The great indoors: Health-centric solutions as America goes back inside

Mahesh Ramanujam

As we begin to turn the corner on the pandemic in the U.S., state and local governments are easing restrictions and opening back up. As such, businesses are wondering how their reentry strategies will fare going forward. Will airlines maintain more flexible booking? Will telemedicine keep expanding? Will curbside or delivered meals be a staple of the future? It is a positive sign to be asking these questions, as other nations, unfortunately, still suffer through tragic outbreaks of COVID-19, including my home country of India.

At USGBC, GBCI and Arc, we shifted over a year ago to make clearer than ever our commitment to sustainability, health and wellness, resilience, and equity. “Healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy” became our mantra. We knew that business as usual within our organizations had to change. Not just because we could not convene at Greenbuild, but because the community we served suddenly had very different needs. When and how commercial offices would welcome back their people was a major consideration. And this year’s USGBC and GBCI community survey—perhaps expectedly—revealed that the people and organizations we serve want our help and support as it relates to confidence and trust when people reenter the office (or buildings, generally speaking).

In fact, the survey’s top issue ranked by our community for how USGBC and GBCI can help was indoor air quality and the health and well-being of individuals. These factors would not likely have been at the very top of the list before the pandemic—but we were quick to adapt, as needed.

USGBC developed nine LEED Safety First credits specifically to assist with reentry during COVID-19—outlining sustainable best practices for cleaning and disinfecting spaces, workplace reoccupancy, building water system recommissioning, managing indoor air quality, HVAC and plumbing operations, pandemic planning, and social equity in pandemic planning.

As the global certification body for LEED, GBCI has delivered these new credits to hundreds of projects around the world, with many more in the pipeline. We encourage everyone in the commercial sector to get in touch with our team of technical experts at GBCI to learn more about how we can help you implement these practices in your buildings. This way, when people are ready to go back inside their workplaces, schools, child care centers, restaurants or favorite retailers, they can have confidence that steps have been taken to welcome them safely back indoors.

But as more professionals return to the office, more students to schools and more foodies to restaurants, should health and wellness still be central to our focus? The answer from our community is a resounding “yes.”

According to our 2021 community survey, three-quarters (74%) of respondents say it was the right decision to shift the USGBC strategy amid the pandemic to healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy, and eight in 10 respondents (81%) said they would like to see the vision continue post-pandemic. The support reaches far and wide, with nearly 1,700 respondents representing 50 countries—double the number of participants compared to our 2020 survey. Our community has spoken, and at USGBC, GBCI and Arc, we are listening.

While LEED naturally remains our core program, a strong majority of community members also want USGBC and GBCI to extend our portfolio beyond LEED, while speaking to health and equity. Fortunately, GBCI offers certifications and credentialing in this regard, though with the support of our Boards of Directors, hardworking staff, and many volunteers and committee members, we will take these survey findings to heart for future and ongoing offerings. Nearly seven in 10 (68%) of respondents told us that it benefits USGBC to “diversify its portfolio of offerings beyond LEED.”

Indeed, GBCI’s portfolio has expanded to include a suite of nearly 10 certification programs and 15 professional credentials and certificates covering almost every facet of the sustainability industry—from green buildings and sustainable landscape development to zero waste performance, resilient design, power grids and infrastructure. Each of these programs not only builds on LEED and serves to advance our mission in unique ways, but also allows us to create lasting value for the industry and our community by helping to meet and exceed sustainability goals, push the boundaries of what is possible and enable the adoption of next-generation sustainability practices.

Adapting to changing conditions is a test for any organization, so hearing directly from our community that that they want us to double down on our ongoing strategies is encouraging. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, health, equity and green building access will still be crucial opportunities for the green building industry.

Indeed, we have never been comfortable with maintaining the status quo. We have always sought to innovate on behalf of our community and set the bar for the market—and the community survey is evidence that we should keep at it. Our community looks to us to see what the future of the market will be and to set the direction for how to get there. Because of this, we occupy a central role in the industry and in the reentry process.

Our employees and volunteers should be extremely proud of their success. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been busy getting ready to emerge even better than before. As just one example, in 2020 alone, over 400 million square feet of space certified to LEED standards. This is impressive considering the challenges of this past year, and we thank the professionals who delivered these projects in tough times to protect and enhance their communities.

Now, as USGBC, GBCI and Arc remain on the move, imagine what we can achieve together in a post-pandemic future!

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