On any given morning, a resident at The Pearl in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., wakes up to a view of greenery from the property’s courtyard, green roof, or neighboring Rock Creek Park, no matter which of the building’s 284 units they’re renting. He might begin his day exercising in The Pearl’s two-level, floor-to-ceiling-windowed fitness studio, which cantilevers over the lush courtyard, or by strolling along the community’s walking path, which leads to the city’s weekend farmer’s market downtown, less than a mile away.
Later that day, he might cook lunch with ingredients from a bi-weekly basket of fresh organic vegetables grown in The Pearl’s on-site, 5,000-square-foot urban farm. And on most Thursday evenings, he can pick up a professionally prepared home-cooked dinner from the community’s communal kitchen, made with ingredients from the farm, and enjoy dinner al-fresco. Also available are healthy-cooking demonstrations led by a local chef in the same kitchen space on occasional weekends.
This food-and-health focus isn’t the norm at most multifamily communities, but it soon could be, as 76% of renters say they’re working to achieve a healthy lifestyle, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council’s 2018 report Disruption. The paper found that residents of all ages are turning their attention to a “360-degree” view of wellness—a comprehensive concept that elevates the importance of both a healthy mind and body.
Widespread awareness about health and wellness has fueled the growth of the food, fitness, and meditation industries. Boutique fitness and yoga studios are opening in most major cities; the organic food movement has changed the way many Americans eat; and numerous consumers have begun to work the practice of meditation into their busy day, or simply find space to retreat from the 21st century’s daily digital overload.
The desire for overall well-being extends beyond physical fitness and nutritious eating habits, however, to include socialization, quality sleep, mental health, and a sense of responsibility to contribute to a more sustainable environment.
But as the goal for a holistic lifestyle has propelled the fitness, food, and wellness industries, it’s in turn disrupted another at the epicenter of consumers’ lives—the home. Apartment dwellers now want their residences—where most Americans reportedly spend 67% of their time—to reflect the same holistic approach to health they take in other areas of their lives. For many developers, this means a standard gym isn’t going to cut it anymore and that those that can offer a selection of wellness-oriented amenities will ensure their communities stand out among their competitors.
Backed by Science
Several organizations offer developers help in assessing the health and wellness levels of their communities. Programs from the International WELL Building Institute (led by a founder of the U.S. Green Building Council) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, provide concrete guidelines for building with a focus on health and wellness that go beyond the physical structure itself. The two organizations created the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel certification, respectively, to provide healthy-building criteria that foster occupants’ physical, mental, and social well-being.
In November 2017, the nonprofit Center for Active Design (CfAD) launched Fitwel certification for multifamily buildings, an extension of the CDC-created program the organization has been running for commercial buildings since the beginning of that same year.
The Fitwel standard focuses on 12 wellness health factors, including location, outdoor spaces, interior environmental quality, workspaces, and water supply. A property can receive a score of one to three stars based on how many points it earns for meeting the certification’s 55 evidence-based strategies, which are linked to one of seven health impact categories: community health, absenteeism and morbidity, promotion of well-being, healthy food options, physical activity, safety, and social equity for vulnerable populations.
“Fitwel is a set of design and operational strategies that have the strongest evidence base for determining a measurable impact on health,” says Joanna Frank, CfAD’s president and CEO. “It’s not just a list of features you should include in a building, but a really informed system of criteria that helps developers set priorities for a project; create a holistic vision of health that covers a number of aspects; and create opportunities to support and encourage behavior that’s health promoting.”
The Rockville, Md.–based Tower Cos., which developed The Pearl, became the first developer to achieve multifamily Fitwel certification in April of this year, at the 15-story property. The community achieved two stars based on Fitwel criteria. While the project was on the drawing board long before the multifamily Fitwel certification came to fruition, the developer made creating a sustainable and health-conscious residence a priority from the beginning. That vision later made the project a prime candidate to become an example-setting community for other developers.
“Fitwel was a natural fit for Tower because it’s science-based and rigorous. The rating system is also designed to be flexible, recognizing that every building is different, which allowed our team to choose the best wellness strategies for our building and residents,” says Jonathan Bauer, a sustainability analyst and designated Fitwel Ambassador at The Tower Cos. “While we had already built the community with health and wellness at the core, the certification gave us a concrete, coherent, and strategic way to talk about wellness, and communicate the benefits to our residents.”
Plus, the company notes, attaining Fitwel certification was affordable, coming in at less than $10,000, including the $6,500 certification fee and upgrades Tower needed to make to meet the standard, such as new signage around the building to communicate The Pearl’s tobacco-free culture or the health benefits of taking the stairs instead of the elevator, for example.
Chicago-based AMLI Residential, part of MFE’s 2018 Concept Community team designing the Building Positive + Living Well project, is also pursuing Fitwel certifications at its communities. Like The Tower Cos., the company was drawn to the program partly for its affordability, according to Erin Hatcher, vice president of sustainability at AMLI.
Putting Design in Context
Health-and-wellness certifications marry residents’ desire for a healthful building with scientific evidence of how and why specific design choices influence wellness—without residents even realizing the connection.
“The idea of utilizing the built environment as a mechanism to improve one’s health is becoming more commonly understood within the real estate sector, but the average layperson doesn’t necessarily know how integrated it really is with their health outcomes,” says Jessica Cooper, chief commercial officer at the International WELL Building Institute.
The WELL Building Standard, launched in 2014, measures the impact a building has on occupant health in 10 categories: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community. Certification to the standard starts at about $25,000 for a building under 50,000 square feet, according to the organization’s web site, which offers a pricing calculator.
