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Building Inclusivity in Commercial Real Estate

Headlines are now dominated by diversity and inclusion in the workplace, what it means and how to achieve it. Most measures of diversity are easy to measure; look at who you’re hiring versus the application pool and it might reveal an unconscious bias you weren’t aware of. Although the term diversity and inclusion (D&I) has been lumped together and usually falls under one person’s remit within an organization, they’re two very different practices - diversity is generally visible and measurable, inclusion is invisible and requires an understanding of whether people feel included and welcomed, either as employees or visitors.

Inclusivity in Commercial Real Estate

Commercial real estate has its own organizational challenges related to diversity and inclusivity which can only be addressed through the implementation of tracking, measurement and then implementation of D&I policies that address their unique needs. Putting people-related concerns aside for a moment, there’s both a bigger challenge and a huge opportunity for commercial real estate to make a positive impact in ‘building back better’ with new infrastructure and buildings that are inclusive themselves and not to mention, sustainable with regards to future inclusivity, benefiting the use of as many people as possible.

What are Inclusive Building Practices?

An inclusive workplace is somewhere where every person feels included and welcomed by their employer and buildings can be constructed with that very same goal in mind. The way a building is constructed, it’s layout, materials, lighting, amenities and signage, all contribute to the way that someone feels and experiences when they visit.

To be truly inclusive, the process has to start early in the building process, surveying the land and understanding transport links in the surrounding neighborhood to identify those elements that need to be included to make it convenient, adaptable and comfortable for all. Architects and developers of inclusive buildings will need to put themselves in the shoes of its users before they even make a decision to visit the property in an effort to reveal any obstacles that might be faced in getting there.

Universal Inclusivity is the New and Improved Accessible

Inclusive buildings, sometimes referred to as universal buildings have to accommodate the needs of every variation of every demographic in society including those in marginalized groups and with COVID-19 comes the added complexity of ensuring occupant safety and resilience against future health crises.

Accessibility is a key factor in a building’s inclusiveness, however those constructed merely with the aim of having an accessible element for less able-bodied people surrender the ability to be so much more to so many more and with land as scarce as it is, incorporating all needs in one building or development is inherently sustainable. The guiding principles of inclusive design are to recognize diversity in users, incorporate modifications where a single design cannot accommodate everyone and be flexible to changing demands.

Some examples of inclusive design in practice may be;

  • Affordable housing developments that include youth activities and community groups rather than ignoring the needs of younger people completely and instead concentrating on preventative measures such as using excessive lighting to prevent teenagers from gathering at night time;

  • Transport interchanges with cold-proof shelters, somewhere comfortable to wait, CCTV and an emergency phone so that women and shift workers feel safe getting home;

  • Fitness centers designed with both able-bodied and disabled people in mind such as Aspire in the UK which comprises ramps to a swimming pool which is kept at a more inviting, 32℃ heat and a gym that can be utilized by both disabled and non-disabled people, featuring seats that can be swung in and out of place as needed;

  • Schools such as the Bikurim in Tel Aviv which cater to the holistic needs of all kinds of children, whether disabled or not and supports the integration of disabled students into regular classrooms. In this example, flexible spaces allow children to interact or have a quiet space of their own for yoga or meditation which also acknowledges the needs of children with sensory difficulties such as those with autism. This unique development embraces children’s differences and envisions all children growing up equal in society, acknowledging that if we separate them, they will continue to perceive each other as different or unequal.

  • Mixed-use developments that fuse transport, retail, office and residential spaces together as a way to provide for a diversity of needs in the future. The Marine Gateway development in Vancouver was one such development that received accolades from the Rick Hansen Foundation for its exceptional accessibility and wayfinding standards combining moving walkways with escalators and inventive signage to give universal appeal.

Renewed Sense of Urgency

On an accessibility level alone, the World Health Organization’s global disability report states 1 billion people or 15% of the worldwide population live with some form of disability. Disability rises in prevalence with age and now mental and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease are also on the rise in younger demographics; on this basis and considering its ageing population, Canada has a serious problem providing a basic human right with the need for inclusive housing and services far outweighing what’s available.

Inclusivity was a ‘nice-to-have’ policy a few years ago, however social, political, environmental and economic factors appear to be culminating in a sense of renewed urgency for businesses and industry leaders to make significant progress in achieving inclusivity in all public and private buildings which in turn relies on commercial real estate creating those buildings. Businesses are now starting to realize there’s strength in diversity and paying lip-service to inclusivity won’t cut it, nor will ignoring the looming environmental crisis. Right now is the best time to address a multitude of impending crises around affordable housing, climate and racial inequality, in which commercial real estate can play a pivotal role as aging infrastructure is replaced with new, sustainable buildings fit for the long haul.

The Rick Hansen Foundation developed a building accessibility accreditation and suggests that the reluctance to build inclusively was a preconception of the higher costs involved, yet achieving their gold level certification is estimated to cost just 0.4% more than a non-accredited office class building which adheres to the Ontario Building Code and this slight upside can be negated by the benefits that inclusive buildings offer to investors and owners alike...

  • Properties appeal to a broader audience maximizing sales and occupancy;

  • More profitable through minimal vacancy rates;

  • Opens up a greater pool of talent to those industries facing labor shortages, maximizing expertise and organizational success;

  • Enhances reputation and brand in an ever-connected, smaller world;

  • Workplaces that excel in inclusivity and removing barriers to disabled employment prosper - on average these companies enjoyed 28% higher revenue and were twice as likely to outperform their peers on shareholder returns according to BOMA Canada.

Empathetic Buildings

Early, thoughtful planning and design can result in an inclusive building at no extra cost and incremental profitability. Incorporating an inclusivity strategy in the design stage is no doubt a sharp financial move, averting costly retrofit solutions down the line and oftentimes decisions can be as subtle as choosing one color over another or an alternative type of light fitting that doesn’t cost anything but means a lot to a particular section of society.

Developers and Investors must move away from the default position of reactive design to proactive engagement with their intended users and communities very early in the process for invaluable customer insight and then go about solving their challenges for an enduring result.

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