A Developer’s Forward-Thinking View on Wellness in Multifamily

NAVA Real Estate Development’s Brian Levitt makes the case for healthy communities at a time when safety and well-being is top of mind, citing one of his projects in Denver as an example.

Brian Levitt, Co-Founder & President, NAVA Real Estate Development. Image courtesy of NAVA Real Estate Development

Brian Levitt, Co-Founder & President, NAVA Real Estate Development. Image courtesy of NAVA Real Estate Development

Stay-at-home orders issued by local and state authorities to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus have revealed the vital role of homes in everyone’s lives. People are increasingly recognizing that the design of a space is a key tool in preserving spiritual and physical health. Although developers have long taken steps in the right direction, the pandemic has accelerated conversations about mental wellness and well-being.

NAVA Real Estate Development Co-Founder & President Brian Levitt has seen the evolution of sustainability standards, having worked on 18 LEED-certified buildings throughout his career. The developer’s Lakehouse project on the south shore of Sloan’s Lake in Denver is a space enabling residents to make more conscious choices while engaging with the local community. With health a top priority for everyone nowadays, Levitt talks about the future of wellness in the post-COVID-19 era of real estate and explains why the Lakehouse community can serve as a best-practice example.

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What are the most cost-effective ways for owners and property managers to make communities healthier?  

Levitt: Certification programs like LEED, Energy Star and the WELL Building Standard have transformed the way properties are designed and operated, but the idea of promoting human health and wellness within the built environment still has a long way to go. The good news is that you can address community health and wellness in so many ways—many of them cost-effective. The WELL Building Standard, for example, has created rigorous, performance-based standards, but anyone can apply the program’s seven basic wellness elements—air and water quality, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind—to create a healthier community.

You can do everything, from repurposing common areas into creative hobby spaces and developing specific programming that encourages regular socialization or physical activity, to installing upgraded air filtration to allow occupants to breathe easier or mounting blackout shades in residential units to enhance sleep quality. The resources available now for understanding and implementing effective, measurable wellness-driven initiatives in the built environment are more readily available than ever. 

What do developers need to know about the challenges they might encounter when building healthier communities? 

Levitt: Many developers assume that building a community that prioritizes health and wellness will have a major impact on construction costs. Lakehouse, our 196-unit condominium development in Denver, was recently recognized as Colorado’s first WELL pre-certified multifamily project. In that community, comprehensive wellness infrastructure improvements increased the construction budget by less than 1 percent.

Beyond that, it’s important to recognize that the concept of wellness in real estate will continue to evolve as greater emphasis is placed not just on physical health, but on mental health, too. From a developer’s perspective, this of course means engaging with forward-thinking architecture and design partners, but also consulting with advisers—health-care and psychology professionals, nutrition counselors, fitness experts and the like—to ensure the community can meet the critical needs of future residents today and tomorrow.

Even though the concept of healthy buildings is still nascent, demand is growing. Where health and wellness were once nice-to-have features in a community, they will quickly become the standard, especially after the events of this year.

What are the main features of the Lakehouse community in Denver?

Levitt: Lakehouse, which broke ground in 2017, applies new thinking and the latest research in multifamily design, with a specific focus on how architecture, engineering, design and amenities can better support resident health and wellness. Research proves that the air we breathe and the materials in our homes can have a profound impact on our mental and physical health, so it was important to our team that Lakehouse’s infrastructure, systems and operations would equip our residents to make healthy choices. 

Designed by architects Stantec and Muñoz + Albin, Lakehouse’s blend of glass, steel, stone and wood complements its waterfront location, and the building is oriented to maximize skyline views of downtown Denver and the Rocky Mountains. Inside, the amenities address the seven elements of the WELL Building Standard. An on-site, professionally managed urban farm produces fresh, organic produce, while our wellness concierge helps to connect residents with resources that will help them achieve their personal health goals. Residents also have access to a creative workshop, wellness center and a resident lounge with a collaborative cooking and dining program.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated conversations about how the places we live in can affect our health. If there’s any silver lining to this, we’re hopeful it will prompt more developers to consider the many ways to positively impact community health within the built environment.  

Tell us more about the process of obtaining the WELL certification.   

Levitt: Once we found our site for Lakehouse, we hired Delos, whose founders created the WELL Building Standard, and worked together to pilot a residential community that would take a similarly metric-driven approach to improve the health and well-being of residents. We met regularly with the International WELL Building Institute to best determine how Lakehouse could not only achieve the standard but go above and beyond. In April 2020, our community received WELL precertification at the Gold level.

In addition, Lakehouse’s infrastructure was designed to provide residents with enhanced air purification, sound attenuation, comfort and control, while its health and wellness program provides healthy choices to residents so they may become more active, social, relaxed and nourished. 

How difficult is it to operate such a community?

Levitt: We asked ourselves: “Once we successfully construct the condominium community we have been dreaming of for years, what happens in terms of health and wellness?” What we decided to do was engage with the local wellness community. Our team worked with local farmers, nutritionists, yoga instructors, fitness experts, cycling professionals, kayak instructors, art consultants, ski manufacturers and others to develop a building with the proper infrastructure to support future programming. Now that Lakehouse is open, the same group of local professionals has been engaged by the homeowner association to provide instruction, counseling and fun to residents who now live at Lakehouse.

We also give our residents the tools they need to live a well-balanced lifestyle. One way we do that is through our wellness concierge, Anna, who oversees many of the holistic health and wellness programs at Lakehouse. In addition to incorporating partnerships with local businesses—yoga studios and fitness centers, for example—Anna plays an important role in educating residents on how physical and mental wellness can be applied in all aspects of their lives.

We even produced an extensive resident wellness manual. In it, we explain why we pursued WELL Building Certification and how each of the seven elements was incorporated into Lakehouse’s design. We hope understanding the thoughtful design will make residents feel more connected to their home and each other.

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What’s your take on the future of wellness in real estate, considering the pandemic has definitely made us more conscious about the space we live in?

Levitt: Beyond the current crisis, we believe physical and mental health is something that should be prioritized in all aspects of life. Where and how we live can play a significant role in this, considering most of us spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. Are we getting enough daylight? Are we provided moments or spaces for respite? Are we engaging with the natural world in the built environment?

The industry has taken steps in the right direction, but we need to be more proactive by creating more spaces and places that make it easier for residents to make more conscious, healthy choices. Our hope is that the design and construction of Lakehouse and the amenities we offer will set an example that others can follow. Our building is just one piece of the real estate puzzle and we hope it will spark broader efforts at the community level.

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