Is clean air real estate’s greatest asset?
Air quality has definitely moved up the agenda over the past year, not just because of the coronavirus pandemic, but also because of the impact poor quality air has on our health, our happiness and our productivity. It is also fast becoming a determining factor in whether employees will return to offices.
A survey of more than 2,000 adults in the UK by So Pure Air last month found that perceived air quality in indoor settings, or lack thereof, was one of the major deciding factors for whether people felt happy to go back to the office.
And there is legislation coming down the line too. The Future Building Standards stipulate the need for increased ventilation capacity in a wide range of building types, including commercial offices. The proposals include the ability to boost fresh air rates by 50%; additional ventilation requirements for spaces such as corridors and lift lobbies; a purge ventilation requirement of four air changes per hour for all spaces; and a means of in-use air quality.
With the level of indoor pollutants between two to five times higher than outdoors, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it is easy to understand why this invisible life force is becoming an increasingly important selling point for landlords and businesses around the globe – especially during a time of pandemics and a growing focus on wellbeing and the environment.
It is certainly a trend that Francesca Brady, chief executive of AirRated, a company that provides air certifications for buildings across the UK and Europe, is seeing.
“Very little attention has been paid to indoor air quality, even though we spend – particularly in lockdown – 90% of our time living and working indoors,” says Brady. “Air quality is the main determinant for our health. Everyone breathes. It doesn’t discriminate based on gender, age, sexuality, anything like that. It affects our health but also our productivity.”
Improved cognitive ability
The impact on productivity could be a real selling point for both landlords and occupiers. Studies from Harvard University have shown that people working in offices with “clean” air have double the cognitive function of those in offices with average levels of pollutants in the air. It found an 8% increase in productivity, which it quantified as a $6,500 (£4,700) increase per employee.
It’s a pretty clear return on investment, says Brady. But, she adds, as buildings are increasingly being designed to be more air tight in a bid to become more energy efficient, the need to monitor, understand and deliver good-quality air is increasing too.
And that is exactly what Ashby Capital and U+I have done at the Future Works in Slough, Berkshire. The 100,000 sq ft office scheme boasts a BREEAM Excellent rating and has been designed with sustainability at its heart. But it has also become the first property in the UK to secure a platinum AirScore from AirRated, meaning its indoor air quality is about as fresh as you can get.
Tom Smithers, development director at Ashby Capital, says the air quality rating is the something extra that Future Works has to offer.
“It proves to any incoming or existing occupiers that we are delivering first-class air quality within the building, which is hugely important,” says Smithers, labelling it the “finishing piece” of the whole development. He says that the importance of indoor air quality has been growing among the tenant rep community for a number of years, and that the pandemic has accelerated the demand. That demand, says Smithers, will ultimately lead to higher values, higher rents, longer leases and that improved return on investment.
“I do think you’ll see a bit of polarisation in the market going forward, especially with people coming back after the pandemic wanting buildings that deliver these sorts of attributes in terms of quality air, wellness for their staff, good amenities and end-of-trip facilities – cycling, showers, etc,” says Smithers. “If you have those in the building, it’s going to be a much better place to work.”
Brady says she’s even starting to see evidence that a building’s AirScore – or its equivalent – is second in importance only to rent among some of AirRated’s clients.
It may be an invisible life force, but air – good-quality air – has a significant role to play in the future of the built environment and in the big push to attract people back into cities and offices. Until the world is much further along on its journey to a greener planet, the need to rid our spaces of pollutants and to deliver healthier workplaces that increase productivity among our workforces will be a key priority for the industry.