Healthy Buildings, Healthy Humans with Sarah Nugent

We think a lot about high-performance buildings – but what about the high-performance humans in those buildings?

As the future of office-dwelling is on everyone’s mind, there are a lot of questions surrounding how buildings can help or hinder human health and wellbeing. Tenants may be wondering what questions to ask building owners and building owners may be curious about what steps to take and which of the various healthy building toolkits to employ.

In this episode, Kelly chats with Sarah, Sustainability Director at SWA, about the intersection of health, wellness, and sustainability – or the “triple bottom line” in buildings, and why projects need to take a proactive, holistic approach to all three.

Sarah Nugent, LEED AP, WELL AP

Headshot of Sarah Nugent

Sarah Nugent is a Sustainability Director at Steven Winter Associates on our Sustainable Building Services team. She oversees certification program management for commercial buildings, and helps guide project teams on green and high-performance building and site design strategies, cost-effective building system operation, and energy-saving maintenance practices. She has extensive project experience with LEED® Building Design + Construction, Interior Design + Construction, Neighborhood Development, and LEED for Cities and Communities Rating Systems, as well as the Collaborative for High-Performance Schools, the NYC SCA’s Green School Guidelines, the IWBI’s WELL® Building Standard and the Center for Active Design’s Fitwel® Building Standard.


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Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit


Robb Aldrich | Kelly Westby

Production Team

Heather Breslin | Alex Mirabile | Dylan Martello | Jayd Alvarez

Episode Transcript

Kelly (00:05):

Welcome to buildings and beyond,

Robb (00:08):

The podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment

Kelly (00:12):

By focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health.

Robb (00:17):

I’m Robb Aldrich.

Kelly (00:18):

And I’m Kelly Westby.

Kelly (00:22):

Sarah Nugent helps architects, owners, developers, and building management staff implement a healthy, sustainable, and high performance building strategies on their new construction projects. She has experience with LEED, WELL and Fitwel rating systems. All of which we reference throughout our discussion today, she works on projects from high rise, residential to commercial offices, as well as various other space types, including firehouses and museums. Sarah and I have spoken a few times over the past 18 months about how we make sure that the discussion about health in buildings includes, but is not limited to viral transmission. As we increase office presence this summer and into the fall, can we encourage everyone to think about health holistically? So in this episode, we get into a broad overview of healthy building concepts and the programs that promote them. To start out, Sarah lays the groundwork for what these elements are.

Sarah (01:19):

So when you take a step back for all of the different kind of toolkits within healthy buildings certifications, that’s, you know, my background, is in certification programs, be it LEED, WELL, Fitwel, you know, all of these different rating systems, they all kind of focus on kind of their foundations of healthy building, right? That’s also part of public health schools guidelines, you know, the Harvard School of Public Health for example, has nine foundations of healthy buildings, air quality and ventilation, kind of again, main foundations, main backbones, thermal health, moisture, dust and pest, safety and and security, water quality, noise, and lighting and views.

Kelly (02:04):

If you already feel overwhelmed, it’s okay. You’re not alone. Sarah highlighted some of the ways the industry has progressed over the last few years

Sarah (02:14):

In the beginning of LEED version four, people were really nervous about how the material category was changing. You might remember that where all of the building product disclosure and optimization credits, you know, instead of you looking at recycled content, they looked at these disclosure credits and we were really nervous about them. We just didn’t really see, we didn’t know, well, the market wasn’t there yet. We just really weren’t sure. And now looking back, those credits, like those related to disclosures, which can be both environmental disclosures or health disclosures, it’s ubiquitous. If you aren’t disclosing, you’re not on par with your competitors. In terms of the materials disclosures. So say for example Sherwin-Williams, every paint has disclosures, every single paint in their entire line, right. It’s mainstream manufacturers that are doing these things that we just didn’t know if they would catch up and they really have. And so that’s looking back, we were very nervous in the beginning of LEED v4, cause it was just such a wholesale change and that’s actually been something that all of our projects succeed in just by, you know, being a little thoughtful of course, like during specification period, but I think that that really is the, the mainstream coming into our sector. Right. Disclosures and

Kelly (03:46):


Sarah (03:46):

Exactly. People want to know what’s going in their building. They want, you know, I do think some of that has to do, you might remember a few years ago when that, like there was that rumor about like Chinese created gypsum board that had formaldehyde in it. Right. And, and I do think that there was a big shift in the manufacturer’s perspective because of that. I do. I really do.

