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Six lessons learned from our first Fitwel Viral Response Module certification

Office Buildings

Six lessons learned from our first Fitwel Viral Response Module certification

By Amanda Cunningham | Paladino | February 8, 2021

There’s what you know you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know. Our team was as prepared and confident going into our first Fitwel Viral Response Module certification as a team can be – we’ve got more than 2000 green building projects under our belts, and significant experience working with clients at the portfolio level. We know WELL and Fitwel intimately. We have systems to break down new certification frameworks into their basic components – Which is why we felt confident going into the effort to pursue Fitwel Viral Response Module certification with an early-adopting client.

But don’t get me wrong – there was a lot to learn through the process. We didn’t know everything when we started, and I doubt that we know everything now – but we knew a lot, and now we know a lot more.

The Fitwel Viral Response Module is one of several frameworks that real estate owners and operators can use to obtain third-party certification for their efforts ensuring their properties are ready for a safer and healthier return to work. Here are six of the lessons that we learned managing the Fitwel Viral Response Module certification process.

Lesson 1: Sick leave may be a stumbling block, and we need to encourage sick people to stay home.

Paid sick leave is one of the required strategies and the certification requires the entity pursuing certification to provide employees with at least one hour of sick leave per 40 hours worked. This adds up to around 50 hours of paid sick leave per year for most full-time employees. The certification also requires that employees be allowed to use sick leave prior to it being earned for that year. It’s important to incentivize sick employees to stay home, and this requirement may demand early conversations with multiple business and human resources leaders to get buy-in.

Lesson 2: Permanently installed continuously monitoring devices are required to get full credit for Indoor Air Quality Testing because air quality is so important to fight airborne virus transmission.

Using a third-party to conduct air testing at least once per year earns 6.52 points and permanent continuous monitoring earns all available points for this strategy, which is 7.42 points.

Lesson 3: The Legionella Water Management Plan can be confusing when setting policies for entities and assets.

The certification requires a Legionella Water Management plan because legionella favors stagnant water. As most employees work from home, the water at the office has more potential for contamination by legionella unless the building management implements preventative measures. _

Despite being a requirement at the entity-level, the Legionella Water Management Plan requirement is worded in such a way that it seems to ask for asset-specific information including a flow diagram. The best practice is to keep entity policies high-level and the asset policies more detailed.

In this case, our client’s policy described the entity’s process to require individual building managers to create a flow diagram. This kept the policy broader at the entity-level and was approved by The Center for Active Design.

Lesson 4: Document informal policies

Many of our clients already do much of what is required to achieve Fitwel Viral Response certification, such as installing hand sanitizer stations, and posting signage promoting healthy practices. But many of our clients don’t also memorialize those activities as policies, so the activities can be inconsistently executed across portfolios. The requirement to formalize these policies has been valuable because the process brings clarity and consistency to a portfolio.

Lesson 5: Older buildings may need a strategy to overcome the Indoor Air Quality requirement to use MERV 13 filters.

Buildings with older equipment may be unable to accommodate MERV 13 filters. Alternative (and potentially expensive) compliance is available through UV light or mobile filtration. If it’s cost-prohibitive to meet the Indoor Air Quality requirements, the entity certification can be applied to only those assets that are suitable for the Fitwel Viral Response certification in the short-erm. Additional assets can be added to the Fitwel Viral Response entity portfolio as mechanical systems are upgraded. You may also want to review the WELL Health Safety Rating as an alternative, as it does not include prerequisites – you can learn about the WELL Health Safety Rating Indoor Air Quality requirements here.

Lesson 6: The scope of each strategy will not be the same.

Some strategies apply to employees under the control of building management (which can be fuzzy when an entity seeking certification works with a third-party manager), while others include all building occupants. Some require implementation in spaces within the control of building management, and others require implementation throughout the building. Be careful to be clear on the scope of the strategy before you develop the policy, and not after!

These are six lessons that we learned, to be added to our collective knowledge and experience. And through this process, our curiosity has been ignited about what comes next for these rating systems and frameworks – as we all learn about what works (and what doesn’t) together, the feedback will inform future releases of the rating systems, and decisions among real estate owners and operators.

If you work in commercial real estate, there is no doubt that COVID is high on your radar, and the decisions about how to open, stay open, and operate safely and continuously (and profitably) are top-of-mind. It’s COVID today, and who-knows-what tomorrow. Viral response and planning will be part of the new normal for the foreseeable future.

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