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July 31, 2020

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, reviews on the job site Glassdoor have increasingly focused on the health and safety of workplaces — in addition to the usual gossip about corporate culture.

Prospective employees are not just looking for a cultural fit anymore: they are also reviewing the buildings in which they will be working. Of increased concern to everyone entering an office is the quality of the air that they will be breathing.

Landlords and property managers are racing to implement best practices around indoor air quality in a bid to retain and attract tenants, involving everything from HVAC systems to particle monitoring technology. Many actions dovetail with existing sustainability goals, as COVID-19 accelerates and broadens the expectation that buildings can and should promote public health.

“We’re about to enter this ‘health-first’ era,” Dr. Joe Allen, Healthy Buildings Director, Harvard University of Public Health, said during a webinar hosted by JLL. “Buildings can be our first line of defense.”

Keep it fresh

Many buildings simply move air from one indoor space to another, which can increase the risk of transferring airborne infections.

With growing concern from scientists about the need for protection from virus-carrying aerosol droplets in the air in addition to respiratory droplets spread among people in close quarters, improvements to existing ventilation systems are near the top of the list of most re-entry plans, says Cynthia Curtis, Senior Vice President, Sustainability, JLL.

It’s ideal to bring in fresh outdoor air by increasing the amount drawn into ventilation systems and preventing it from mixing with recirculated air from inside the building, she says.

“To do it right, you have to separate those air flows so any germs, including COVID-19 germs, don’t get pumped back in and then recycled throughout the building,” Curtis says.

Opening a window can help, but many rooms don’t have windows that open. ABN Amro Bank NV is pumping extra ventilation into conference rooms at its Amsterdam headquarters to offset the heightened chance of transmission during small group meetings.

Some buildings are employing ultraviolet UV-C light technology. When placed inside light fixtures or within HVAC systems, it can kill viruses in the circulating air. Wirth Research in the U.K. is developing a “viral furnace” that heats stagnant indoor air, killing any pathogens before cooling down the air and releasing it back into the space.

Adoption of technology that measures air quality is also on the rise, including airborne particle monitoring. The measurement of waterborne droplets is becoming more mainstream, said Raefer Wallis at MIT’s recent World Real Estate Forum. Wallis — whose company GIGA combines the development of building standards with cloud technology to increase the accessibility and impact of healthy buildings — says we can expect a rapid decrease in the price of the technology as broad-spectrum monitoring normalizes over the next 18 months.

“Airborne particle monitoring used to be about dust and humidity … now the ability to measure waterborne droplets has really come to the forefront,” he said. “We’re going to see what we call broad spectrum monitoring become (normalized).”

Healthy = sustainable

Retro-commissioning — a process that involves systemic evaluations of a building’s HVAC and other systems – can help identify opportunities to improve air quality. But that process also has an added benefit: discovering new ways to cut energy consumption.

These actions can effectively reduce a building’s environmental footprint — but they do more than that, Curtis says.

“Emissions are at the heart of it all in terms of urgency,” she says. But in the broader context, “sustainability is about taking a holistic approach where human health and productivity are part and parcel of the mix.”

In other words, improvements accelerated by the pandemic should ultimately lead to healthier occupants who are going to be happier and more engaged.

“We spend so much of our time indoors,” Dr. Allen said during the webinar. “If we get this right in terms of energy use and sustainability, moving forward we can really improve the human condition. It’s not overstating it to say the decisions we are making now will dictate our collective health for generations.”

Click to read more on how COVID-19 is changing the office as we knew it.

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Cynthia Curtis

Senior Vice President, Sustainability, JLL.

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