Kelly (04:11):

And of course, the global pandemic. Sarah and I talked about the questions that have been on the general population’s mind and in your local news stories, like..

Sarah (04:23):

The air changes Per hour in an MTA train car

Kelly (04:26):

The general population now has a vocabulary around ventilation and filtration and Merv 13, and can at least ask about the indoor air quality in their children’s schools or in their offices. And this knowledge is making a difference.

Sarah (04:41):

So I had recently saw a statistic that Fitwel’s increase in registrations was like over 200% in the past 12 months. Yeah. They’ve really skyrocketed in terms of their interest and people out registering projects, which is excellent. And again, they’re the center for active design oversees the Fitwel program, but it was created with the GSA and the CDC.

Kelly (05:06):

And of course all of these programs are responding directly to this heightened awareness…

Sarah (05:13):

All of these major programs LEED, WELL, and Fitwel created response programs to COVID. So they all came out with ways in which buildings could react because at the time there wasn’t really great federal guidance. So they, they said, you know, these are the strategies, like the 20 strategies we would recommend that you implement and that you might have seen the Lady Gaga advertisements for the WELL health safety rating. Yeah. So that’s that program. So for, for re-entry, you know, going back into the building, and saying that you’ve been third party verified that you’re building, you know, implemented these strategies.

Kelly (05:52):

So what we’re asking the audience today and the industry is to consider how can we build on this momentum, the poll of early adopters and the increased knowledge of the general public to take a holistic approach to building health. Sarah explains what this would look like in an ideal world.

Sarah (06:11):

So my like pie in the sky perfect project would be when we, you know, it’s concept design or schematic design, you know, bring us on as early as possible. And we talk about all these different health metrics alongside the environmental and energy sustainability metrics. Right. That’s my absolute, you know, that would be like the perfect cherry project, right. Because they shouldn’t be after thoughts because it shouldn’t be when the building is getting turned over it that you start thinking about how to implement these strategies. Right. It should be when you are kicking off your project, how are the people who are using this building going to feel right? How are they actually going to be experiencing the building?

Kelly (06:53):

But of course the large majority of existing buildings or new construction projects, aren’t starting there, they’re sort of minimally, minimally code compliant, which is actually, you can be less than code compliant because it’s whatever somebody actually enforces in the field. Right. So whatever’s enforced in the field that kind of minimally code compliant and that’s like the standard building. And so the question is, is that what tenants are going to be asking for in the future? And especially kind of in that office space right now, like there are risks associated with holding an office portfolio right now. And how are you setting yourselves apart from your competition?

Sarah (07:36):

It’s a great point because, you know, as re-entry starts happening, I mean, our New York city office is talking about going back for the first time in June, right? Like we’ve been out of the office since March of 2020. Phase one, who knows how many people, but right. So that the future of the office is definitely something that’s on everyone’s radar, how dense, right? Like how dense and office is going to be, what the ventilation rates and filtration rates of that space will be? I mean, I do hope that post COVID some of these strategies, or most of these strategies are still maintained. Right.

Kelly (08:10):

And so I asked Sarah about where people are trying to get started and where should they get started? People are often looking for a checklist. Right. And in some ways we’ve talked about before people try to look for an equity checklist and then they’re like, okay, I did the equity checklist, so now I’m equitable. And then they put that aside and then they go on with their lives, which is not really working

Sarah (08:35):

Nor the point of those checklists

Kelly (08:38):

So in what ways do you think the checklist style is working for health and wellness? And in what ways do you think some clients maybe are missing something because they want it to be too prescriptive or, or is that actually the way to go about it for health?

