A few weeks ago, I was at the New York School of Interior Design for a conversation about sustainability. As we were talking, I sort of blurted out that I thought we were witnessing “the Second Wave of sustainability” when it comes to the built environment.
Heads in the audience bobbed up and down, like buoys on the water. This idea of the Second Wave resonated with them… and the more I’ve thought about it in recent weeks, the more it’s resonated with me, too! “Second Wave” perfectly describes the transformation washing over the sustainability movement as I type this very sentence.
In the First Wave of sustainability, we focused on minimizing the impact on ecosystems. Back in the early 90s, for instance, conversations about green buildings focused on energy efficiency, water usage, and low-impact building materials. I was proud to help pioneer the first green building rating system, LEED, which would transform the global real estate industry.
But anyone who was around in those early days will recall that safeguarding the environment wasn’t the only goal. In fact, there was a larger goal: healthy ecosystems were a precursor to healthy communities. That’s why my former colleagues at USGBC and I made a concerted effort over the years to evolve LEED to focus not only on a building’s environmental impact, but on its human impact. (And that’s also why, when I see people out there saying “health is the new sustainability,” I can’t help but shake my head… The truth is health has always been the focus of our movement! Some folks are just late to the program, I guess.)
In other words, the First Wave was all about protection and minimization—protecting the environment, protecting people, and minimizing the negative impact of buildings on both. But today, the conversation has evolved. Indeed, we’re witnessing the exciting, early days of the Second Wave, which is all about promoting and enhancing.
It’s well known that we spend 90 percent of our lives indoors, and the countless buildings we encounter over the course of our lives can negatively impact and alter our quality of life—and even the length of our life. But what we’re beginning to understand—and what the Second Wave is all about—is the potential for buildings to actively promote health and wellness.
But it’s not just our thinking that’s evolved. The technology has, too. A number of recent advances are poised to boost human sustainability in the built environment—to leverage the power of buildings to make our bodies healthier, our minds calmer, and our work more efficient. From workplace sensors that continuously monitor air quality to wearables that track your health data, we have more information about the environment and health than ever before. In addition to smart sensors, our design has also become smarter, and more human-centric. Circadian rhythm lighting systems help ensure that we sleep better, while stocking the vending machines with almonds and edamame (instead of just candy and chips) helps us eat better. By situating stairs where you’re encouraged to actually use them, exercise becomes part of your everyday walk through the office. Adding quiet green spaces to buildings gives you a place to gather your thoughts, and fend off stress.
Taken together, these innovations and interventions operate in the background to improve your health, or help you make healthier choices more easily. That’s the basis of WELL—and why I believe this second wave of sustainability is poised to rapidly transform our built environment.
I think about it like Moore’s law, which observes that the processing power in our computers doubles every two years. In the same way, technology will continually improve our ability to make spaces healthier and more sustainable. What the First Wave achieved in twenty years should only take the Second Wave a fraction of that time, and result in much more human impact.
Of course, this is all particularly exciting because, as it turns out, it’s also a Second Wave for me, personally. Twenty-three years ago, when I helped found the US Green Building Council, green building was just a radical idea. Today, there are some 17 billion square feet of LEED-registered and certified sustainable real estate in 165 countries.[i] We helped lead the First Wave of the sustainability movement, bringing green building into the mainstream and showing how profit can save the planet.
But as I’ve often said, for me, sustainability has always been about people. That’s why, about six months ago, I joined the International WELL Building Institute, hoping to not just accelerate this market transformation, but human transformation as well. Using the WELL Building Standard, I hope we can activate human sustainability in the same way that LEED protected environmental sustainability. And we’ll do it just like LEED did, holistically focusing on the entire package – air, water, light, comfort, nourishment, fitness and mind. Just focusing on one or two of these because they are easy is only a band aid when what we need is every public health intervention our buildings can provide.
That’s an ambitious goal, but from where I’m standing, it feels like the Second Wave has begun to crest. Thanks to new thinking and new technology, not only can we dramatically reduce the impact of the built environment on human health—we can dramatically improve the way we feel, think, and act in the spaces where we spend the majority of our lives. In other words, we can ride this Second Wave to a brighter, healthier future.