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Health and Wellness Real Estate is Moving from 'Elective to Essential'

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Already a growing trend, health- and wellness-focused multifamily communities gain new purpose due to COVID-19.

By Mary Salmonsen Multifamily Executive

Amenity spaces at 727 West Madison in Chicago incorporate "vignette" spaces, where residents can work around others but maintain personal space.

Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, amenity spaces were busy - residents could be found literally everywhere. In clubhouses, main lounges, and business centers just hanging out or working in the middle of the day. Now that public gatherings forbidden, including those in amenity spaces designed as tools of wellness, how do we bring back that feeling of gathering safely? The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic removed a base assumption of safety in high-density residential and overnight set new requirements for cleanliness, social gathering, and contact, all for the sake of promoting and protecting human health.

Defining Health and Wellness

For many years, the concept of health and wellness has referred to a program of building features and amenities designed to promote well-being among multifamily residents. “Wellness might mean different things to different people,” says Mary Cook, founder and president of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates, noting that her firm “began to break wellness down into different pillars. Of course there’s strength and endurance, and fitness. There’s rejuvenating and calm, and there is a sense of community and a wellness that happens when people interact with each other, relationships form, and good times are had.”

A health and wellness program is often understood as a premium addition to the standard multifamily experience. Some communities are built to official standards for health and wellness, including the WELL Building Standard, while others establish their own programs.

“Health and wellness programs traditionally assume the building is safe and then figure out what we can do to improve it—improve the air quality and the light, make it more comfortable, and provide more healthy choices,” says Brian Levitt, president and co-founder of Denver-based NAVA Real Estate Development. “But this really reverses the process, and moves it back one notch.”

For communities built around health and wellness—and the renters interested in living there—personal wellness must not only work hand in hand with public health and safety, but also accommodate the safety measures necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Designers, developers, and analysts are approaching this task with new design strategies for safer versions of health and wellness trends, as well as concepts for change in existing communities.

Accommodating Amenities and Working From Home

For many buildings, the pandemic has meant the temporary closure of public amenity spaces, including fitness centers, the cornerstone of many health and wellness programs. Even when they reopen, concerns remain about the areas’ cleaning protocols and capacity changes, as well as residents’ willingness to continue to use them.

However, open amenity spaces can be able to accommodate social distancing through design. Amenity spaces designed as “vignette” spaces, where residents can be with others while still maintaining their own personal space. “Even before the pandemic, when people are working, they want a certain amount of personal space,” Tyler from 727 West Madison says. “We have one long, meandering sectional in the lounge, but we’ve changed the colors of the cushions here—this block is cream, this block is gray, etc. And at every break in color, there’s a little table. It says, ‘This is my space.’”

"Vignette Seating"

Clubhouse Space Designed by Max Michelle Interiors

Tyler emphasizes that, while gatherings and communal amenity spaces may currently come with risks, human beings still want to gather. Enabling them to gather safely means returning a vital component of their lives to them. This accomplishment in design could prove invaluable as the situation progresses—especially for the large number of workers who may begin to work from home on a full-time basis.

“I call it the Starbucks effect,” Tyler says. “I always thought it was weird when Starbucks started getting popular and people said, ‘I’m going to intentionally go to a coffee shop with a bunch of people and sit there for hours to do my work.’ But I think just a cozy space, and people know to respect each other’s personal space here. Having this access to these additional amenities gives yourself a change of pace, and your brain some air to breathe. Keeping your distance is going to be very key to how we approach these large open amenity spaces going forward.”

Beyond amenity space layouts, Cook expects a new dimension of public health and safety precautions in multifamily, wellness-focused or otherwise. “Innovation will happen in the products and materials that we use. Already, everybody’s talking about touchless technology. We’re already integrating antimicrobial, antibacterial textiles and surfaces. There’s UV lighting and air handling that can eliminate viruses.”

As for the vast numbers of people who will work from home from now on, tech infrastructure in multifamily will be key to serving their needs easily and without hassle. “I think this pandemic fast-forwarded everybody into the digital age with both feet. That situation is not going back,” Cook says. She sees videoconferencing, private spaces, high-speed internet, collaborative spaces, and meeting spaces as needs multifamily must accommodate.

Strategies from the WELL Building Standard

The WELL Building Standard, launched in October 2014, establishes a series of building performance criteria across a number of core concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, and innovation. As of 2020, over 4,200 projects have received WELL certification across the globe, encompassing over 549 million square feet of the built environment.

