space, these healthy amenities that we’re looking to provide while still trying to acknowledge the physical kind of social distancing guidelines that we’re starting to put in place?
Brian: That’s okay. So I would say just looking at the Fitwel scorecard will give you ideas as to what to do. So we’ve already had the idea of opening up stairwells. That’s part of Fitwel encouraging people to walk well. It’s part of the re-entry to office building. I know we’re talking outdoor space as part of re-entry is problem with elevator capacity. And if you can have the lower floors walk, not take the elevator, you’re going to relieve the pressure on your bill. So there’s a pure benefit.
Healthy food you know. Are buildings going to let food be delivered to a building? Are employees even going to be allowed to get food versus brown bagging it? So maybe you want to have healthy food options on-site. Touchless; there’s a vending company in Chicago that will do salads for you out of a machine that is touchless. And that’s also part of Fitwel and also plays into COVID. But outdoor space, yeah if I can move all my gyms outdoors, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Michelle: I’d come!
Brian: We do have some multifamily, right? We do have some multifamily projects. We are putting outdoor fitness centers to help battle COVID and also work for Fitwel, but it’s a tough question. It’s a little early to tell, but we’ll learn more in weeks ahead.
Michelle: Well, I actually thought considering the top spot question, there were answers in it, but I wasn’t even really thinking of yet which is I think a good strategy and direction for moving forward. So we have another couple of minutes here so I’m going to try and get a couple more questions in. Actually, Nicole, I’m going to throw this question out at you. We’re being asked just what are some specific examples that we may be seeing or challenges that can arise during Fitwel’s certification process?
Nicole: Yeah. Actually, playing off the stairwell comment, that is…
Michelle: That was perfect.
Nicole: Yes. That is always a category or section that we struggle with. You know you look at some of these incredibly large high-rise buildings and not that many people take the stairs up to the 35th floor. So I think it depends on the categories. It depends on the building of course, but some buildings aren’t able to get any strategies in a particular category. Stairwells probably being the top one I would say. So you know kind of with this rethinking with Covid-19 going on and having to get creative and brainstorming on different ways to approach these particular strategies, I think that in particular is a great excuse to open up those stairwells and get people using the stairs a little bit more.
I’d say we see quite a few difficulties with the tobacco and smoke-free policy outdoor space. Not in all parts of the country. It’s a particular struggle in certain areas of the country where rules are not as regulated and not as strict. But I will say that we see a lot of opportunity with the buildings that have already been LEED certified and they definitely go hand in hand. And it’s a lot easier to achieve a lot of the strategies if you’ve already had that LEED v4.1 or v4.0 or whatever you might be going after in place or currently working on it. So that has been helpful to a lot of buildings to kind of coincide those certifications together, but hopefully we won’t see as many.
I will say the handwashing signs, last year we didn’t have any buildings get that strategy and this year, every single building that I’ve done a readiness assessment for has said, “Oh, we got them ordered already so they’re on their way there” or “They’re already at the building.”
Michelle: Yeah. I think it’s definitely an alignment that we’re going to see happening more and more. And not that I would call there being any kind of benefit necessarily to COVID, but something that it is doing is creating our awareness into just health and wellbeing in general and how we’re utilizing our spaces and how we’re interacting and that these aspects of Fitwel or other benchmarks that are out there are coinciding and connecting in different ways.
So I might just kind of leave us on one final question. Zach, maybe I’ll point it over to you. That would just be about now with everything happening with COVID, and I think you connected on a little bit, but maybe just to expand on. Do you see any other maybe more specific attributes to come out of maybe your next version of Fitwel due to COVID? Is there going to be a pandemic plan kind of more specific listed there as a point component? I mean what are your thoughts there?
Zach: Great question. And my answer is I think it’s too early to tell. Fitwel, again, some of these strategies that go kind of are very conclusive around bio transmission and infective disease are already baked in like handwashing signage. For other things, we really want to make sure that the research is there and conclusive before we make any changes to the standard of the strategies. So it’s too early to tell if those will be there.
We can continue to work with the leading research partners and organizations that we continue to track what’s out there. The “Resource to Action” series I mentioned, that’s an evolving series. So the chapters you see today may change in a few months or we may add additional addendums to them depending on what we learn. We’re tracking that conversation and we’re working with our users to really understand. We’re working with those large champions and portfolio owners to say what do you need right now to kind of solve this process to answer questions for your tenants. And a big part of that is going to be building trust again that Brian and myself both talked about.
One tool that we recently came out with about two weeks ago is a building collaboration tool. It’s a tool that landlords and property owners can use to say when they’re deciding which strategies to implement. It will tell you which ones have a direct impact on your tenants or it can tell you how you can maybe enhance the strategy to be impactful for all of your tenants. For projects that are already certified, you can actually share those benefits and those points with your tenants. So if they choose to go and get certified themselves, instead of starting from zero points, they can start from 30 points because you’ve implemented certain strategies that they’ll also be able to benefit from and they can take advantage of.
So I think right now the tools we’re seeing are really helpful to the standard as it is and just ways to kind of build that engagement, build that trust and continue to open up the lines of communication as we all kind of figure out what will stay the same, what we know will be the solutions in six months, in eighteen months and in the long-term.
Michelle: And you’ve referenced a couple of really great resources. Are all of those that you say, those are all available on your website? Is that correct to say?
Zach: Correct. So if you go to fitwel.org, there’s a COVID-19 page itself which has all the chapters to the “Research to Action” that are available. And then if you go to fitwel.org/resources, you can download checklists and gap analysis tools as well as the building collaboration tool for your projects and all those are downloadable for free.
Michelle: Perfect. Well, I know there were a few questions that I didn’t get to for today, but I’m going to do my best to kind of sieve through them and try and answer the rest individually. Of course, you can also reach out to any of our panelists or myself directly. I’d be happy to answer any additional questions.
On behalf of all of us, thank you so much to our panelists that joined. We appreciate the time out of your day. Thank you for participating in today’s webinar and we look forward to the next one. And in the meantime, be well, stay safe and thank you so much everyone.
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