Access Control, Building Controls, Design and Construction, Emergency Preparedness, Heating and Cooling, Maintenance and Operations, Plumbing, Security, Sustainability/Business Continuity

What Are Healthy Buildings?

As we head into Healthy Buildings Week here at Facilities Management Advisor, one might ask: “What are healthy buildings?” Healthy buildings involve a variety of categories, including design, cleaning protocols, ventilation, water quality, safety and security, clear communication and signage, encouragement of active occupants, and certification programs.


Healthy buildings take on added importance as many workers return to the office on a full-time basis after working from home due to COVID-19 or work on a hybrid basis, with their time split between the office and home.


The U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA) Sustainability Facilities Tool explains there are three ways buildings can be designed to support the health of occupants:

  • Physical health. Ergonomic design, such as adjustable desks, as well as controls like temperature, light, and sound.
  • Psychological well-being. Access to daylight through windows and skylights and effective acoustic design based on occupant needs.
  • Social well-being. Spaces to safely support informal interaction, formal meetings, and private conversations. Creating these spaces should be in conjunction with following COVID protocols.

Cleaning Protocols

It’s important for facilities management professionals to keep their buildings clean, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is advising management staff to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state, and local guidelines regarding cleaning procedures, as it is believed that COVID-19 primarily is spread through particles in the air and not by touching surfaces.

Normal routine cleaning with soap and water is usually enough to provide a safe building, but the spread of COVID can be lowered even further by using EPA-registered disinfectants. Those registered through the EPA will have a registration number.

When it comes to disinfecting, it is recommended that facilities professionals adhere to the following:

  • Be mindful that disinfectants could cause people who have asthma to have an asthma attack.
  • Remind those with asthma to stay out of areas being cleaned.
  • Follow directions on disinfectants, and do not mix chemicals.
  • Use caution with fogging, fumigating, wide-area, and electrostatic spraying, along with ultraviolet (UV) lights and ozone generators.

For more about the differences between cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing, be sure to read our upcoming Back to Basics coverage on the topic.


To improve ventilation, the CDC advises facilities professionals to open outdoor air dampers. The agency does, however, caution that this might not be possible in areas with high air pollution or during cold, hot, or humid weather.

The CDC encourages the use of a portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) fan/filtration system in areas with people who have a higher likelihood of having COVID-19 or a higher chance of contracting it.

Implementing temperature checks, improving airflow circulation, and promoting social distancing are important components facilities management professionals should especially consider for their lobby and vestibule areas as folks first enter buildings. These areas can easily be overlooked when attention is instead paid to offices, cubicles, meeting rooms, and common areas.

Water Quality

For buildings that have been closed during the pandemic, water quality is a very important topic. Stagnant water and associated contaminates can accumulate in water pipes. According to the University of Maryland School of Public Health, workplaces should flush plumbing with fresh water to combat bacterial growth.

Facilities management professionals should also have water tested for water quality purposes to ensure it meets EPA National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. Categories they should test for include:

  • Microorganisms
  • Disinfectants
  • Disinfectant byproducts
  • Inorganic chemicals
  • Organic chemicals
  • Radionuclides

To help ensure proper hydration of workers, facilities management personnel should consider the installation of water refill stations that would further purify water for drinking purposes. Employees should also be encouraged to bring their own bottles to work.

Safety and Security

Facilities professionals should work closely with security personnel in buildings to ensure there is an adequate number of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Studies show that people feel safer when they see security cameras.

Other security measures include:

  • Hiring uniformed security guards in areas that have a history of violent activities;
  • Installation of fences, locks, and secure entry systems; and
  • An integrated fire system with alarms, pull stations, and smoke detectors.

Access Control

Controlling who has access to a building, and specific portions of it, is an important component of healthy buildings. While using key cards and fobs might be the norm, facilities management professionals may consider moving access control to high-tech options such as Bluetooth-enabled smartphones and facial recognition, which would further reduce touch points.

Facilities management personnel can utilize access control to:

  • Allow vendors, contractors, and visitors to check in at a self-service kiosk.
  • Determine who should be authorized to be in specific areas.
  • Limit access to those passing a wellness and temperature check, and possibly validate their COVID vaccination status.
  • Use data for law enforcement and security investigations.
  • Find out who is trying to unsuccessfully access restricted areas.
  • Control occupant density by limiting the number of people.
  • Use data for contact tracing purposes. 

Access control is necessary so that building occupants can be protected against those who might want to harm them. Furthermore, touchless access control options may be helpful for safety, not just during COVID-19 but also for any future health challenges such as flu season or other widespread outbreaks.

Clear Communication and Signage

Facilities management personnel should ensure appropriate signage is installed throughout their worksites to inform occupants of fire and security, water quality standards, access to refillable water stations, cleaning protocols, and design elements such as proper labeling of conference rooms.

They should ensure that spaces that have been converted into permanent conference rooms and meeting rooms have Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant signage with braille next to the entrances.

Furthermore, all currently posted signs regarding COVID should be reviewed, and dated and unnecessary ones should be removed. Those signs advising occupants to wash their hands, as well as steps to take to keep healthy, should remain in restrooms. Signs advising occupants to stay home if they are sick should stay, as well, and those advising the use of hand sanitizer should be placed near hand sanitizing stations.

As for new signs, facilities management personnel should consider what capacity limits they would like to set for specific areas, which likely are less than the intended design of the spaces. Other new signs that could be considered are those related to current guidance on face coverings set by government officials or workplace management personnel.

Active Occupants

As facilities management professionals find ways to create healthier buildings, they should also be concerned about encouraging healthy, active occupants through design, cleaning, ventilation, exercise rooms, water quality, access control, safety and security, and communication.

To allow workers to have the healthiest workplace possible, the American Cancer Society strongly urges facilities management professional to make their entire campuses smoke-free. The group advocates this because ventilation technologies do not adequately protect people from the effects of second-hand smoking. For employers that allow smoking in designated areas and want to have healthier properties, the group suggested that an educational and assistance program be implemented before a ban goes into effect, that proper “no smoking” signage be installed, and that assistance be provided for those wishing to quit smoking.

Moreover, facilities management professionals should consider having well-lit staircases to facilitate recreational stairwell use and to discourage elevator usage. Health and wellness programs can encourage employees to utilize local workout gyms through discounts and other financial incentives, and the creation of exercise or workout rooms within facilities or the installation of all-weather exercise equipment outside can encourage employees to stay in shape. Providing maps of local walking trails and hosting walking clubs could also help them to connect with others in their communities.

Certification Programs

To properly evaluate a building, facilities managers should consider participating in third-party certification programs. These include:

  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED): Under the LEED program, the U.S. Green Building Council awards points for projects based on how they address carbon, energy, water, waste, transportation, materials, health, and indoor environmental quality. These points allow the building to earn a LEED level, which includes certified, silver, gold, and platinum. LEED emphasizes building efficiency and sustainability and is implemented by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI).
  • Fitwel: Originally created by the CDC and GSA, Fitwel encourages the integration of a health-promoting design and operations strategy. New construction projects must meet certification requirements for design, before occupancy, and built, post-occupancy, while existing buildings only need to meet built criteria. Certifications are awarded on a maximum three-star system. The Center for Active Design administers Fitwel.
  • WELL Certification: WELL Certification is a plan from the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) to advance health and well-being. Scientific and medical research and literature on environmental health, behavioral factors, health outcomes, and demographic risk that affect health are explored. WELL levels consist of bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Seven factors of building health looked at by WELL include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The program is also administered by the GBCI and complements LEED.

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