“[An important part] of the way the standards are designed is to take into account how much the resident has to proactively do and think about in their home versus how much the home can almost act as a place where, just by being there, you’re getting the benefits of enhanced health and well-being,” Cooper says.
For example, a building’s location has a significant effect on resident wellness, benefiting those living there in ways that reach beyond the obvious impacts of physical exercise.
“I’m not sure it’s obvious to many people that there’s a connection between being in a walkable community and positive mental health,” says CfAD’s Frank. “You don’t really think about it in that context, but there’s a strong body of evidence that shows that, in addition to increasing your physical activity, [being in a walkable location] impacts your safety, equity, and access to things like transportation or grocery stores and connection to a community. Plus, it mitigates social isolation and reduces anxiety, stress, and depression, all of which has a positive effect on feelings of well-being.”
This holistic approach makes the Fitwel strategy about much more than just the way a building is designed, focusing on the idea of optimizing all aspects of a project for better health in both the home and community spheres. “Fitwel shows you how to put design into those contexts,” Frank says. “It’s not necessarily presenting a lot of new strategies but, instead, helping developers to understand how important a specific aspect can be to health and to see the value in prioritizing some of these concepts.”
The duty then falls to developers to stimulate conversation around health-and-wellness features and integrate the features into things residents can relate to on a regular basis.
“Fitwel gives us a lot to talk about, because it’s visible instead of hidden within the walls, and that visibility is transformative. It gives us a way to really communicate the health features to those living there,” says Tower Cos.’ Bauer. “However, we still need to engage with residents to educate them about the certification and gather feedback about how it has influenced their health and well-being.”
AvalonBay Communities has brought this mentality to its amenity programming, expanding beyond offering free fitness classes—which is now the norm at many Class A apartment buildings—to create more-holistic health-related options for its renters.
“We’ve done a lot of surveys of our residents to determine what they’re looking for—not just around the nuts and bolts of the amenities we provide, but what they’re actually interested in when it comes to lifestyle,” says Lindsay Gallagher, director of marketing at AvalonBay (AVB). “Living a healthy lifestyle was at the top of their list, so we designed a whole program around the idea of giving our renters the resources they need for overall wellness.”
The company launched its AVALONfit and AVAfit resident wellness programs in January 2016 which, in addition to fitness centers, include local wellness resources provided to residents at move-in with information about nearby boutique exercise studios, local parks, juice bars, and more, plus “Recommended Routes” that suggest 5K run and 10K bike routes close to the community.
Two to three times a year, AVB properties host community engagement events focused on health and wellness, such as potlucks with healthy recipes or the fitLYMPICS, where, during the most recent games, the company encouraged residents to relate how they were “going for the gold” in 2018 and offered fun runs and other activities in honor of the event.
AVB has also partnered with health-focused organizations to give residents discounted pricing on services such as HelloFresh meal delivery kits, ClassPass fitness studio access, Cook Smarts online cooking lessons, and Spa Week gift cards.
AvalonBay has signed on as a Fitwel Champion, meaning the developer has committed to applying Fitwel to six or more of its projects within a 12-month period. The company has its first such certification in process now, for AVA NoMa, an existing property in Washington, D.C. So far, AVB and The Tower Cos. are the only two firms to take the Fitwel Champion pledge in the multifamily arena.
“Fitwel already aligns well with some of the health-and-wellness strategies we’re implementing today, and it really gives us an opportunity to evolve our product offering even more, to cater to residents’ wants and needs and be innovators when it comes to these kinds of communities,” says Anna Robinson, AVB’s LEED Green Associate and Fitwel Ambassador design coordinator.
ROI Still Evasive
Developers say it’s tricky to determine how much impact health-related certifications will have on a company’s bottom line, if any.
“A lot of what we’re expecting is downstream, and I can’t say today that we’re seeing any return on investment yet, since the certification is so new,” says Mark Delisi, vice president of corporate responsibility at AvalonBay. “Plus, it’s not like a LEED certification, where you have energy benchmarks or ways to [gauge] specific utility savings—wellness can be hard to measure in a tangible way. A rent premium is considered the Holy Grail by most, and it would be great if adding these features allowed us to increase monthly rent costs, for example, but the jury is still out.”
Hatcher says the AMLI team, too, is still trying to figure out the right metrics to measure the success of its health features, but anecdotally it’s something renters say is improving their lives. This desire and demand from renters that wellness features be integrated into multifamily communities is what’s driving developers’ investment in them, a strategy that will hopefully reveal other benefits down the road, even if they’re not directly monetary.
“We definitely expect to see an increase in resident satisfaction, loyalty, and happiness with our communities, which will impact our interest, lease-up rate, and retention,” says Delisi. “We’ll continue to survey our residents and see if these features are something that had a heavy influence on their [rental] decision-making.”
Delisi says the attention on health and wellness in homes isn’t just another trendy idea—it’s a mega-trend with staying power. In the same way consumers have driven other health changes over the past few decades—remember when you could smoke on an airplane or in a restaurant?—early adopters of certifications like Fitwel and WELL expect them to revolutionize the future of the built environment.
“People know what a LEED plaque or an Energy Star sticker means; those are widely recognized brands,” Delisi says. “Having seen what happened with LEED and Energy Star in the 2000s and how far those environmental certifications have come, I think Fitwel is moving in that same direction of becoming not just a recognizable symbol, but something that will be expected going forward.”