The Seduction of 'Wellness Real Estate'

Health and architecture are coming together in promising ways. But the luxury market is based on dubious claims.

"Wellness real estate" property currently under construction north of Miami, Florida (Delos)

The endocrinologist-turned-entrepreneur Deepak Chopra is back on the list of The New York Times bestsellers this week, as he often is. According to The Chopra Center, the leader has authored “more than 85 books.” At some point keeping an exact tally may have become difficult.

I tried finding the precise number, but searching at most booksellers returns numbers in the hundreds. On Chopra’s website, the “books” section contains 155 items, though among them is “Invigorating Abhy Oil to Balance Kapha” and “Women’s Daily Vitality and Soothing Support Package.” Those aren’t books, at least as I understand the word. They are proprietary blends of “supplements.” The latter sells for $53.95 for an unspecified quantity, promising “rejuvenating aid,” because “when our body experiences the less than desirable effects from the stressed environment that surrounds us our body requires special care.”

Chopra has been selling our body antidotes to life for two decades, and he has taken on most ingestible platforms. Now he is striking out into the booming domain of “wellness real estate”—building living spaces ostensibly designed to optimize bodily functioning. In collaboration with the design firm Delos and real-estate firm Property Markets Group (PMG), he is finishing construction of a 68-unit luxury tower in Sunny Isles Beach, on the barrier island abutting North Miami Beach. Two angular penthouse units resembling white glass-marble sky mausoleums are listed for $18.5 and $19.5 million.

The value is enhanced by the pitch. Once Delos turns a condo into a wellness condo, the price increases substantially. Outfitted rooms at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand cost 40 percent more than equivalent, non-wellness rooms.

“Everyone wants to live healthier and longer right now, so this has a really broad appeal,” said Kevin Maloney, founder of PMG. “Having Chopra involved is very important to us. Obviously he has a great following of people. He brings a sense of real credibility to the concept.”

I replied that Chopra has definitely written a lot of books, though I wasn’t sure how many. Maloney said he knew that 20 or 21 were best-sellers.

The trend in Florida real estate, Maloney continued, is pairing with lifestyle brands. “We couldn't figure out what we were going to do with our new project. When someone brought up Chopra, my ears perked up,” he said. “We’re not going with a car company or a clothing designer. When this concept came up, we thought, ‘wow, wellness.’”

Though this is Chopra’s first formal development project with Delos, the firm designed Chopra’s $14.5 million Manhattan home, which The New York Times describes as his “health-centric condo.” But what is wellness real estate? (Or health-centric? I asked the publicist which was correct, and she said wellness residences is “the proper term.” Though Delos has a trademark on “wellness real estate.”)

Wellness has become a buzzword for all things that could somehow improve or modulate the human condition, often overlapping with what many would consider health. For one, the World Health Organization. At its outset in 1946, the group defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The Delos press release for these new “exclusive wellness residences” explains that they “will focus on three core wellness principles: air, water, light and sleep.” My guess there is light and sleep are meant to count as one. The Delos building in Manhattan where Chopra lives also features a “posture-supportive flooring system” and a surface coating “which destroys bacteria,” but I don’t know if these are wellness principles.

To understand all these distinctions and what it really means to embody wellness—as opposed to health—I had to get into Chopra’s head and see this from the inside out.

Health is the absence of disease. Period,” he told me by phone from Miami. “Wellness is, these days, more than that. Wellness includes physical fitness and optimization of emotional wellbeing and social wellbeing.”

Chopra said he was interested to talk to me because I’m a doctor, but I had trouble getting a word in. His came in streams that mixed technical terminology with astonishing claims, such as: “We are looking at how your environment affects your biology, from circadian rhythms to blood pressure to heart-rate variability to mood and emotions and bio-regulation in terms of endocrine function, immune function, is all correlated, and your environment is part of it, the air that you breathe is your breath, actually, and the water that you’re drinking is your circulation, and we know that 90 percent of the time we spend in a lifetime is indoors, so as far as frequency, if you take your age and multiply by 0.9, that’s the amount of years we spend indoors.”

Got it.

“Indoors is even more unhealthy than outdoors in terms of particulate matter and things that you breathe in not knowing that you’re breathing them in as a result of appliances and other products and everything that goes into creating a household, so air quality and water was very much a part of our thinking,” Chopra said.

Specifics are harder to come by. I asked Delos CEO Paul Scialla what he was removing from the air and water that people should be concerned about. Do I need a better air filter where I live? If so, what kind do I need, and at what point do I officially live in a wellness-centric health home?

“There's obviously many different ways to filter air and water,” said Scialla.I think the key here is the sensory technology that’s also included which will be able to validate and measure various levels of PM 2.5 particulates and what have you, so it’s about detecting and enabling advanced filtration.”

“But how you do that is proprietary information?” I asked.

“The result is most important, obviously, as far as validating the outcomes,” he said. “There are obviously various ways you can filter air and water specific to one property versus the next. The key element here is validating the output and the performance.”

“So that means you’re measuring particulates at your properties and finding that they're lower than the average apartment?"

“The output will be measured and monitored. Correct.”

“Is there anything specific in the water that you’re filtering out that is of concern to people?”

