Apartment communities are embracing sustainability to promote healthy living by residents, industry professionals and the buildings themselves.
Healthy-certified buildings are appearing across the country as management companies turn to certifications to demonstrate their standards, attract and retain residents, invest in staff and command higher rents.
“Certification allows us third-party verification for our efforts,” says Anna Malhari, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Veris Residential, whose entire portfolio has earned certification from the International WELL Building Institute.
“It’s an important sign for our residents—an easy way to recognize that we are doing the right thing and that the spaces they live in are healthy and safe.”
Big benefits in and out
“Healthy” is about not just amenities but also management and a sustainable approach from the first sketch. Here are some examples of this array from certified rental communities:
- In Denver, Element47 by Windsor (Fitwel certified) offers an asbestos- and lead-free building, high WalkScore (walkability index), community-supported agriculture program and 24-hour fitness center.
- Botanica Oak Hills in San Antonio (WELL certified) uses circadian lighting and purified air and water, all customizable and run through individual tablets in each apartment.
- Elme Alexandria in Virginia (BREEAM certified) features native plant species and landscaping that require no irrigation, water-efficient fixtures and fittings, LED lighting and programmable thermostats.
- South Yard Lofts in Fayetteville, Ark. (Fitwel certified) emphasizes an indoor-air-quality pledge, no VOC materials, allergen-free flooring, natural light, biking/walking/running trails right outside and a walkable neighborhood.
- The Pearl in Silver Spring, Md. (Fitwel certified) has a large smoke-free campus, 5,000-square-foot urban farm, solar panels, green roof, secure bike room with tools and nearby bike trails.
- Veris Residential’s Northeastern properties feature sustainably sourced drinking water, annual air and water quality surveys, green cleaning products and Energy Star appliances; at least 75% of construction waste was diverted from landfills.
- At Tower Companies’ Pearl apartments, solar panels produce 200 kWh of electricity a year. The firm buys carbon credits to offset all building utility consumption, and “any electricity we buy is 100% renewable,” says Vice President of Residential Services James Reaney.
- Air quality is a big sell, especially after COVID and with more people working from home. South Yard Lofts changes air filters quarterly, more often if a unit turns—two to four times more often than standard, says Rob Apple, Director of Strategy and Communications at Specialized Real Estate Group.
Retail and trails nearby
Healthy-certified buildings get points for being close to transit, retail, public services and bike/walk trails. All this allows for exercise and less use of private cars.
Reaney points out that The Pearl, just outside Washington, D.C., is “within a minute’s walk of a grocery, a pharmacy, restaurants, a dentist, a dry cleaner and Metro, so you don’t need an internal combustion engine to get around.” He is pleased to note Silver Spring’s close proximity to 1,754-acre Rock Creek Park, part of the U.S. National Park Service.
So how do we know whether some of the communities that WELL, Fitwel and BREEAM certify are simply urban circumstances repackaged as health benefits? It happens that they are health benefits, executives say. And everything else that goes into certification makes these buildings more attractive than the nearby competition.
Greens within reach
The BLVD Collection in Jersey City, N.J., has its own vertical hydroponic farm. Its organic produce, harvested weekly, is free to Veris Residential renters, who can join in if they like. Veris is also installing beehives at its properties, bringing both honey to residents and pollinators to urban areas.
Tower Companies has urban farms at two properties in Silver Spring—one farm almost entirely managed by residents, one managed by a local organics company. In a “very well-loved” program, about 30% of Pearl residents buy in for $20 a month and receive tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, leeks, zucchini, herbs and flowers. “After [fresh vegetables] get picked and packed and transported over the course of several days, they lose some of their nutrients,” according to the Cleveland Clinic, so proximity is a plus for participants’ health.
In addition, The Pearl’s green roof reduces utility consumption, boosts efficiency of the solar panels, increases biodiversity and helps clean the air.
Rents and retention up
Certification is good for the bottom line as well. “Focusing on health allows us to get better rents in downtowns, long-term investment benefits, good-quality designs and less turnover in leases,” says Apple. Specialized’s Fayetteville buildings have 98% occupancy, he says, and “the degree of trust developed with residents along with the healthy experience” has led to “lots of referrals.”
Millennials—residents currently between the ages of 27 and 42—are a large portion of these companies’ renters, they say, and research shows that both personal and planetary health are important to Millennials’ decision-making processes.
Veris Residential renter retention now exceeds what it was in early 2021, when the firm started focusing on sustainability, Malhari says. Even residents who move tend to stay within the portfolio.
A December 2020 MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab report, “The Financial Impact of Healthy Buildings,” states that in certified office buildings, “effective rents transact between 4.4 and 7.7% more per square foot than their nearby non-certified and non-registered peers. This premium for healthy spaces is independent of all other factors, … [indicating] that healthy buildings are seen as an asset that correlates to employee or tenant well-being and productivity.”
Indeed, multifamily managers stress the benefits of healthy buildings in attracting and retaining staff, too, in a tight labor market.
Management companies are using certification standards as benchmarks and goals, not just as ends in themselves.
Sustainability and health are official corporate values at an increasing number of firms. “It comes from the top down,” Apple says. “We try to apply these requirements to new project technology, design and construction.”
Malhari says, “I don’t see this as a trend. Hopefully, over time, this will become the norm.”
What is a healthy residential building? Several certifying bodies agree on the basics—support of human health and well-being, manifested in ways as varied as air and water filtration, minimizing noise and chemical pollution and maximizing sunlight and natural materials, including greenery. Some venture into environmental, social and governance standards, too.
A few major certifying groups:
- The UK-based Building Research Establishment published BREEAM, its Environmental Assessment Method, in 1990.
- The International WELL Building Institute has issued WELL certifications since 2014.
- Fitwel was created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the General Services Administration; it’s now global. The CDC is its research and evaluation partner, and the Center for Active Design is the licensed operator.
Ellen Ryan is a freelance contributor for units.