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Health and Wellness Become Top of Mind for New-Home Builders and Buyers

Health and Wellness Become Top of Mind for New-Home Builders and Buyers

As of August, Taylor Morrison, one of the top 10 largest home builders in the U.S., decided to make whole-home air filtration and water filtration, along with other features, standard in all its homes. The company launched its TM LiveWell initiative partly in response to pandemic news coverage about air circulation, but also in response to strong interest in home health and wellness among home buyers that it surveyed. Of the 2,000 respondents, the younger generation—40% of millennials and 35% of Gen X buyers—was particularly interested in these aspects of a new home.

“There’s a healthy movement that’s been coming for quite some time. COVID has just accelerated that,” says Stephanie McCarty, chief marketing and communications officer at Taylor Morrison. “We think this is here to stay—this isn’t a temporary solution for ‘COVID days,’ if you will. We really think that consumers will have an eye for healthier homes. It will be a permanent, structural shift.”

During the pandemic, people have spent an unprecedented amount of time in their homes. Untethered from a physical office, as many as 23 million people, or one-tenth of working-age adults in the U.S., are planning to move, according to an Upwork survey, which opens up new housing markets. A Zillow survey of Americans working from home found that approximately 30% were interested in moving in order to have a dedicated home office. Change is in the air, and home requirements are shifting.

For builders who have been offering high-performance homes, emphasizing health and wellness has been a more effective way to convey the value of their product. “About three years ago, we shifted the conversation we were having with clients away from energy efficiency,” says Brandon Bryant, founder of Red Tree Builders in Asheville, North Carolina, who has about a dozen starts a year, all built to the Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home standard. “When you focus on health and wellness, the energy efficiency naturally happens. When I talk about how we’re meeting strict guidelines for indoor air quality and how 90% of your time is spent indoors, I get a way better reaction.”

The pandemic has spotlighted the importance of fresh air. Historically, homes have relied on natural ventilation through windows and gaps in the building envelope—for better or worse. “We have these leaky buildings, and, whenever your bathroom fan is running, air is being pulled in from somewhere, and we don’t know where. So we have this really terrible ventilation in our homes, and it’s just not healthy,” says Scott Shell, an architect at San Francisco–based EHDD. And as stricter energy codes call for tighter homes, getting enough air exchanges is a concern. In addition to cooking odors and off-gassing from products, indoor air can be contaminated by nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of cooking with gas stoves that is often produced at unhealthy levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, whole-house mechanical ventilation is not standard for homes in the U.S., although it is required by code in a few states. California has mandated it for new residential construction since 2010, and it is also a prerequisite for Energy Star certification. KB Home standardized on Energy Star in 2008, recently reaching the milestone of completing 140,000 Energy Star homes. For particularly tight houses, an energy recovery ventilator or heat recovery ventilator provides balanced ventilation while minimizing energy loss. Among the latest innovations is an automated ventilation system from Panasonic called the Cosmos Healthy Home System. It communicates with air quality sensors placed throughout the house. When one of the sensors detects a drop in air quality, the relevant bathroom fan or kitchen hood fan will kick on automatically to exhaust poor air.

In addition to circulating fresh air, filtering the air to screen out dust and allergens is also important for indoor air quality. Filters are typically part of the HVAC system, and can be upgraded to remove minute virus particles. While Taylor Morrison homes do not have whole-house mechanical ventilation, they are outfitted with MERV 13 filters, a higher-rated filter that is endorsed by the CDC as a supplementary method to reduce COVID-19 exposure. Even before the pandemic, sales of room air purifiers and air quality monitors have surged on the West Coast, where intense wildfires regularly cause orange skies and air that is hazardous to breathe. So there are various reasons to add mechanical ventilation and filtration, and consumers are more likely to appreciate this level of attention to indoor air quality.

Speaking of air, the humble ceiling fan is hot right now. According to the 2021 edition of NAHB’s annual survey, “What Home Buyers Really Want,” it was one of the most desirable features in a home, with 83% of recent and prospective buyers expressing enthusiasm. In the post-pandemic era, they critically dispel any sense of stagnant air.

“When we do post-occupancy studies, we find that people are always very sensitive to air circulation and want more air movement,” says Katie Ackerly, principal at David Baker Architects in San Francisco. Specializing in multifamily projects, the firm always encourages its clients to include a ceiling fan in each unit. Ceiling fans can also actively disinfect circulating air. Lexington, Kentucky–based manufacturer Big Ass Fans has figured out how to equip its ceiling fans with UV-C lighting; this technology for killing COVID viruses, though not the fan itself, has been endorsed by the CDC.

