Rockefeller Group, which developed a 2.1 million-square-foot industrial park in Piscataway, worked with Kuehne + Nagel International AG to design and build a facility in the complex that emphasizes employee health and safety. The logistics firm occupies nearly 200,000 square feet at 200 Ridge Road, which is designed to achieve gold certification by the International WELL Building Institute and platinum certification on the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design scale. — Courtesy: Rockefeller Group
By Joshua Burd
To a growing number of industrial developers and tenants, features such as abundant natural light, walking trails and fitness centers are no longer the exclusive domain of office buildings.
Look no further than 200 Ridge Road in Piscataway, the new home of the Swiss logistics firm Kuehne + Nagel International AG. Built by Rockefeller Group, the 197,200-square-foot distribution center includes those and other health-conscious design elements, as the tenant makes its case for a commitment to employee wellness.
The project has been a valuable case study for Rockefeller, which is now embracing the trend with steps such as including clerestory windows into other developments going forward.
“It really opened our eyes,” said Heath Abramsohn, Rockefeller’s vice president and regional director for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “And from things that we hadn’t done previously to what we’re doing now, it helped us say, ‘You know what? Users want this’ — and it only makes for a better product, so we’ve incorporated some elements of what we did there for a better product in general.”
Market experts note that, even before the pandemic, the race to attract quality labor had led industrial users to focus increasingly on employee wellness. That focus has become all the more important in recent months, as occupiers look to keep employees safe from COVID-19.
Enter the WELL Building Standard, a rating system akin to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design scale, but one that’s geared toward health and safety. Overseen by the International WELL Building Institute, the certification aims to improve the performance of buildings, businesses and their people through a set of rigorous standards and ongoing monitoring.
According to the organization, more than 4,200 buildings worldwide have attained WELL certification, precertification or registration, although the standard is far more prevalent in the office sector. Shalini Ramesh, a director with the institute, said there are currently nine industrial projects worldwide that are WELL-registered and two that are WELL-certified, the first of which was a Prologis distribution center in Tacoma, Washington.
Ramesh and other experts who spoke recently at I.CON, NAIOP’s annual industrial conference, expect quality of life to play a growing role in the design of warehouse and logistics space.
“I think one of the things that we’re starting to see across the entire industrial sector is a desire to create greater equity between the workforce that these companies have in their corporate office facilities (and) their warehouse and distribution center facilities,” said Nate Maniktala, a principal with the consulting firm BranchPattern. “So how do they make their values congruent to these different workforces?”
Maniktala, whose firm consulted on the Kuehne + Nagel project in Piscataway, said that discussion is “exacerbated by the fact that investing in healthier spaces has a cost and benefit and workforce development is a big challenge for all of them.” But people costs are typically higher than energy costs, meaning evaluating the return on investment for wellness initiatives can be more complex than for sustainability.
Regardless, he said, the pandemic has made those discussions even more relevant.
“WELL is a great platform for us to be having those conversations,” said Maniktala, who spoke during the I.CON Virtual panel on June 24, in a discussion moderated by Rockefeller’s Abramsohn. “But it still requires that we do our analysis as design and project teams to help still make value-based decisions around health, similar to what we’ve been doing around environment and energy … for over a decade.”
At Rockefeller Group Logistics Center, where the developer repurposed a former brownfield site in Piscataway, Kuehne + Nagel is one of six tenants at the five-building, 2.1 million-square-foot complex. It was around late 2018, early in its discussions with the developer, that the global transport firm expressed its desire to pursue both LEED and WELL certification, as Rockefeller was already a few months into its site work for the speculative project.
For Abramsohn and his team, pursuing WELL standards would impact the building’s core and shell by requiring skylights, clerestory windows and other means of allowing in natural light.
“That was not something we had considered until it was brought to us,” Abramsohn said. “And once it was it brought to us, we embraced it and we worked with Kuehne + Nagel and their client, so it was a very interesting process.”
Of course, WELL certification is a two-pronged process that ties into both structural design and how the tenant builds out and behaves within the space. Andres Rodriguez-Burns, an associate with BranchPattern, said the abundance of natural light accounted for “the most memorable and tangible representations” of Kuehne + Nagel’s space once it opened in fall 2019, but there were a host of other key features in the finished product. That includes hydration stations throughout the building, a modern lighting system and high-velocity, low-speed fans to help meet standards for access to quality water, lighting and thermal comfort.
To help meet WELL’s requirements for mental health, the building features large, storefront windows in place of dock doors to create a connection to the outside, Rodriguez-Burns said. The property also features an idle-free zone to cut down on combustion and improve air quality, along with direct access to the site’s walking trails and detention pond.
That’s not to mention additions such as a private shuttle to the nearby Bound Brook train station and the type of fitness center one would find in an office or luxury apartment building.
“At the high level, what we’re trying to do is change behavior through design-related outcomes,” Rodriguez-Burns said. “And we know that if you give them the opportunity, if you give people the space, they’re probably going to use it. The fitness center is just a really good manifestation of the tenant’s commitment to healthier outcomes for their employees.”
Abramsohn said that, even while negotiations with Kuehne + Nagel were still ongoing, the Rockefeller team became comfortable that the changes to the core and shell would make for a more marketable building regardless of whether the deal reached the finish line. That has carried over to a decision to incorporate features such as additional windows into future projects, as it plans to do with another upcoming development in Central Jersey.
“When we look at all of our projects … we’re constantly revising what we’re going to deliver as our base spec,” said Abramsohn, whose firm has since sold the Kuehne + Nagel building for $37.9 million. “We’re constantly making sure that we’re delivering a high-quality product, but we’re also making sure that it evolves appropriately for the end user so that it’s always going to be a Class A, highly desirable facility for their use and they’re going to be happy there.
“So we’re always evaluating that and saying, ‘What could we do better?’ ”
Experts caution that pursuing WELL certification can be an exacting, expensive proposition for an end user. But there is little doubt that that health and safety will at least be a growing priority for industrial tenants, regardless of whether they invest in the WELL platform.
“Social distancing is here to stay and that’s changing the way we’re configuring our interior spaces and the way we’re configuring our warehouse spaces,” said Brook Melchin, a senior architect and director with Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based Riddell Kurczaba, during a separate panel discussion at I.CON Virtual.
“One notion will be that we expect to have pandemic-certified buildings in a wellness scenario.”
The panel’s moderator, Kim Snyder of Prologis, closed the discussion with a rhetorical, tongue-in-cheek question to his fellow participants: “Does this sound like a conversation among people involved with designing industrial buildings?”
“The world has changed — we know that,” said Snyder, the company’s western region president. “We have to adapt and we have to make all of these buildings a good place to work, a comfortable, safe place to work and an efficient place for business to prosper.
“Business needs to make money to be able to hire people to have all of this prosperity, so it’s a very challenging merger of agendas and objectives.”