building exterior with green shoots

Green Shoots: Positive Sustainability Outcomes Post-COVID

Part of the Pandemic Paradigm Series: Buildings Through a COVID Lens

Sustainable buildings cover the holistic building, including its supply chains, connections and impact on the wider environment, and most of all its occupants. Buildings have the purpose of performing a function, and in most cases, this involves occupants. For our industry to effectively deliver sustainable environments then we need to ensure safe workplaces as well.

Health and safety in the built environment have been a key driver for buildings and indeed in relation to conservation of fuel and power (fuel poverty, anti-condensation and mould growth etc.) and the entire raft of Building Regulations that we need to meet in the built environment to keep safe, hence the regulations.

Linked to health and safety in the workplace, we had ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ issues in industry and there is a reason we have a raft of Health and Safety requirements in the built environment, yet we still see measures being shortcut, ignored or misunderstood.

Over the past year COVID-19 has further raised the awareness of the need for healthier and safer environments. The WELL Building Standard has in part come about to specifically improve our health and safety in the workplace. They recently released “WELL Health-Safety Rating” for facility operations and management, to deliver and maintain environments that promote occupancy wellness to deliver well-being through focusing on a post-COVID-19 Safe environment by covering:

  • Sanitation Procedures
  • Emergency Preparedness Programs
  • Heath Services Resources
  • Air and Water Quality Management
  • Stakeholder Engagement and Communication
  • Innovation

The real challenge in delivering healthy and safe workplaces is ensuring our built environments are delivered as intended and required, plus maintained for the life of the building. So, in turn: building owners and developers need to think seriously about how they manage their properties if they are to get on top of the COVID-19 problem to offer and maintain healthier and safer environments.

As we evolve, we learn and the key to sustainable buildings is implementing our learning and future proofing. As per our previous article in The Pandemic Paradigm Series; HVAC systems, their flexibility, monitoring and control have an important part to play in delivering healthier and safer indoor environments for occupants. With Smart buildings coming to the fore, and 5G being implemented, building owners and users/occupants require more visibility, control and adaptability from their environments.

With fresh air becoming one of the focal points and further consideration to deploy mixed mode/naturally ventilated environments, for free access and use of fresh air, the outdoor environment also has a key role to play to provide better air quality and less background noise levels. Indoor air, and possibly water as well, filtration is clearly an easy win to ensure cleaner air is breathed in and recirculated. The way in which we deliver our air and recirculation indoors is also up for debate and grabs. All these items put together will in turn directly and in-directly ensure wellness and well-being by maximising the benefit of operating the built environment to deliver a new health and safety standard at work.

Increased energy demand and supply is always a concern. The impact the building and construction sector has on global carbon emissions is huge. According to the United Nations Environmental Program 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, the sector accounts for as much as 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, a staggering measure that has attracted the attention of both government and industry.

With decarbonisation of the grid rapidly progressing, more renewables and alternative sustainable fuel sources coming online, and being developed, plus centralised and localised energy storage, it’s not always a bad thing to use more energy if it benefits our health and safety. The key here is to ensure we focus energy use to where we really need it, by designing and maintaining our unnecessary energy use and resulting carbon emissions. As an industry we are striving to find ways of making our systems and environments more energy efficient and in turn what we understand today will most certainly change tomorrow. Now more than ever we need to consider the quality of the indoor environment and its direct impact of the ability of viruses and illness to spread.

When we look at other sectors within our industry, for example healthcare, hotels and leisure, pharmaceuticals, etc., we see technologies and systems being used to overcome the risk of spreading viruses and illnesses, for example Ultra-violet light, laminar flow, and HEPA filtration. Sure, some of them use a lot more energy and others not so, but if we internally and externally learn from each other whilst embracing change and adaptation then we can already achieve built environments that mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In turn this will provide wider and longer-term benefits to our health, wellness, effectiveness and overall well-being.

If we use a little more energy to create health-safe environments, then we should see energy dependency of our healthcare reduce.

At the very least the extremes in weather we have witnessed across the world over the last few years and months has concentrated the mind. The bush fires in Australia and record levels of flooding closer to home have made everyone sit up and pay attention to the problem of climate change. It may be reasonable to assume that as our climate is changing so is the likelihood COVID-19 is just one of several new/previously unknown viruses that will come along and challenge our existence.

From a sustainability standpoint, we need our buildings to achieve and maintain health-safe places to work to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, and any future virus. Therefore, we need to embrace climate change; flexibility; adaptability; smart environments plus maintenance and cleaning regimes so the built environment can detox and decarb in harmony.

The faster we plan to succeed, the faster we can react. Being smart is key.

Paul Scriven
Energy and Sustainability Director
London, U.K.