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Healthy building modifications that managers can implement now

Changes related to ongoing occupant and building health can and should be addressed, especially considering that people spend a third of their lifetime in a workplace environment. Courtesy Haynes Mechanical Systems

Clay Herrin, PE, CEM,
Project development engineer,
Haynes Mechanical Systems

What changes to commercial building design standards and building codes post-pandemic can we expect? The lessons we have learned over the past months should be leveraged as we identify a new normal. This article identifies anticipated facility modifications that we can enact now to improve the health of buildings and the well-being of tenants.

Healthy buildings always have been important to the property management and engineering community. ASHRAE, the leading engineering organization in building design guidelines and standards, consistently focuses on healthy buildings, including the balance of improved indoor air quality, energy management, environmental sustainability and occupant comfort. Past epidemics, such as Ebola (2014-2016) and H1N1 virus (1918 and 2009), brought a heightened awareness of protecting the health of people, but the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of building health to the global community. This global community must band together in order to create the changes necessary to ensure healthy environments for all people.

Expect design changes. Filtration, ventilation and air patterns are critically important focuses of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning design changes in new buildings and tenant improvements as we respond to the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Air-system filtration for occupied spaces: Current minimum requirements for office space is minimum efficiency rating value 8, but it can be expected that this requirement will be elevated to meet updated code changes. Increased efficiency has been encouraged to a MERV 13 to help minimize the transmission of airborne pathogens, likely increasing the efficiency minimums for filters in buildings, thus eliminating lower MERV ratings in the marketplace.
  • Increased ventilation requirements to improve indoor air quality: The balance of increased ventilation with the energy demands needed to condition and filter the air poses an interesting challenge to many. Identifying the appropriate middle ground that considers both energy efficiency and healthy air quality is an imperative discussion as new building standards are implemented. Specifically, improved monitoring of economizer operation with control of humidity and temperatures will need to be addressed in these new design standards.
  • Air patterns: Return air paths will become a greater awareness in design practices as airflow patterns will need to be designed in a manner that allows for isolation of critical zones, eliminating common returns in buildings.

Beyond the immediate. On average, we can spend one-third of our lifetime in a workplace environment. As we have all started the return to the workplace and adjusting to this idea of a new normal, changes related to ongoing occupant and building health can and should be addressed.

  • Remote workers may become more standardized as businesses have determined that productive work still can be accomplished while working remotely. As a result, occupancy rates may fluctuate more, resulting in more variable HVAC system performance. Therefore, new design standards and best practices will need to attend to the part-load capacity in the HVAC systems. Improved control systems and monitoring will enable the system to adjust as needed to these situations in the very near future.
  • The term sick building syndrome has been around for some time; however, understanding the gross impact of pathogens and particulates in the air can cause in the wake of COVID-19 is critical to ensuring a healthy building and thus a present workforce in the future. Therefore, reducing pathogens and other particulates in the air is key to healthy occupants. Technologies that have increased the awareness of the potential to eliminate pathogens in HVAC systems are bipolar ionization and UV-C lighting systems. The benefits of these technologies are proven to be effective against many pathogens and other particulates that are within the HVAC system, including common allergens, bacteria and viruses. Their utilization in commercial buildings should be considered for the ongoing effectiveness for occupant health.
  • Smart buildings have been gaining acceptance in the past few years, but moving forward, smart data will re-energize the smart building concept. System monitoring for energy efficiency is crucial to understand how the building is being used and to controlling financial outcomes. In conjunction with the idea of remote worker environments, occupant location tracking within the commercial space allows systems to adjust, ensuring social distancing practices and reallocating proper resources to make building usage the most efficient.

Operational environment. These ideas relate to systems and system components, particularly the HVAC system. But, what changes should be expected in the operations of the buildings in our new normal?

  • Social distancing is critical to maintaining occupant health and reducing transmissions of illness. Furniture layouts and workflows should be analyzed to ensure those distance factors can be achieved. Moreover, the open office or “cubical farm” concepts may be reduced in favor of traditional offices and high-wall-separation work zones.
  • Group meetings already have shifted to virtual meetings, and web conferences will become the norm for many people and companies. Those meetings that should be addressed as email communications may be closer to realization as we seek to reduce personal contact when possible.
  • Cleaning protocols have become critical during the pandemic, driving localized disinfection protocols as their effectiveness is defined and vetted by health professionals.

Conclusion. Driving change as a result of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is imperative as we focus on design standards, building health and the well-being of occupants. Continuously assessing facility optimization measures through this new lens is paramount to the health of the workforce and the buildings we inhabit. If your building isn’t healthy, then your people won’t be either, thus your business won’t be healthy financially. Understanding your building and its systems are a key component to those initiatives. We must embrace the design practice standards to keep everyone healthy and ensure that we can continue business as a bit different than usual.

Featured in CREJ’s July 2020 Property Management Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.