A letter to friends and colleagues within the sustainable built environment community during the COVID-19 epidemic.

We’re overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic that our leaders say came out of nowhere. It is taking lives and wiping out economies. If we’re lucky to still have a job, we may be working from home while figuring out how to home school our kids and protect our vulnerable loved ones from the risks of our uber-connected lifestyles. So, do look after yourselves and your people, please.

But if you live for something bigger than ourselves, know that this opportunity needs you and your focus as soon as you are ready because, as the built environment community, we’ve been handed an opportunity to lead.

An opportunity that will finally cement our industry as a formidable instrument of transformational change. An opportunity we can’t afford to pass up because that would negate the past 20+ years of our efforts.

Over the last decade, science has undeniably confirmed that since we spend an average of 90 per cent or more of our lives indoors, the built environment has an irrefutable and jaw-dropping impact on our health and wellbeing – both immediate and long-term.

While this is way beyond any rating tool, the science is robustly captured by the WELL standard. Why does this matter? Because this is the first global crisis in a long while where we have something irrefutable and life-saving to offer.

Since the heyday when the built environment enabled safe density, sanitation, and underground transport, buildings have merely sheltered the people and equipment that made a difference in a crisis.

As such, it seems that the current crisis has triggered the conditioned response in us to get out of the way of those who can help. But there’s a critical difference: this time around, the solution vitally depends on us.

First-responders train the hardest for events they hope never happen – but doesn’t their credibility rest entirely on their handling of that crisis? Some of us (facility managers) are truly first-responders in the face of the coronavirus. But that’s only a smidgen of our full public health power.

“If managed poorly, [buildings] can spread disease. But if we get it right, we can enlist our schools, offices and homes in this fight.” Dr Joseph Allen, co-chair, IWBI special task force on coronavirus, director, Healthy Buildings Program, Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University.

Today, we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the built environment makes a difference. We know that both design and operations of spaces (both internal and external) determine not only short term productivity but both acute and chronic disease.

“We’re sitting on a mountain of game-changing ammunition never before counted in a fight; remaining on the sidelines is not only self-sabotage but irresponsible.”

While on the “fringe” of mainstream practice, we’ve managed to amass an infallible body of science articulating how exactly the built environment influences public health.

Now, we’re sitting on a mountain of game-changing ammunition never before counted in a fight; remaining on the sidelines is not only self-sabotage but irresponsible.

We can’t sit coronavirus out any more than we expect epidemiologists, economists or nurses to sit it out. For the first time in human history, we MUST step up as a formidable lever for public health – or forever hold our peace.

We can’t have it both ways: we can’t claim impact one day and then recede into the background in a crisis. And I say this knowing that a lot of you are thinking it.

In a crisis, we seek subliminal confidence that somebody is in charge of our salvation. The leaders tend to emerge quickly.

“But I see an empty seat that can only be filled by the sustainable built environment community.”

Naturally, at this time the seats at the leadership table have already been allocated to the epidemiology experts, to executive government, and to industries that must deliver a public service even as commercial reality spells their bankruptcy.

But I see an empty seat that can only be filled by the sustainable built environment community.

That empty seat at the leadership table? It’s ours, let’s move in and get onto saving lives.

At the time of writing, while a few of the main major property associations around the world have created or cited advisories, none had yet claimed the leadership role in our counterattack to COVID-19. As per my intro, I don’t cast judgement. I urge those who can ready themselves for it to step up.

I am writing this from the US where non-profit leadership is crippled by the tax code: I am told that a non-profit can’t as much as cast judgement on a policy here without risking its tax-exempt status.

Does this explain why after 25 years of LEED, the USGBC research reveals that only 13 per cent of Americans correlate the built environment with environmental impact – and only a fraction of that with health impact? Sure. And does this make me homesick in these vital times? No doubt. But does that discourage me? Heck no because I have watched what just happened during Australian bushfires: we’re the kind of people that don’t need external “leaders” to tell us what needs to be done.

The US may be able to set the “vector” by giving us LEED, the Living Building Challenge, WELL or Fitwel, but Australia has proven that it can take it from there.

Not only can we not afford to wait for external leadership, we must accept that millions are hamstrung and waiting for us to chart the course. It’s time for us to truly rise to the occasion.

Whatever your professional expertise within this community, can you – hand on heart – say that the degree to which we as a nation and as a global community bounce back from three/six/12/18  months of COVID-19 has nothing to do with your professional expertise? If not, I’m writing to you.

If any of you over the years heard me talk on global trends, I named “gods are us” to identify a collective denial of our power as human beings.

Most of us entered Anthropocene – the current geological epoch defined by we humans as the most dominant influence on climate and the environment  – during our lifetimes, so we weren’t raised to accept that we’re the most powerful agent of change in the world. However, just because we feel that our actions are too small to matter doesn’t make it so.

Here, I don’t only mean the lives we will unnecessarily lose to COVID-19 if we don’t act, but also the lives and the potential we’ll lose – more slowly and discretely – to chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease and the “deaths of despair” (drugs, alcohol, suicide), all factors of the built environment as the greatest enabler of mobility, healthy eating, connectivity, and belonging.

 It’s not only that humans have formed villages for as long as they’ve roamed this planet because that’s good for us, it’s that most of us will be less healthy, disciplined, engaged, and inspired after months of home confinement than we were when we could gather.

The experts tell us that even if we can “flatten the curve” now, coronavirus may resurge during regular flu seasons, which start as early as October in the Northern hemisphere.