Sarah (08:58):

I honestly think that it’s the way to go about it. I do. I do. Because as we’ve, as we’ve discussed, there are so many different elements of health. Right. And so, again, like for so long, we were really focused on just ventilation or just filtration, but there’s so much more. But I think it can be overwhelming. Similarly with when LEED was first created. Right. Like it was overwhelming. People didn’t really know where to begin. So the checklist allows, or these checklist based programs allow you to at least start somewhere. Right. It doesn’t matter exactly where, but at least you’re getting your feet wet. So that’s how, that’s how I see it. And again, like you don’t, you would never need to get certified, but it allows you to say, okay, well, what are we even doing? You know, like what are we actually even implementing in our building? We don’t necessarily need to go through the whole process, but, you know, are we even responding to this topic, you know, of safety and security? Like what are we doing for an emergency situation? Or do we even have a Legionnaires’ plan, you know, for our, for our water systems, they might not. Right. So that’s, that’s also, that’s a precondition for the WELL program is to have a Legionnaires’ safety plan. So it’s things to, you know, to, to really prevent the transmission from the, in the first place, you know? And so I think that that is definitely why it’s a great place to start.

Kelly (10:17):

That’s a good point. Not everybody has 30 years to do the research themselves.

Sarah (10:21):

Exactly. And, you know, like LEED too they lean on ASHRAE and they lean on the EPA and all of these other organizations and institutions to, to do the research and you cull from those institutions. Right. And then it’s just a toolkit in your toolbox. That’s, that’s how I think of all of the, all of the systems. Yeah.

Kelly (10:42):

That’s great. So you’ve referenced all of them in this, but give us kind of the basic overview, kind of each one, why you might push a client in one direction versus another, or any other things you think people should consider.

Sarah (10:55):

So again, with the background of LEED for new construction, commercial in mind, not residential, anything like that. So I would still say that LEED is the best way to, to start your foray into any of this, because it does touch upon all of them in at least an introductory way. And then you can get deeper, right? So you can still have the sustainability aspects with energy and water reduction and things of that nature, transportation while ensuring that your ventilation is designed correctly, you have the right filtration and you’re you know, if you were to pursue the low emitting material categories then you would be able to have that healthier aspect, to not bring in potential carcinogenic materials. So that’s, you know, just any LEED program while still have all those parameters with the Fitwel program, I would say because it is federally created because it’s connected with the CDC, it a great way for people who are really interested in health, but might not have the upfront capital to install a lot of like more technically or technologically connected items. So, you know, just like the barrier to entry of Fiwel I would say is lower. It still has many, again, these like these 12, most of the there’s different versions of Fitwell based on, you know, you’re building typology or you a community, things of that nature. So there’s still 12 categories related to health based on these seven health impact categories. So you’re still getting a good holistic view of health, but I would say in terms of implementation, you can use it for a new construction project or an existing project. But I think it kind of had existing buildings in mind when it was created, you know, you can implement it with policies and procedures, things of that nature rather than having to overhaul like your air handler or things like that. And then I would say the WELL building standard is pretty technically rigorous in terms of water quality, air quality testing. There’s, I want to say 180 points that you can choose from. They also have, I believe 12 categories, it’s air, water, nourishment, light movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind community. So it’s a lot, you know, it’s very robust.

Kelly (13:28):

And they’re more testing based, right? You have to actually, you know, it’s not enough to make a plan.

Sarah (13:33):

Correct. Yeah, exactly. It’s not just, you know, I said that I did it, here’s my documentation. The GBCI will go in and do the performance testing, or, you know, you have a testing go in and do the testing to verify that you actually installed low VOC products or that your quality is actually, you know, the PM two point fives are actually below this specific level. Right. Like they will go in and verify all of that. And that is kind of their proof in the pudding. Right. That they that’s why they are so strict, but they also just have a lot of like features related to monitoring, you know, like having permanent air quality monitors or permanent water quality monitors, other credits related to you know, like having your air handler turn off when your windows are up and things like that are more expensive, you know, just it’s going to be pricey, but you know that it’s going to be a healthier building if you do implement them. So I would say it’s, it’s definitely it’s a commitment. Yeah. It’s an investment. It’s definitely an investment. Yeah.

Kelly (14:31):

What do you think, what of the healthy building standards that you think is important is really lagging behind? Like what do you think people haven’t really caught on or really isn’t considered like normal construction practice right now, that probably should be?

Sarah (14:48):

Interesting question. Maybe sound. Acoustics. I’m going to say it’s acoustics because there’s, you know, LEED, WELL, Fitwel, they all have items related to acoustics, but it’s yeah. I would say that’s not mainstream at all. You know, maybe between between units in like the corridor. But you know, like in old buildings, I’m sure we’ve all lived in an old building and like the unit above us, you know, they’re bowling or something up there. And so I think that that’s definitely an afterthought. Yeah. And I know you guys have seen how like triple pane windows. Yes. They’re great for thermal performance and the envelope performance, but a co-benefit for sure is the acoustical performance of your triple pane window, right?

