How COVID-19 shifted the wellness conversation in new construction

by Meg White

Brokers who sell new residential construction have always had to stay up to date on the latest products. But experts say the pressure is only going to become more intense as efforts to combat the novel coronavirus spawn new innovations.

“This has shown how important people’s homes are,” said Mary Cook, founder and president of commercial interior design company Mary Cook Associates. “Anything that an agent can learn about the building or the mechanics that will help take away the fear would be good.” Here are some tips to help you prepare for the conversations ahead.

Enhanced cleaning protocols

As concern over the pandemic increased this spring, the team at luxury apartment building Elevate Lincoln Park began providing personal protective equipment and hand sanitizing stations, just as others did. “We jumped to action very quickly,” Dan Slack, principal at developer Baker Development Corp., recalled. But they also installed hospital-grade air filtration using UV-C and HEPA filters to scrub the air in common areas. “It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t inexpensive, but we felt it was a step we needed to take.”

While filters are helpful, they can’t kill the disease on surfaces. Bathing spaces in UV light can, but the rays are harmful to skin, so such systems have to be implemented with care. For example, before a new resident moves in, Elevate deploys a mobile UV-light-emitting cart to sanitize the empty unit. The business center’s UV-C lights are on a timer, so they only go on at 2 a.m. and have an automatic override that will shut off lights when motion is detected. Slack said they were the first in the city to implement this technology. “Our residents have been very, very vocal about their appreciation,” he said. “That resonated and resulted in some success in what has been a slow time. … If you make people comfortable, you’ll be successful.”

The recent reopening of amenity areas at Elevate has increased the need for staff, with attendants continually cleaning public surfaces. “Anytime somebody touches a handrail, those are being wiped down,” Slack said.

While some may be skeptical of spending so much time and money on what may be a temporary situation, Slack said it’s worth it. “I don’t think this is a fad,” he said. “Many of the things that we’re doing provide benefits against the common flu.”

Changing conversations

While conversations with house hunters may feel a bit more strained when pandemic talk comes up, brokers can help clients feel more comfortable. “What makes a great real estate agent is somebody who truly understands the needs of their customer,” Cook said. And with COVID-19 putting a whole new emphasis on the importance of finding a good residential fit, agents who can point out how a home can live up to those new standards will be in demand. “What are the things that are close by that will help to enhance and elevate their life depending on their needs?”

Many multifamily buildings are upping their game to attract and retain residents. For example, luxury apartment building NEMA Chicago rolled out amenity reservation tools, expanded in-house meal services and implemented contact-free package pickup. They conduct daily wellness checks with staff and introduced a dedicated sanitation team, barriers at the front desks and masks for everyone in the building. They’ve also shifted their community events to YouTube, offering everything from terrarium workshops to mixology classes online.

As an example of what’s happening in terms of new single-family homes, Arizona-based builder Taylor Morrison, which has several developments in Chicagoland, announced a new standard offering late last month. The TM LiveWell base package includes air and water filtration systems, indoor air-quality monitors and the option to select additional healthy products in the builder’s design studios, such as touchless sinks and chemical-free paint.

Cook noted that products like smart thermostats and lighting systems that had been touted for their energy savings are currently being rebranded in the new-construction world to focus on how they help combat COVID-19. “Those same products have been remarketed as touchless,” she said, adding that today’s needs will likely spur more innovation. “It’s almost like everything got fast forwarded.”

A focus on freshness and light

When asked what will be on house hunters’ minds, Cook’s first response had little to do with products or tech tools, however. “Being able to open the window, private balconies, roof decks — that’s going to be top of mind,” she said.

Cook did identify one building element that will continue to grow in popularity due to the increased importance of access to the outdoors: retractable walls that open to the outside. “They’re in every project right now,” she said. “We are integrating them most often in common areas,” such as fitness centers and lounges.

Just like Kleenex is the genericized term for facial tissues, NanaWall is on the way to becoming the brand standard for moveable glass walls, according to Cook. “They are very expensive, but they are beautiful,” she said. Another option, for a “younger, industrial vibe” is garage doors.

Slack said he’s surprised it’s taken builders and developers this long to prioritize access to the outdoors. “The industry really hasn’t progressed a whole lot,” he said, predicting that buildings without terraces will soon have a tough time drawing interest. “It’s somewhat intuitive, but there are an awful lot of new shiny buildings that don’t have outdoor space.”

Enhanced air filters will also likely be in demand as temperatures in Chicago drop. One term brokers should become acquainted with is Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values, which quantify how well filters capture particles between 0.3 and 10 microns in size. The higher the MERV rating, the better the filter is at trapping items in the air. “It’s kind of a do-it-yourself thing,” Cook said. However, she did add that updates might be needed in some cases. “A lot of these new filters won’t fit in some of these older mechanical systems.”

New standards and certifications

With all these new products, the industry is likely to see new health rating systems emerge. The WELL Building Standard, which launched in 2014, was originally organized around traditional amenities that boost health outcomes. But the WELL Health-Safety seal now incorporates concerns around the containment of COVID-19. The new standard includes an examination of cleaning and sanitation techniques, air and water quality management, and health service resources for employees.

While Cook is glad to see these updates from the WELL Building Institute, she said she worries about scams offering health certifications and warned real estate professionals to be wary of claims that sound too good to be true. “What does it mean to have a safe building?” she asked, noting the difficulty of quantifying such analyses.

Slack said that while it’s helpful to have a scoring system to compare building improvements, it has to be about more than numbers. “There has to be an altruistic reason to do these things,” he said. “If you tell people you are providing a healthy environment, you better actually be doing it.”

Juliet Jacques contributed to this report.

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