According to the NAHB’s recent survey of home buyers, outdoor spaces are right up there with ceiling fans. Eighty-two percent of respondents wanted a patio, 81% wanted a front porch, and 75% were interested in a rear porch or deck. To ensure that his clients always have the option of being outdoors, Bryant of Red Tree Builders has been creating “four-season rooms” that facilitate a connection with nature. “These are not just decks, but screened-in rooms that are integrated into the home, with fire pits and TVs. They give you more options,” he says.

Since private outdoor space has been such a key amenity during the pandemic, Ackerly at David Baker Architects thinks there will be a new wave of enthusiasm for balconies. The firm also advocates for open-ended corridors and open lobby areas. “We try to keep as many things as possible that can function outside on the outside—it helps to serve a number of different goals,” she says. “It reduces materials, which reduces costs; it increases the biophilic experience; and now we know in this pandemic, it helps reduce transmission.”

Beyond the home front, buyers are significantly more interested in “community features that allow them to be outside within the safety of their community,” says Rose Quint, assistant vice president of survey research at the NAHB. A new community in the San Diego area, 3Roots, is designed to produce a holistic sense of health and wellness. Lennar, Shea Homes, and California West have teamed up to create the 400-acre community of 1,800 homes around the concepts of “wisdom, wellness, and wonder.”

“We worked to identify specific features that would embody these ideals. It was difficult—you’ve got a bunch of late-40s to early- 60s guys trying to really have a paradigm shift and create something that’s much more for a different generation,” says Ryan Green, division president for San Diego at Lennar. “There’s not one feature that makes wellness, it’s the aggregate of all the little features that build up the community character.”

One of the highlights of the community is an 11,000-square-foot recreation facility that will be run by a local fitness organization and offer classes and nutritional counseling. Landscaping will include meditation gardens and a “walking meditation mandala,” according to Green. All three builders have committed to implementing water purification systems and enhanced air filtration as a starting point for health and wellness in their homes at 3Roots.

Unlike energy efficiency, health and wellness are harder to quantify. But there are a few voluntary certification programs that provide specifications and offer the rigors of third-party verification—two of which are new to the residential market.

The most established is EPA’s Indoor airPLUS, which is designed to eliminate mold, allergens, pests, chemicals, and other known pollutants through construction practices, ventilation and filtration, and careful selection of building materials. The program requires that homes first meet Energy Star certification. In the last fiscal year, 5,400 Indoor airPLUS homes were built, and the EPA expects that number to triple in the next year. Among the largest builders involved are Fulton Homes in Arizona and Schell Brothers in Delaware, which have 600 and 500 starts a year, respectively.

Meanwhile, the WELL certification program has been focused on fostering human health in commercial buildings. Launched in 2013, the program has certified nearly 400 projects with another 5,000 in the queue. WELL relies on scientific studies that show measurable benefits as the basis for its recommendations. More holistic than Indoor airPLUS, it addresses other aspects of the indoor environment besides air quality. In addition to water quality, lighting, and acoustic design, it also looks to promote healthy behavior. For instance, it encourages companies to stock fruits and vegetables in their kitchens and provide “active furnishings” such as adjustable-height desks. WELL has a pilot program for increasing the health and wellness of entire communities, promoting features such as pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and access to mental health services. The International WELL Building Institute, the parent organization, recently announced it is putting together an advisory group to develop a WELL Homes certification program.

Also coming out this year is Wellness Within Your Walls, a checklist for home health and wellness developed by interior designer Jillian Pritchard Cooke. She partnered with builders to pilot the WWYW certification program in 11 homes across the U.S. “It’s a holistic approach that bridges the gap between the builder, design team, and occupant,” Pritchard Cooke says about the program. At press time, the WWYW specification was not yet publicly available.

“A lot of it is common sense and covers things we were doing anyway, like no-VOC paint, no carpet, no gas [line], and detaching the garage,” says Randy Noel, president of Rêve in Laplace, Louisiana, and a past chairman of the NAHB. Noel built a WWYW pilot home near New Orleans for the local Parade of Homes showcase in 2020. He estimates that the added features prescribed by WWYW, including a whole-house dehumidifier and steam cabinet for dry-cleaning clothes, cost around $10,000.

“It was good timing, because people are really keen on their health all of a sudden and they’re stuck at home,” Noel says. “And so now all this stuff really matters. So that made [WWYW] a great marketing tool.”