Kelly (15:48):

Yeah. And it’s interesting, cause I’ve seen spaces where they are required to have the higher performance windows because it’s over a train or something like that. I had one, one building that I lived in, in the city that had, it was amazing how the, how good the windows worked in terms of sound attention. It’s wild.

Sarah (16:08):

Yeah. Yeah. I was in one of the newer NYU Langone hospital buildings a few years ago and there was a hella pad outside and they have triple pane windows and you couldn’t hear the hella pad at all. It was really impressive. Yeah. I would say that. Yeah. Or nourishment too. I mean nourishment, but that’s not really construction. Yeah. I would say those two.

Kelly (16:34):

Yeah. And acoustics is interesting, it came up at a commissioning training on acoustical commissioning. So how are we testing spaces to make sure that they’re meeting acoustical requirements, e specially if you’re in a performing arts space or a museum or a you know even a hotel conference center. So I think there are certain scenarios in which we realize it’s important, but there are still are, you know, designs that aren’t thought holistic.

Sarah (17:09):

And that’s still based on what the program of that space is, you know, if it’s a performance space. Right. But yeah, I think in a commercial application, let’s say, you know, going back to an office building or to a residential building, I just don’t know if it’s as ubiquitous. Or the NRC rating might get specified, but does, how does it actually get implemented and tested? That’s interesting about commission acoustical commissioning.

Kelly (17:39):

Yeah, you know, I’m always a fan of making sure that it actually gets installed properly. It’s one thing to show the arrow on the drawings that say the air is moving this way, but it’s quite another to make sure that it is. Which is why I, like, I definitely like the idea of, well, in terms of making sure that things are getting tested, but of course it’s a risk for people, you know, it’s one thing to follow an item and say that I, you know, I, I installed this specific thing, but it’s another thing to install and hope for the best.

Sarah (18:14):

And acoustical is another topic that, another item that gets tested in WELL, that’s a great point. Yeah. Yeah.

Kelly (18:20):

What is the main thing that you want the audience to take away from this discussion?

Sarah (18:26):

I would say one thing we didn’t discuss really is this, this intersection of health, wellness, sustainability. Yeah. You know, the triple bottom line, right. People, planet, profit or ESG, that can be kind of seen in those different ways. I would say what I would want folks to get out of this conversation is about not having health be an afterthought. Is really implementing healthy strategies at the get-go and not, not reactive, being proactive about, about that. Right? Like you said, with the the WELL health safety rating or the Fitwell viral response module, they were responding to an event, right? Like it’s a reaction to a need, but the need we know is people get sick, right. Or people are stressed out and people need that mental support. So I would say for every building operator or developer, you know, thinking about every building from a health and wellness perspective in alignment with sustainability, and that would be, that’d be the dream.

Kelly (19:42):

In the episode today, we took a high level approach to the discussion. So I encourage you to take a look at all the great content in the shownotes For example, Sarah brought up noise as something that might be a lingering behind, but according to Harvard school of public health, nine foundations of a healthy building, which is a curation of prior research, they outline some alarming connections between noise and health noise. Exposure can exacerbate the risk of cardiovascular disease noise in a classroom from outdoor sources can impair children’s speech, concentration and reading comprehension. And in a recent survey of 1200 senior executives and non-executive employees, they found that 53% of employees report that ambient noise reduces their work satisfaction and productivity. And don’t forget to check out our other episodes where we dive in deeper on healthy building materials, moisture with Kristoff Irwin kitchen ventilation, with Ian Walker. And of course, Maureen Mahle’s episode, our buildings, our health buildings. And beyond is brought to you by Steven winter associates. We believe our world is not as sustainable, healthy, safe, equitable, or inclusive as it needs to be. We continually strive to develop and implement innovative solutions to improve the built environment. If you want to join us in our mission, please visit We are always looking for new employees. A big shout out to our production team, Jayd Alvarez, Dylan Martello, Alex Mirabile, Heather Breslin, and my cohost Rob Aldrich. We thank you for listening and we will see you next time.