We know that as long as any part of the globe is under, we’re all under – but we also accept that we can’t shut our economy down for the projected 18 months. If we stand any chance at recovery, we have to both keep people safe where they are delivering critical services and enable people to safely return to work. And that’s why the sustainable built environment community must step up.

I see a built environment spokesperson at the side of every politician briefing the troubled citizenry.

I see us helping shape new economic policy that is also public health policy. And I see major economic, equity, trade, resilience, and healthcare policies leveraging the built environment.

However, power is notoriously hard to accept and use well. There are literary tomes and therapists whose expertise I can’t match but you don’t need me to in order to see that this time, leaving our chair empty will cost lives.

In times of crisis, we’re what we do, not how we feel because every single person feels overwhelmed and horrified.

So, take a moment to make sure you and your loved ones are safe but don’t take so long that you get bored with Netflix, please.

“This crisis is the test we’ve been prepping forand that we must pass”

Whenever you’ve joined our movement, this is the moment we’ve been working towards, on the fringes, for years.

Your volunteer hours on committees and underpaid work on landmark projects? This crisis is the test we’ve been prepping for and that we must pass – or relinquish our claims.

What exactly am I calling for?

  1. A discussion as to whether some additional roles within the property industry must be deemed “essential” during the shut-down.
  2. A concerted, shared effort by our sector – perhaps through ASBEC as it did for its carbon abatement potential – to articulate, quantify, and advocate for the role of the built environment in preventing, mitigating, and recovering from this and future pandemics
  3. A position paper to serve as an advocacy tool to inform policy, legislation, and government budgets commensurate with likely impact.

Having moved to the US, I’ve not been as engaged with our movement’s advocacy cohort of the GBCA, PCA, ASBEC, PCA, AIA, FMA, IWBI Australia, ILFA, ISCA, AIRAH, GECA, WWF, EEC, BZE, and so on – but you know I am no stranger and I humbly ask that you overlook me not paying my “dues” and take this as an invitation for all of us to do and be better at a time when we are crucially needed.

I am not asking for agreement; if you know me, you know this. But I am urging you to step into your power and claim the seat at the table because if we can’t protect lives, then what are we doing? I am inviting you to take the lead because these days, systems change is proving to be a fight of those who’re willing to step into the ring on behalf of us all.

Ask yourself, please, what is standing between you and that empty seat and help us, collectively, remove those obstacles because we’ve argued for power and now that we’ve got it, there are lives in our hands.

Elena Bondareva is vice president growth, based in the US. CETEC is an international building science firm that assesses and optimises occupant wellbeing and productivity in the built environment. It was established 32 years ago and operating in 25 countries.

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  1. An incredibly insightful and well-considered piece Elena, as is typical of your work. Thanks for sharing.
    You’ve raised some fabulous points that need to be discussed at large within the industry and of course, at the policy making level.
    The time is now to collaborate, seek change and improve our environment, lifestyles, lives and of course, those of the generations to come.
    Well put Elena.

  2. I agree with Nigel. After the Coronovirus has come under control the average world temperatures will start rising due to existing factors as well as the dropping level of the pollution shield. It’s as if nature is showing the falsity of “unlimited growth”. The scene is set for David Suzuki’s forecast that this century would be one of interdependence, where countries and communities would be interdependent on each other.

  3. Feels like there is a strong opportunity for ASBEC to put a Taskgroup together if they haven’t already, and build on the amazing work led by Kirsty Kelly and Adrian Pianni on Resilience.

    Who is up for putting the batcall out to ASBEC – im happy to put my hand up to help in anyway I can.
    Great work @Elena – keep safe

  4. Hi Elena, this is very well written, but I’m not sure COVID19 will reset global society on the right path. I don’t buy it – we will within weeks of the news cycle revolving past the last death in each of our nations settle back into the corporatocracy of BAU – nothing will change. If you don’t believe me, look how quickly the catastrophic drought, bushfires AND flooding, the decimation of Australia’s wildlife etc. were forgotten as the news cycle shifted to COVID19. AND if the world were to suddenly do a reset then there would be one issue alone that should be totally dominating our attention and urgent radical action and that is and has always been the climate emergency. If we don’t get pretty close to carbon neutral by 2030, then the compounding feedback loops that lead to extinction of our entire species (and most others) will become unstoppable and make the impacts of COVID19 look utterly trivial. Sorry for attaching my hobby horse to COVID19 after criticising others, but the scale and urgency of the climate crisis seems to totally warrant it.

  5. Thank you, David! So good to hear an engineering leader’s perspective. Would you please share with your key colleagues and I welcome insight as to how we step up, as a community? Please keep well, my dear friend.

  6. Wow Elena. A very powerful call for leadership action from the sustainable built environment community. This pandemic has frightened us all. My worry is that the immediate response has been rightly from the health professions. But, it seems the rest of us are looking on like stunned mullets (a very Aussie expression) from our self isolation. We cannot emerge from this lockdown pause and say: “righty-ho, back to normal now everyone.” W must invent and transition to a new normal! The opportunity to learn and step up not just to the Covid-19 crisis, but to sustainability and climate action as well, cannot be lost. On climate we are responding. Engineers and Architects have Declared a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. We engineers are now moving into phase two: “Engineers Act”, and are working on amassing resources for the built environment team to deliver not just a safe climate but sustainability outcomes as well, and that includes healthy built environments.