June 24, 2021
As vaccination rates rise, office buildings are welcoming back tenants at a steady clip. After nearly 18 months, employees are increasingly able to safely sit side-by-side. Now with companies and employees evaluating post-pandemic work policies, in-person collaboration remains a key focus, especially for innovation and on-boarding of new employees. Thankfully, throughout the past year, building operators have remained onsite, diligently working to ensure that healthy, comfortable, and productive spaces await each of us.
For building owners and operators, the reopening of offices presents an opportunity for enhancing the tenant experience. Whether designing a re-entry plan, trying to determine how your plan compares to your peers, or seeking to understand potential tradeoffs between health and safety, comfort, and energy, let this be your guide.
An Outline for Re-occupancy Health and Safety
Considering the broad range of approaches to ensure your buildings are ready for re-occupancy, it can be difficult to discern which recommendations will best suit your portfolio. It can also be difficult to translate these recommendations into an action plan for specific buildings. Through our work with thousands of buildings over the past year, we’ve developed a simple outline to help you navigate the universe of options for pandemic response and preparedness.
Many operators responded early to industry guidance from ASHRAE and the CDC by increasing the amount of outside air supplied to tenant spaces to provide effective dilution of potential pathogens. As the evidence of transmission vectors grew, and the science became clearer, there evolved a robust discussion of the efficacy and need for these strategies. Taylor Engineering published a white paper that provided a contrarian option of some recommended mitigation steps and Verdantix has highlighted this and other trade-offs that building operators need to consider. While more fresh air is always beneficial, this approach may increase long-term energy costs due to increased fan, heating, and cooling usage. Operations teams would be wise to double-check their equipment against the latest guidance to ensure they are optimally ventilating space.
Operations teams have made use of this period of historically low occupancy to address planned maintenance, improve building control strategies, and expand programs of real-time monitoring and feedback. Armed with these data, teams have established new baselines for low occupancy building performance that achieve energy cost reductions while properly maintaining building systems. As workers return, schedules are likely to be more dynamic. Teams that have invested in data collection, reporting, and analytics platforms are better equipped to match their tenants needs with appropriate service levels. Shifting from scheduled preventive maintenance to a more proactive management style based on actual operating data empowers teams to provide extra levels of assurance to tenants while minimizing costs.
When looking to minimize indoor pollutants, ventilation and filtration go hand in hand. Filters with a MERV rating of 13 have been determined to be the “sweet spot” for most commercial applications and are recommended by all industry organizations at this time. Upgrading filter media can be an effective step in improving indoor air quality (IAQ) provided that fan systems can support the pressure drop. That said, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the threat of transmission of COVID and similar viruses through central HVAC is extremely low. Instead, the focus is increasingly centered on local prevention at the zone or room level. Each building team will need to weigh the benefits and risks according to the unique space design and tenant needs.
One trend likely to out-live the pandemic is an increased focus on healthy spaces. To improve awareness for operators and tenants alike, IAQ monitoring is becoming more important. Thankfully, most buildings have some types of these data available through existing Building Automation System (BAS) sensors, such as CO2 or relative humidity. These may be augmented with VOC and particulate sensors to support regular reporting such as the example from the Hatch Data platform below:
Building teams should consider their approach to IAQ and whether this information will remain focused as an operations tool or, as some are exploring, marketing this type of information as a tenant amenity complete with self-serve access and public display.
Air Quality Systems:
Beyond monitoring and reporting, some building teams have gone further and piloted relatively newer technologies such as scrubbers, ionization, and UV light systems. While it is unlikely that these types of capital investments will be the driving force for tenant return, they may be attractive ways to enhance overall performance and have other benefits. While it’s early innings, engaging tenants in conversations about their needs should help determine your strategy here.
In cases where existing equipment is unable to handle the increased demands for airflow and filtration in tenant spaces, some owners have taken this opportunity to prioritize upgrades or retrofits to their HVAC systems. Lower occupancy has provided a unique opportunity to accelerate work that may have otherwise proven disruptive. By taking a holistic approach to HVAC design, owners may future-proof their assets and make them more responsive to changing tenant needs.
How CRE Firms Are Preparing for Reoccupancy
Most firms have focused primarily on operational measures that can be deployed relatively quickly and require limited capital expense. There are three reasons that favoring this capital-light approach may make sense: 1) uncertainty about the timing and volume of reoccupancy, 2) emerging health and safety technology has limited real-world deployments, and 3) public opinion on other mitigation steps may subside with improving public health metrics.
Those firms favoring operational measures, like SL Green, have focused on increasing the share of outside air flowing into interior spaces (ventilation), as well as upgraded air filters to MERV-13 or higher (filtration). Some have supplemented this work by investing in IAQ monitors, which can help prioritize other operational changes and capital investments. While these measures do require some capital, it’s relatively inexpensive compared to other options.
Other firms have made significant capital investments in the IAQ and health and safety of their buildings. Granite Properties has invested in supplemental air cleaning equipment and touchless environments for occupants. Columbia Property Trust is making similar investments and publicizing them directly to its tenants. In the same vein, a handful of firms are making significant changes in how they design and build during new construction. Regardless of where firms land on the spectrum of approaches, it’s important to be able to market these improvements effectively.
Aside from adhering to CDC, ASHRAE or other technical guidance, health and safety certifications for buildings are also increasing in popularity. WELL, a leading healthy building standard, provides certification to buildings that adhere to a range of design recommendations. Similar to LEED—the green building certification—WELL certification can be an effective way to certify the actions that have been taken within the building, providing confidence to current and future tenants. Both Boston Properties and Empire State Realty have recently publicized their investments in WELL certification. Similarly, Irvine Company rolled out a comprehensive program and sought 3rd-party certification, becoming the first in the nation to achieve UL’s Verified Health Building mark.
Over time, the industry will coalesce around specific recommendations. In the meantime, we hope this framework provides the context to help you decide what’s best for your buildings.