Workplace air quality was already a hot topic before an unprecedented bushfire season and global pandemic raised the issue to a whole new level. Indoor air quality now ranks alongside views and amenity in commercial tenancy decisions, evidence of which sustainability experts like Craig Roussac are seeing first-hand.

“Nowadays people are asking a lot more questions about their air quality,” said Mr Roussac, CEO of Buildings Alive, a provider of environmental solutions and healthy interiors to the commercial property sector. “Buildings exist to provide comfortable, productive environments for people.”

Racing for ratings

The focus on buildings’ overall ‘green’ qualities has placed more emphasis on ratings from the likes of the National Australian Built Environment Ratings System (NABERS), Green Star and WELL Building Standard. An increasingly sought-after measure is the NABERS IE (indoor environment) rating. This is offered only for office buildings and ranks their indoor environments on a scale of 1 to 6 stars based on factors that impact people’s cognitive ability, satisfaction levels and productivity. The leading factor is air quality (IAQ) followed by temperature and thermal services, lighting and acoustics.

Since NABERS introduced the IE tool alongside its existing environmental impact measures in 2012, 193 buildings have added the IE standard to their NABERS Energy ratings for energy efficiency, water usage and waste management. NABERS, a national initiative run by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, is offering the IE rating for free until June 30 this year.

NOTE: NABERS Indoor Environment ratings are only available to office buildings. They are fee-free for offices under 1,000 sqm until 30 June 2021.

Just as the introduction of NABERS Energy ratings has incentivised building operators and landlords to continuously improve their properties, Mr Roussac expects NABERS IE to do the same. So far, NABERS Energy ratings have been adopted by the operators of around 2000 buildings nationally.

“A NABERS IE rating answers the question tenants are increasingly asking: is this space comfortable, productive and safe?” Mr Roussac said. “Increasingly we’ll see tenants not only wanting to know a building’s rating but comparing ratings when making decisions about space. Owners will be motivated to improve their ratings – just as they are with NABERS Energy.”

Proof positive

It is little wonder environmental ratings are so coveted given how dramatically factors such as air quality and light have been found to affect cognitive ability and general well-being. Findings from one study by three US universities including Harvard presented to a Green Cities conference in Sydney showed improvement in mental ability, decision-making and even crisis response in people working within optimised spaces. When it came to crisis response for example, there was a 97 per cent better response in a green building, one defined as having air virtually free of volatile organic compounds (VOCS) such as airborne pollutants from paints and carpets.

Ongoing research from bodies such as the Property Council of Australia also shows a distinct trend away from older buildings to modern complexes with pleasant, desirable facilities. Vacancy rates for A and B-grade buildings tend to be lower, with office market reports showing the most popular properties are those in which staff feel most comfortable.

Constant improvement

One of the latest properties to see a significant rise in its environmental status of WorkSafe Victoria’s headquarters at 1 Malop Street Geelong. When the $150 million A-grade asset property was completed in December 2017, it became only the second project in the world to receive a Platinum Core & Shell WELL Building Standard rating. Improvement has been on the agenda ever since, and in recent weeks the Quintessential Equity development received an ‘Excellent’ NABERS ratings for tenancy as well as a 5.5 Star NABERS Base Building Energy rating.

These ratings were in addition to its existing 6 Star Green Star rating for office design, the highest rating from the Green Building Council of Australia and among levels which have made the Geelong development a regional benchmark for sustainable design.

Global leaders

High overall environmental standards carry so much cache that major investors are seeking rankings for entire portfolios, as demonstrated this week when Charter Hall announced it had achieved a WELL Portfolio Score from the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), one of the first organisations in the world to do so.

The WELL Building Standard, borne out of New York in 2014 and since adopted in Australia, measures 10 “WELL Concepts” – air, water, nourishment, lighting, movement, thermal comfort, sound, material, mind and community – to indicate the level at which an indoor space enhances human health.

Key to Charter Hall’s achievement was the smart technology throughout its buildings said Charter Hall’s CEO of Office Carmel Hourigan. This technology gives tenants the ability to control climate, sound and air quality all through a simple mobile phone app. It also provides contactless technology at entries, photocopiers and lockers.

“We put COVID-safe design at the forefront of our buildings,” Ms Hourigan said. “Increasingly more investors realise that social and environmental factors have an impact on the value of a property and there is growing interest in more sustainable healthy buildings”. Charter Hall therefore had an obligation to create portfolios that delivered “social and environmental value in addition to risk-adjusted financial returns”, Ms Hourigan said.

People’s wellbeing must be “at the heart” of workplace design said Charter Hall’s Chief Experience Officer Natalie Devlin, as it delivered such a broad range of positive outcomes from healthy and sustainable communities to optimal organisational culture and ultimately better economic results.  

“What’s driving our work with WELL is our purpose – to create better futures - supporting our people, customers and communities at large,” Ms Devlin said. “This can have a tangible impact on the bottom line.”