Why Healthy, High-Performing Buildings Are the New Standard
Q+A with Alex Grella, Manager, University City
As building developers, owners, and managers, we see it as our responsibility to create built environments that support the health of our tenants, our communities, and our planet. The rise of “healthy buildings” over the past decade has produced countless strategies and resources that help us make this goal a reality. We sat down with Alex Grella, General Manager of Brandywine’s portfolio in University City, Philadelphia, to discuss this movement and why it’s here to stay.
Let’s start with the basics–what does it mean when we refer to “healthy buildings?” What are the components that contribute to a built environment being “healthy?”
There are many elements that contribute to a built environment being “healthy”—first and foremost, are the physical attributes of high-performing HVAC Systems such as ample outside air ventilation, highly efficient air filtration, and thorough air circulation. But then it expands to include such aspects as daylighting and views, building location and walkability, and biophilic features such as green walls and access to greenspaces and nature.
Another layer is the built environment’s operational attributes which greatly impact the health of a building; it’s not enough to construct a healthy and sustainable building, it also has to be well run. And as has been said many times, building operations and property management is a team sport. Here at Brandywine, our teams work in unison to ensure that our buildings are operating at a high level for our tenants, their employees, and the community as a whole. The building engineers ensure that our building systems are well-maintained and operating at peak performance. Our janitorial team incorporates green cleaning strategies in concert with an infection prevention, cleaning, and disinfection program that aligns with science-based practices. And our security team ensures that our properties are safe, secure, and supported by a well-trained staff that can respond to any emergency that may arise.
At Brandywine, we strive to be continuously improving. Tell us a little bit about how we measure building performance and ways we stay agile as the definition of “high-performing” continues to shift.
There are an ever-increasing number of ways in which Brandywine measures building performance, and it’s terrific to see how we continue to evolve and take advantage of new technologies and innovative approaches. Some of the platforms that we use here in University City have been in place for many years and include the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager; while others are relatively new and incorporate the use of sophisticated data analytics and fault detection diagnostics. These systems ensure that our properties are operating at peak performance and that our property teams are alerted whenever there is an anomaly that falls outside of prescribed parameters. And with the use of building analytics, we are not only monitoring the more familiar temperature and relative humidity, but also the performance of our ventilation and filtration systems as well.
We also use the UL Turbo Buildings Platform to assist with tracking all our ESG sustainability data including not only our energy usage, waste, and recycling diversion rates, but also our Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions. Recognizing the close correlation between sustainability and health and wellness, this data allows us to remain highly attuned to how our properties are affecting not only our tenants, but also the surrounding communities as well.
Another way we stay agile and informed is through continuous learning and industry networking through professional organizations. Our team is actively involved with organizations such as the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Association of Energy Engineers, the Philadelphia 2030 District, and Green Building United.
From your position overseeing Brandywine’s University City portfolio as General Manager, why is it important to invest in initiatives around healthy, high-performing buildings? What value do they provide to our tenant community?
First and foremost, I think that we have a duty of care that we owe to our tenants and their employees. These initiatives demonstrate a commitment to providing a safe, productive, and healthy environment for our tenants. It also makes good business sense; it has been well-documented that healthy, high-performing buildings improve productivity, inspire creativity, and help in achieving business success. And from an investment perspective, there is a recognized trend in the “green premium” that is being ascribed to high-performing sustainable buildings.
What are you seeing in terms of tech trends that facilitate and/or improve healthy building solutions?
As someone who has had the pleasure of working in this industry for many years now, I am amazed at the speed of innovation and change that has been taking place in commercial real estate. I think that machine learning, data analytics, and digital twins will all continue to play a role in advancing health & wellness in our buildings. Edge computing and IoT devices are also allowing for cost-effective building control system solutions, thereby allowing for improved system monitoring and control.
The use of health and wellness apps, such as Brandywine’s “BRT.well” app, is another tech trend that is facilitating and improving healthy building solutions, and when coupled with the health and wellness programming provided to our tenants and the community here in University City, have been very well received and extremely successful.
In your view, what’s next in the realm of healthy built environments?
Designing for human health and reducing carbon emissions will continue to be two key priorities in the future, as well as incorporating healthy building strategies that reflect a commitment to resilience in the face of climate change.
I think that building certifications related to health, wellness, and sustainability will continue to rise in importance in the future. Administered by an independent third party, these certifications provide a comprehensive list of best practices and independent verification that the building and the property management team are operating at a high level. Among the building certifications pursued by our properties here in University City are Energy Star, Fitwel, WELL, UL Verified Healthy Building for Indoor Air, BOMA 360, and GBAC Star.
In closing, I think it’s important to recognize that health and wellness in the built environment encompasses more than high-performing HVAC systems. While these are no doubt important, there is so much more to creating dynamic, people-centric workplaces and lifestyle environments. Beyond the physical spaces our tenants occupy, greenspaces such as those at Cira Green and the future High Line Park play a part in health and wellness. So does programming like our urban beekeeping workshops and fitness classes at Drexel Square which allow people to connect to nature, one another, and themselves. Through a holistic approach, we work to be a supportive partner to our tenants, an advocate for the community, and a good steward of our planet.