This article was originally published in AQUILA’s 3Q 2020 Austin Office Market Report. This article will not be updated, but please contact us if you have specific questions regarding the information in this article.
Modern office spaces have been heavily focused on improving the tenant experience, with developers and property owners going to great lengths to ensure their tenants remain happy and productive. However, some of the more recent office trends, including high density, minimal private offices, and a heavy reliance on elevators, have made it challenging for office buildings to meet the new COVID-19 health guidelines many of us have become familiar with over the last few months.
Existing spaces could be retrofitted to better protect against COVID-19, but that can be expensive and, in some cases, is not possible. Or, new developments could incorporate protective measures from the beginning. But, developers run the risk of paying for expensive systems that may fall out of favor when the pandemic ends or as newer technology is developed.
So, is one option better than the other when it comes to COVID-19 prevention in the office?
In this special report, we answer that question by looking at the pros and cons of retrofitted office space versus new office space across two key areas: air quality and touchless spaces.
Air quality has been a concern for office occupiers for years, but the risk of COVID-19 being spread through respiratory particles has made it particularly relevant today. To help us better understand the options available to address this risk, we partnered with our friends at Wylie Consulting Engineers. They are a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) consulting engineering firm that has helped numerous tenants and property owners navigate their concerns associated with COVID-19.
“We can’t make a commercial office building completely safe, but there are steps we can take to make it safer,” says Chris Campbell, Senior Project Manager at Wylie. “Improving air quality as it relates to COVID-19 happens on three fronts: capturing, deactivation and fresh air.”
Capturing happens by using filters designed to capture small particles before they recirculate throughout a building’s HVAC system. If the virus can be removed from the air circulating throughout the buildings, the risk of infection is decreased.
According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of 13 or greater are efficient at capturing airborne viruses. Most existing and under-construction Class A office buildings should have minimal difficulty incorporating this type of filter, but older or Class B and C properties might run into issues due to their inferior HVAC systems.
Another option would be upgrading to a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. These filters are more efficient than MERV 16 and are commonly used in hospitals and air purifiers.
However, the National Air Filtration Association warns that upgrading to a more efficient filter could actually be counterproductive. If a building’s HVAC system is not designed to work with these filters, it could result in a lower supply of air entering the office, require more frequent changes and increase the likelihood of air bypassing the filter, negating its filtering capabilities.
“You can’t just put a HEPA filter in an office because the HVAC fans likely don’t have enough power,” says Campbell. “Our recommendation, even on new buildings, is MERV 13 filters.”
Since most existing Class A office buildings and new developments should both be able to incorporate at least a MERV 13 filter, it’s hard to say whether new construction comes out on top in this regard. Class B and lower properties are where challenges are most likely to arise when trying to incorporate a more efficient filter.
Deactivation systems are another option that can be used in conjunction with improved filters. These systems reduce the survival rate of the virus, making it less likely for someone to contract it.
According to a study conducted by Columbia University Irving Medical Center, UV light has been shown to reduce the level of airborne viruses. One downside of using UV light, however, is the cost. According to Wylie, the initial cost mixed with the ongoing maintenance expense of high-intensity UV light systems likely outweighs its benefits.
“UV light does work, but the systems that have typically been used in commercial buildings aren’t strong enough,” says Campbell. “The systems that are required to work effectively have sizable retrofitting and electrical price requirements.”
Another, more affordable option could be to incorporate a bipolar ionization (BPI) device into the building’s HVAC system. Without going too in-depth on the science behind it, these devices are effective at deactivating viruses and can be installed in existing HVAC systems with minimal cost. Global Plasma Solutions (GPS), one of the companies manufacturing these devices, claims the system reduces the infectivity of certain viruses by greater than 90%.
“Bipolar ionization is becoming the clear frontrunner for us, and it is very easy to retrofit,” says Campbell. However, this is not to say that BPI doesn’t have its drawbacks. According to Wylie, if the BPI system isn’t UL 2998 listed (limiting ozone to 0.005 part per million) it could produce high levels of ozone, which is a known irritant, and is less effective than a HEPA filter after a single pass. Due to the relatively low retrofitting cost of deactivation systems, there is no clear winner between retrofitted spaces and new construction in this case.
The final improvement Wylie recommends is increasing the amount of fresh air entering the building. Assuming that outside atmospheric air is less likely to be carrying the virus than recirculated air from within the building, the more of it you can get into the building the better.
