During this pandemic, the simple act of walking into a building can feel like entering a biohazard area. With a virus that’s primarily transmitted through the air, being inside almost any space is a risk. But not all spaces are equally risky. A new verification system lets building owners quickly convey the safety of their indoor spaces to occupants.
Global safety science company UL has created a Verified Healthy Buildings verification, offering building owners and operators the chance to prove to people that they’ve done as much as they can to reduce the potential risk of contracting the virus indoors. About 400 buildings and spaces have received the mark so far, and a total of 175 million square feet of buildings have either been verified or are in the process of being verified. That includes properties owned and operated by some of the biggest commercial real estate holders, including Brookfield Properties and Brandywine Realty Trust, as well as entertainment venues like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The verification focuses primarily on air, according to Sean McCrady, director of assets and sustainability for real estate and properties at UL. “In many respects air quality is the bedrock of optimizing the indoor environment overall,” he says. “Because that’s how people get sick; it’s a lack of ventilation in crowded spaces. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to have that much more focus on what’s always been important.”
Building certification systems are nothing new but most, like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system, tend to focus more on design and environmental metrics.
McCrady says UL’s verification system is not just a response to the pandemic but it also has created an opening for building owners and operators to pay more attention to the internal systems that may be making their buildings unhealthy environments.
The verification system looks specifically at ventilation, air quality, water quality, building janitorial practices, lighting, and acoustic quality. To evaluate buildings, UL performs a detailed examination of building systems and policies, looking at everything from the number of air changes that happen in a given room to how snugly filters are fitted to HVAC units.
After creating a comprehensive report on the ways a building is falling short of various health and environmental guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other governmental bodies, UL works with building owners to identify improvements. Once those improvements have been put in place, the building is verified, and UL performs two checkups within a year to ensure the building is still performing. UL’s marketing team offers digital and physical placards to indicate that a building has qualified for the verification.
“Most buildings could achieve this mark if they’re willing to really focus on the fundamentals that quite frankly should be done anyway,” McCrady says. “It doesn’t need to be just the class A office building or the state-of-the-art enterprise building that can achieve the mark.”
McCrady says buildings often don’t need major upgrades to meet the healthy building standard, but rather that small adjustments to HVAC settings or replacing outdated vents can do the trick. Most buildings benefit, even from small changes. “We’ve been doing these top-down holistic inspections for decades in literally thousands of buildings a year,” McCrady says. “It’s very rare that we go into a building and we don’t find things where we’re going to have action items or recommendations.”
It’s important to note that the verification isn’t intended to give people the impression that buildings are totally safe. “You don’t want to say something you can’t back up. You don’t want to say the things that we’re doing are killing 99% of germs. You can’t prove that, and that’s what’s going to get you in trouble,” McCrady says. “You can never remove risk altogether. Hopefully most people know that.”
There’s clearly a limit to what such a verification can accomplish. For the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s well understood that the spread of the virus is reduced not just through better engineering systems or design elements but also through behavioral changes like wearing masks and social distancing. All the filtered air conditioning and natural ventilation won’t do much if an unmasked person carrying the virus comes coughing into your building lobby.
But McCrady says that the verification can at least provide one level of assurance that risks are being reduced. It’s meant to be a clear indication that, other risk vectors notwithstanding, building owners are doing everything in their power to reduce the transmission of disease. He says that as buildings and venues gradually begin repopulating, this kind of information will be increasingly important.
“People know a lot more now than before we had a pandemic hit,” he says. “There are going to be new expectations for how buildings are managed.”