Guest Post by Mehdi Jalayerian and Julie Lardenoit, ESD

As the world takes steps toward returning to “business as usual,” organizations are scrambling to define exactly what that means. For commercial property owners, it often means building trust with the building management and confidence in the infrastructure and among returning tenants and office workers.

Verified procedures, new technology, and third-party validations can all add up to a new normal for workplace health and safety. The famous Cold War phrase “Trust—but verify!” takes on new meaning in a society emerging from the social and economic impact of COVID-19.

Examining how verified procedures, new technologies, and third-party validations/certifications can all lead to a greater sense of security for tenants, visitors, and staff members will be critical to a successful return.

Be WELL with the Right Certification

It is one thing to trust in the enhanced safeguards, upgraded building systems, and new operating procedures made in anticipation of a return to office plan; it is quite another to verify the improvements. The International WELL Building Institute offers programs to do just that, such as the WELL Health-Safety Rating.

This evidence-based, third-party verified rating focuses on maintenance policies, operational procedures, emergency action plans, and more to address a COVID19 environment now and a longer list of health and safety issues into the future.

  • Maintenance Policies: Identify, design, document, and implement revised facilities management and maintenance protocols to mitigate the risk of infectious disease transmission.
  • Operational Procedures: Adopt procedure/ to create, promote, and maintain a healthy and safe facility or workspace.
  • Emergency Action Plans: Design and codify emergency plans and protocols that can help safeguard building users in the event of natural or manmade disasters or crises/accidents.

Keeping tenants and other building stakeholders up to date with regular communications is also key to establishing trust and confidence. In addition to posting appropriate signage throughout the facility, there should also be a regular communication plan to disseminate information on any updates, activities, or programs impacting the health and safety of the building.

Consider Touchless Technologies

Advances in technology make touchless spaces possible to a degree unseen in years past. While finding motion activated faucets and hand-dryers in public restrooms has been common for years, the rate private businesses are converting to this touchless convenience in preparation for return to office may surprise you. However, that is a relatively minor upgrade compared to what is available for today’s smart buildings.

Modern facilities can include a building automation system (BAS) that combines hardware and software into an intelligent system. Automation is being applied to everything from heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to elevators, automated entries, lighting controls, access control, television monitors, and more.

While touchless technologies can mitigate the surface contact transmission of harmful microbes, building owners and operators are warned to be wary of a different type of infection: computer viruses. As operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) begin to merge, cybercriminals are exploiting the vulnerabilities of interconnected smart devices. When going touchless, businesses are warned to do so safely by fully understanding possible cybersecurity risks.

Pay Attention to Indoor Air Quality

In the wake of COVID-19, building tenants are more attuned to their indoor environment. Returning office workers may be seeking higher performing HVAC systems that prioritize indoor air quality (IAQ) and enhance occupant health, safety, and wellness. In response, building owners are targeting IAQ performance and HVAC system flexibility as differentiating factors for addressing office reopening concerns. Real-time monitoring of IAQ can be literally put in the hands of tenants using smart phones to check readings of monitors located throughout the work environment.

Moving forward, high-performing buildings should be optimizing ventilation effectiveness within the space and enhance HVAC filtration effectiveness. In the increasingly connected world, intelligent sensors can provide air quality data that is useful for both operators and occupants. With forward-thinking transparency, the data can be compiled into meaningful metrics and shared with occupants to give them insight into building operations and performance.

COVID-19’s Impact on Future Designs

As 2020 dawned, imagining the possibility of a pandemic was not on the radar of developers, engineers, architects, or anyone else in the tall-building community. Today, it is Topic Number One. To respond to the recent pandemic, building owners and operators are using the tools available to them and adopting operational changes that go hand-in-hand with the requirements of the pandemic. Stretching the limits of existing HVAC systems, owners and operators are increasing the use of outside air when conditions allow, running the systems for longer periods to flush the building before and after occupancy, and upgrading mechanical filters when possible. In the longer term, however, system configurations, enhanced air cleaning/filtration technologies, minimum space ventilation requirements and other operations are poised to change drastically in future high-rises.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on building design and strategy could be as revolutionary as the rise of the first skyscraper. COVID-19 and potential future pandemics have forever changed the design approach and methodology for high-rise office buildings. Building services systems design will require to be fully integrated into the architectural/structural planning and design approach. HVAC operational changes since the onset of the pandemic have been important to improve wellness and increase occupant comfort. These include moves recommended by ASHRAE (such as more outside air, better filters), along with air-cleaning technologies that can readily be added to existing systems, such as Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) and Bipolar Ionization (BPI).

Trust and Confidence Delivers Peace of Mind

Putting this knowledge into action by improving the health, wellness, and safety of office buildings and other facilities is the best plan for building trust and confidence in a re-emerging business world. Building owners, operators, and managers who prioritize addressing the concerns of returning worker concerns as candidly and transparently as possible will be positioned to accelerate their own journey to “business as usual.”

Mehdi Jalayerian is Senior Managing Director at ESD

Julie Lardenoit is Practice Leader, Workplace Solutions Group, at ESD