The solution to pollution is dilution. Increased ventilation allows for less air to be recirculated. However, the downside is you have to treat the outside air coming in, and most existing building HVAC systems aren’t capable of handling the load of dehumidifying and conditioning that would be required, especially in a climate like Austin’s.”
– Chris Campbell, Senior Project Manager at Wylie Consulting Engineers
As with the systems for capturing contaminates, new construction is the clear winner when it comes to incorporating as much fresh air as possible into an office building. Although retrofitting can be done, it is much more likely we will begin seeing these systems incorporated into new construction.
“If you are starting from square one, it’s easy for us to incorporate these systems,” says Campbell. “Retrofitting can be done, but needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”
Retrofitting deactivation measures into existing office air systems is likely doable and cost-effective in most cases, and most existing Class A office buildings should be capable of upgrading to more efficient filters. However, HVAC systems are so integral to an office building’s functioning that it would likely be a costly, lengthy and inconvenient undertaking to retrofit an entirely new system to be capable of treating and circulating a high volume of outside air. Since outside air is a major key to ensuring a healthy office atmosphere, new developments that are able to incorporate HVAC systems that can accommodate better air quality from the beginning will have the upper hand in this respect and be better positioned to use the building’s air quality as a marketing tool to attract tenants.
Think about how many surfaces you had to touch on your way into the office a year ago. Maybe you had to swipe a card to get into your parking garage, open a door to the elevator bank, tap a button to call the elevator, select your floor once in the elevator, then open the door to your suite once you reached the correct floor. In our world today, each of those touches might now be considered an unnecessary risk.
Luckily, there are several technologies on the market that can help reduce those risks.
Companies like Openpath, for example, offer touchless elevator solutions that allow tenants to access their floors without ever having to touch a which deliver employees directly to their floor rather than having to stop on multiple floors, are available, along with elevator security measures that can limit who has access to certain floors. These systems not only reduce the need to touch surfaces but can also limit the number of people being exposed to those surfaces as well.
Touchless sensors are another option for office buildings, allowing tenants to open doors and move through the building without having to touch multiple surfaces. Companies like Identiv already offer several touchless options, and can even use those systems to track how employees are moving through the building. If an employee later tests positive for COVID-19, the employer can see who else has spent time in the same areas and can notify them promptly.
While these technologies are incorporated at the building level, other technologies are also available that tenants can incorporate into their own suite if they choose.
Gensler’s “Understanding the Touchless Workplace” article outlines which systems might soon find their way into a company’s suite, including removing shared devices in exchange for personal devices, gesture control, voice control, and facial recognition.
Incorporating most of these things can be done relatively easily in both existing buildings and new developments. Touchless sensors can be retrofitted with minimal effort, and other technologies like density sensors and “smart” conference rooms can be incorporated at the suite level rather than having to do an extensive retrofit of the entire building.
The one area new developments do take the upper hand in is with elevator upgrades. For tenants with upper-floor suites that make elevators a daily necessity (especially downtown tenants), developments offering better, safer elevator experiences will likely come out on top.
It’s safe to say that COVID-19 has led us to view office spaces in a much different light than we have in the past. Building systems that were never given a second thought are now being brought into question, and the mere act of an employee getting from point A to point B within the building is now undergoing serious scrutiny.
Although existing office buildings can likely retrofit some of the changes outlined above, the expense and time required to do so could be substantial, especially in older buildings or those considered Class B and below. In all likelihood, it will be the new office developments delivering over the coming years that will be able to incorporate safety measures into their design from the beginning and can offer tenants the safest possible work environment.
What This Means for Landlords
It’s worth checking in with your engineering teams to understand not only the capabilities of your building’s current systems but to see what could potentially be retrofitted and at what cost. While you might not be able to incorporate every system outlined above, it will be worthwhile to explore all your options.
If you are currently developing or designing a new office project, it could be advisable to consider these systems and others. Although most employees will eventually begin returning to the office, they will likely still be bringing with them the reservations and fears related to COVID-19. Incorporating these building systems into your project could serve as a great marketing tool to attract companies that hope to inspire confidence in their employees upon return to the office.
What This Means for Tenants
Tenants currently leasing space and making plans to bring their employees back into the office are encouraged to speak with their landlord to better understand what building systems are currently in place. Existing tenants could also look into the options and costs related to converting their suite to a touchless workspace.
For tenants currently looking for space to lease, new construction is a good option. Not only will tenants have the opportunity to fully build out their suite and incorporate touchless technologies from the beginning, but new construction is also more likely to have the upgraded building systems necessary to incorporate better air quality and mitigate the risks of COVID-19.