At the time that stay-at-home orders in response to the novel coronavirus started to take effect, the International WELL Building Institute—creators and certifiers of the WELL Building Standard—was preparing to move the next edition of the WELL Building Standard, WELL v2, out of its pilot phase. This has since been postponed, and the institute has assembled a new task force on COVID-19 and other respiratory infections, composed of experts across disciplines, to create guidelines for developers and enhance the existing WELL v2 standards. Until those new standards are available, professionals can consult “Strategies From the Well Building Standard to Support in the Fight Against COVID-19,” a collection of WELL v2 principles applied to COVID-19 management that includes:

  • Air and water quality treatments

  • Readily available handwashing

  • Emergency preparedness and risk management plans that incorporate resident feedback

  • Community features that support “movement and comfort,” particularly for remote workers

  • Access to physical and mental health services

  • Stress management

  • Access to nature and natural daylight

  • Community access and engagement programs

The full document is available at the International WELL Building Institute’s COVID-19 portal, “Programs like the WELL Building Standard provide credibility for the real estate community in terms of things you can do to improve the infrastructure of your building and deliver the best health outcome for residents,” says Levitt. “I think where perhaps health and wellness in the past was more elective, now it’s become more essential.”

In March, residents had just begun moving in to NAVA Real Estate Development’s most recent project, the WELL-precertified Lakehouse condo and townhome community in Denver. To fulfill the standard’s conditions, the building incorporates MERV 13 air filters; water filtration, easy access to hydration, a juicing station and a juicing retail tenant; 55% high-performance glass exteriors; and blackout shades in residential units to promote better sleep, among other features. The developer also partnered with local vendors and professionals to create sports programming, including kayaking, ski, and yoga instruction, and employs a wellness concierge that can engage with residents on healthy eating and exercise.

Based on data from a national survey, Dahlin Group has developed a series of indoor and outdoor design strategies for safe, healthy multifamily communities.

What Are Renters Looking For?

In April, marketing expert Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki of tst inc, consumer strategist Belinda Sward of Strategic Solutions Alliance, and architect Nancy Keenan, president and CEO of Dahlin Group, partnered with a national survey company to ask 3,000 homeowners and renters about their home or community preferences, with the aim of discovering how lifestyle changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine have affected buyer and renters’ wants and needs.

Microbial Resistance Counters

Model Designed by Max Michelle Interiors

When asked about the home features they do not currently have and would be willing to pay more for, over 50% of respondents across all household types cited germ-resistant countertops and flooring, upgraded technology, and greater energy efficiency as high priorities. Over 50% of renter households who said they intend to continue to rent would also be willing to pay for touchless building entry. As for community features that would influence their decision to buy or rent, roughly half of respondents showed preferences for large community parks and green spaces, trail systems, and a “controlled environment for safety, sanitation, and maintenance.” By comparison, fewer than 30% reported that their community decisions would be influenced by a clubhouse on-site.

Considering this data, the Dahlin Group created a series of suggestions for designing safer multifamily communities and amenities, given current precautions for COVID-19 prevention. Building entries, elevators, and residential entry points can be equipped with touchless key-fob access, as well as hand-sanitizing stations. Larger lobbies can accommodate wider passing distances and contactless deliveries.

Larger lobbies with spaced seating and wider passing areas

Designed by Max Michelle Interiors

“[Residents] want to be able to feel like, when they reach these amenities or these common areas, how they are doing so safely?” says Keenan. “There’s a lot of talk about how you can do that with touchless door entries and antimicrobial material. [But] what if the way you circulate through the common areas and the way you circulate through the building allows you to have choice? Everything from the unit design to the actual building design and site planning may be looked at a little differently to give people more options about how they gather or don’t gather.”

Outdoor suggestions include wider trail paths, a minimum of 12 feet wide, that can accommodate passing lanes and social distancing; large parks and open spaces supplemented by smaller parks and trails; multiple open-air pavilions in place of one large event pavilion; private patios and balconies in units; and on-site health and wellness centers for residents.

Private Outdoor Gathering Spaces

Terrace Designed by Max Michelle Interiors

Residential units can feature a drop zone for clothing, mail sorting and grocery disinfection, as well as touchless or voice-activated home fixtures and features. Community and amenity rooms should feature germ-resistant surfaces that are easy to clean, and fitness rooms in particular should be limited access, with key-fob entry and appointment schedules to maintain safe occupancy numbers.

Microbial Surfaces and Mailsort Area

Designed by Max Michelle Interiors

Regaining a Sense of Safety

As of this writing, most cities and states are in the early stages of their reopening processes. While COVID-19 remains a concern, it is to be expected that normal life—and normal leasing practices—will be coming back little by little, and with them an increase in leasing activity.

Cook points to these potential residents’ desire to regain a sense of safety in their homes—and how a health and wellness program can provide that sense. “We have to take away the fear and the worry and the hesitation by integrating wellness behind the scenes,” she says. “And possibly, people won’t be completely relaxed until there’s a vaccine that’s effective and distributed everywhere. But until such a time, we can integrate all these things from the ground up. ... If you ask most people what they miss most about this, it is life’s celebrations. The birthday parties, the graduations, so we’re going to figure out a way to get back to that. And as we design our spaces, we have to design forward, we have to think about that.”

At the same time, the COVID-19 situation will serve as a turning point for the multifamily industry, in terms of safety and comfort advancement. “I think this is going to pull everyone back to start thinking about ... how do we make our buildings safer?” Levitt says. “I want the real estate community and the world to take this step, because I think together we’re going to make some really important advancements.”

Note: This article is not intended as medical advice of any kind, and should not be used as such.

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