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‘The cost of ignoring much-needed IAQ upgrades is far greater’

Amid the celebratory news of the roll-out of vaccination programs around the globe, we must all remember one of the biggest lessons that COVID-19 taught the world: Buildings – as they are designed, constructed, and operated and maintained – play a significant role in the health and wellbeing of not only their occupants but also the people and communities around them. These include our private commercial office buildings, residential buildings of all sizes, hospitals, entertainment venues, schools, public buildings and more.

We have also learned that infrastructure inequities in cities, states and countries across the globe – including those in transportation, healthcare, agriculture and housing – matter and have a big role to play when it comes to effectively managing a health crisis. And sadly, we learned that much like climate change, a pandemic will also disproportionately affect those with the least amount of resources.

The successful development of a vaccine for COVID-19 does not mean that we do not need to develop new practices when designing the places, spaces and communities around us. Why? Because vaccines are only one component of how we will recover and move forward. This is not a once-in-a-generation crisis. As a global community of sustainability and health professionals, we must embrace the lessons learned about virus transmission and apply them to ensure a permanent recovery and resiliency plan. History cannot repeat itself; the cost to humanity is too great.

This is a point in time when leadership matters. This is a point in time for deep inflection. And this is a point in time for purposeful and forward-looking action. We now have the opportunity – and a moral obligation – to completely re-think how our buildings and spaces should be designed, constructed, operated and maintained. We must turn our buildings and spaces into places that positively contribute to our health and wellbeing. That means that we have to take a fresh and honest look at the inequities in the communities around us and build back better with an eye toward achieving resiliency and equity. Multiple studies, including one just released by Oxfam, have found that the world’s richest people have made significant financial gains during COVID-19, while the world’s poor have fallen even further behind.

At USGBC and GBCI, we believe that better buildings and communities equal better lives. That’s why we are dedicated to continuing to invest in LEED, the world’s most widely used and trusted green building certification program. The success of LEED around the world is a testament to its effectiveness. As of this writing, we have more than 100,600 registered and certified LEED commercial projects, nearly two million registered and certified LEED residential units, projects in 181 countries and territories and nearly 205,000 LEED APs implementing the rating system around the world. Much like LEED’s commitment to environmental sustainability, human health and wellness strategies have been a foundation of the LEED program since its beginning, with over 70% of the rating system’s credits tying back both directly and indirectly to human health and wellness.

Mahesh Ramanujam

We know that addressing the systemic challenges revealed by COVID-19 won’t happen overnight and without significant planning. And while we know that addressing these systemic needs will not come without significant investment, we also know that healthy people, in healthy places and spaces, equal a healthy and robust global economy – and that the price we will pay for not addressing these needs will be far greater than addressing them now.

We can start by focusing our efforts on one of the primary targets of preventing virus spread: Indoor air quality (IAQ). Public health data has shown that buildings are safer to occupy when their mechanical systems, especially HVAC systems, promote good ventilation, air scrubbing and purification and enhanced outside air exchange. While these enhancements alone cannot eliminate the risk of virus transmission, they are a critical component of a larger mitigation strategy. Upgrades to outdated and inefficient HVAC systems in existing buildings across the world have been delayed for decades owing to cost concerns. However, the cost of ignoring these needed upgrades is far greater, as the pandemic has demonstrated in human lives lost, shuttered economies and schools and overburdened healthcare delivery platforms. Now is the time to invest in a resilient future and build back the trust between people and the buildings around them.

One way that USGBC and GBCI have strived to build back trust between people and the buildings around them is through our LEED Safety First Pilot Credit, related to managing IAQ as a component of our LEED green building rating system. The pilot credit builds on existing IAQ credits in LEED and helps building owners and managers ensure that IAQ systems are operating as designed. It also helps determine temporary adjustments to ventilation that may minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic has also called attention to the condition of schools. For well over a decade, USGBC has been advocating for a major and long overdue global investment in school buildings. We have already seen some of the adverse effects of schools being shut down and students being forced to learn from home for nearly a year, and the value placed on schools and in-person education is as high as ever. Now is the time to leverage that goodwill and invest in these facilities on a global scale, so that such disruptions never happen again. We need to ensure that every school across the globe has proper ventilation, air purification equipment, carbon dioxide monitors and proper outdoor air exchange in order to reduce the risk of spreading airborne pathogens as a key component in their back-to-school engagement strategy. Every student needs to have a chance to thrive, and a key component of that is a healthy school building.

These investments alone will not create a strong, healthy and resilient planet. We also need to look at cities and their infrastructures. Despite predictions of an exodus of people leaving dense urban population centers for the suburbs, we did not see the global abandonment of cities during the pandemic. Not everyone has the resources to simply pack up and leave, and many rely on the resources that cities provide. And many of those that did leave their cities simply relocated to other cities.

Cities that set themselves apart through substantial investments in sustainability, health and wellness, resiliency and equity will be the leaders of tomorrow. People by their very nature need to feel confident, comfortable and safe with the community around them. That’s why it is critical to provide a framework that communicates the importance of investing in urban infrastructure.

I am proud of the 114 cities and communities across the globe who have certified through the LEED for Cities and Communities rating systems, including the City of Dubai and the King Salman Energy Park (SPARK) project. These rating systems revolutionize the way cities and communities are planned, developed and operated, in order to improve their overall sustainability and quality of life. LEED for Cities and Communities is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and encompasses social, economic and environmental performance indicators and strategies with a clear, data-driven means of benchmarking and communicating progress. The rating system also addresses pandemic-specific challenges with two LEED Safety First Pilot Credits, one addressing the preparedness for pandemic planning and the other ensuring social equity in pandemic planning.

At some point, we will enter a post-pandemic world. However, leaders must not then forget the lessons learned from COVID-19. We must remain focused on letting science, data and the health and wellness of future generations drive each and every decision that we make. Better buildings and communities do lead to better and healthier lives. Let’s make that our collective legacy.

Mahesh Ramanujam is President and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). He may be contacted at mr@usgbc.org.

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