“I think that, generically speaking, you look at the downstream issues that we’re having across the country, things are ending up in your water that are certainly not intended. And then people tend to go rush toward bottled water, which is completely unregulated—we really don't know what’s in that stuff either. So filtration is really your answer.”

“Is there an example of one thing that you’re particularly focused on making sure is not in the water at your properties?”

“Oh, I can get you a full list of the toxins and pollutants that we’re looking to eliminate. If that’s helpful.”

That was exactly what I had been trying trying to ask for. Cut to two weeks later and a few more emails from me, and the firm’s publicist responded: “The Delos team is waiting on the lab to get back to us on the list of toxins being filtered out.”

The approach to lighting is more concrete.

“As you can imagine, when you think of a home environment, to have circadian-appropriate lighting that is dynamic and adjusts at different times of day, that’s a real big input as to how a person can feel,” said Scialla. “It’s the beginning of a very large shift in the lighting sciences.”

I asked if the sensors detected the lighting outside and then adjusted themselves. He said no, it’s on a timer. In our phone call, Chopra spun that as the brilliance of the idea: “It doesn't have to mirror the weather outside,” he enthused. “What we’re creating through this is the ideal circadian rhythm.”

That was an abrupt swing from the return-to-nature sell to the tech-guided body optimization sell. Those tend to be two poles of ideology in health. You’re either bioengineering a solution to the random callousness of biochemistry, or you’re offering solace from a world overrun by modernity. Chopra bounces from one to the other.

When he had to go, I said I don't know how he finds time to write so many books, develop real estate, and still sleep.

“I have eternity,” he said. “I don't believe in the concept of time."

“That's interesting,” I said—wondering why he had to go—“because you're focused on Circadian rhythms.”

“Yeah, because Circadian rhythms adjust to your presence in the moment,” he said. That put me on my heels again. “If you’re worried about the future or distressing about the past,” he continued, “you’re already disrupting your biology.”

Maybe the thing is to live in a place where you aren’t ever thinking. Maybe that’s why they chose Florida. If the promises of these properties are like so much of the wellness industry—selling solutions to problems that we perceive to exist only because of the marketing of the solutions—what do we really know about the effects of living spaces on health? There must be ways in which design can be used to optimize and improve health, in the 1946 sense.

* * *

Healthy homes are the focus of many design scholars, and one is Joe Colistra, an architect with the Center for Design Research at the University of Kansas. Because the population is skewing older by the day, and the majority of health-care spending comes in our final decade of life, the most ground will be gained by focusing on the health needs of older adults—delivering health care more effectively and less expensively through prevention and predictive data tracking.

Colistra’s models employ emerging technologies like gait analysis. Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries. Using motion sensors and in-floor force-plates that monitor sway and balance could help predict and prevent falling humans. Data on body movements might detect deterioration in coordination and balance that could be early signs of diseases like Parkinson’s.

“Technology-enhanced toilets could collect data that can alert physicians of potential problems,” he told me, as another example. At that point a physician could call you and say that she had received a message from your toilet. These “smart toilets” might help to monitor a person’s fluid balance or detect blood in the urinary tract—sometimes an early sign of cancer or an easily treatable infection that could otherwise turn lethally complicated.

Similarly, smart mirrors could monitor a number of health-related conditions, like skin abnormalities and problems with eye tracking. Medication dispensers could remind people when to take medication and prevent accidentally taking a dose twice. Mirrors and toilets could communicate with the medication dispensers and adjust a regimen based on a doctor’s algorithm. The example Colistra gives is diuretic medications, which help calibrate the body’s fluid balance. A medicine dispenser paired with a smart toilet could allow for real-time adjustment in people with  heart failure, saving a lot of trips to the clinic or emergency department.

“Technologies like these would allow people to age in place easier,” said Colistra, preempting the “public-health crisis” that awaits if aging baby boomers expect to descend on long-term care facilities en masse.

Under the Affordable Care Act, a health-care management voucher system allows primary-care physicians to prescribe monitoring for chronic-care management. That could include things like smart toilets, sleep sensors, gait analysis, Colistra posits. “If you could somehow partner housing developers with health networks to co-finance these projects, it could help make the construction and maintenance––” he pauses. “But who knows how that will go now.”

The key to these technologies is that unlike the multimillion-dollar properties of Delos, Colistra and his colleagues are primarily concerned with scale—how to deploy mass-produced housing units that are equipped without creating huge disparities in who has access. “This is probably the antithesis of what they’re doing,” he said of Chopra and company. “What we’re looking at are population-health strategies in which health and wellness is accessible to everyone. When you’re talking about $15 million condos, it very quickly devolves into social inequities. Health is divided between the haves and have-nots.”

Still he sees all of this technology as secondary to health. “What’s primary to health is social connectivity. Technology is secondary to community. So the goal is to create neighborhoods where people can thrive at all stages of life—life-long neighborhoods with great parks and schools and transit. Affordable inter-generational living is hard to come by. And that’s where healthy living fundamentally departs from the condos you mentioned. Those are almost segregated living environments.”

In former neurosurgeon Ben Carson at the helm of Housing and Urban Development, Colistra sees a possible ally whose appointment isn’t entirely illogical.

“We don’t know what his policies on housing are, but he’s certainly interested in health. We’re hopeful.”