Health and Wellness Real Estate is Moving from ‘Elective to Essential’

Article originally posted on Multifamily Executive on August 11, 2020

The amenity spaces at 727 West Madison in Chicago are designed to incorporate "vignette" spaces, where residents can work around others but maintain personal space.

In early 2020, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of designers from Evanston, Ill.–based Morgante-Wilson Architects set out with a photographer to shoot the amenity spaces at its most recent multifamily interiors project, 727 West Madison, a newly completed apartment building in Chicago’s West Loop.

On arriving, the Morgante-Wilson team was pleasantly surprised to find residents in “every nook and cranny” of the amenity spaces, including the clubhouse, lobby, library, and business center. “There were literally people everywhere,” recalls K. Tyler, director of interior design at the architecture firm. “At least a dozen people sprinkled throughout the main lounge, just hanging out, working, in the middle of the day.”

From the start, 727 West Madison was equipped to promote resident fitness, with amenities including a fitness center with Peloton bikes and an in-house yoga studio. However, the notion of “health and wellness” is also suffused throughout the building’s amenity spaces, which include the lobby, a clubhouse, a main lounge, and a library. As Tyler concludes, the spaces appeal to residents because they were designed with an eye toward promoting human comfort.

“I think what this says is that this space is inviting, the design of it,” Tyler says. “As a designer, I can walk into a space and think, ‘I hate being here, why do I hate being in here? What’s wrong?’ And I can start critiquing the colors and the light temperature. You’ve got to create an ambiance and a vibe for people to want to be somewhere, to feel comfortable. So that was very gratifying to see.”

Shortly after the 727 West Madison photo shoot, with COVID-19 cases rising across the country, Illinois declared a state of emergency on March 9, followed by a stay-at-home order on March 21—with public gatherings forbidden, including those in amenity spaces designed as tools of wellness. 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.

Jim Tschetter

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.

K. Tyler, director of interior design at Morgante-Wilson Architects, is confident that  727 West Madison's amenity spaces can accommodate social distancing through design.
Jim TschetterK. Tyler, director of interior design at Morgante-Wilson Architects, is confident that 727 West Madison’s amenity spaces can accommodate social distancing through design.

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, based on the activity observed in Morgante-Wilson’s pre-pandemic photos, Tyler is confident that 727 West Madison’s open amenity spaces will be able to accommodate social distancing through design, with only minimal changes required.

From the start, the amenity spaces at 727 Madison were 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 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.’”

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 [727 West Madison]’s 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.”

Looking ahead, Tyler and Morgante-Wilson expect to apply the design ethos that worked so successfully for 727 West Madison to future projects. “I think we might have a few more physical separators,” Tyler says. “Maybe space just can’t be as open as it once was … But for our mental wellness, we’ve got to figure out how to bring those things together—this feeling of togetherness that’s not really together, with some separation at the same time.”

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.

Mary Cook Associates designed the interior spaces at the Oleander in Brookhaven, Ga., to be "sophisticated, comfortable, and restorative," in line with its location near a major medical center.
Dustin Peck PhotographyMary Cook Associates designed the interior spaces at the Oleander in Brookhaven, Ga., to be “sophisticated, comfortable, and restorative,” in line with its location near a major medical center.

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, wellbuilding.com/placesmatter.

“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.

Despite COVID-19 struggles, resident engagement is going strong, according to Levitt. “We just had a Zoom meeting with the residents and the buyers where they could actually help choose the crops that we’re planting this year,” he says.

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