Contact Us

Landlords Chasing Filtration, Certification In Push To Welcome Workers Back

As the vaccine brings workforces closer to a return to the office, developers and property managers are moving forward with a game plan centered around a healthier workplace.

Landlords are eying advanced air filtration systems and seeking certification from new performance-based building standards to quell concerns at workplaces forever changed, experts said on Bisnow's Boston’s Path to Healthy Buildings event.

Boston Properties' 888 Boylston St. in Boston.

“What we’re seeing on tours, tenants are absolutely demanding we look into these things, it is setting us apart,” Morgan Stanley Managing Director Jennie Pries Friend said Tuesday during the event. “It will allow us to achieve faster lease-up and retain tenants because we focus on these things.”

The nations’ top office landlords are facing a massive reckoning on the future of their workspaces, with a majority of workers and executives leaning toward hybrid and remote work models. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the wallets of workplace owners, notably massive office owner Boston Properties, which anticipates selling $500M from its portfolio this year to offset net income losses largely from reduced rent income.

The REIT has adopted some of the newer energy-efficient technology at its 888 Boylston tower, a 425K SF office and retail building at the entrance of Boston's Prudential Center. The building’s water-fueled chilled beam system allows for 100% fresh air to circulate through the building for cooling, increasing energy savings, according to engineer McNamara-Salvia.

“One of our customers is in a building that has active chilled beams, which has become a standard. They love the [Dedicated Outdoor Air System], they know it’s outside air,” Boston Properties Vice President of Sustainability Ben Myers said. “We had a conversation about that, it was a very different conversation than we had with the brokerage community seven years ago.”

Clockwise from top left: Cannistraro's John Cannistraro, MIT's Zhengzhen Tan, Eden Health's Matt McCambridge, Kendall Square Association's C.A. Webb and WSP USA's Joelle Jahn.

Office developers and managers have turned to the science of air quality, with speakers in Tuesday’s panels citing the work of Harvard assistant professor Joseph Allen, who teaches exposure assessment science.

For decades, medical scientists have studied the impacts of indoor air quality on health and cognitive performance in lab settings, but researchers now want to gather findings from actual office settings, said Zhengzhen Tan, executive director at MIT’s Sustainable Urbanization Lab.

“Those empirical findings will become more valuable and relevant to landlords,” Tan said. “In China, what we found, some Chinese developers who are prime office owners, they get to a point where they will evaluate the air quality of their office by disclosing the COVID cases in their building, how healthy their building is.”

Landlords have sought MERV-13 air filtration or hospital-quality filters, in the post-pandemic workplace, and enhanced ultraviolet filtration that can kill pathogens in air and water, experts said. Ambitious projects like Boston’s Winthrop Center, which developers claim would be the largest Passive House office building in the world, will include sensors to give direct feedback to tenants about the building’s air quality, WSP USA Associate and Technical Principal Joelle Jahn said.

Not every building can achieve air filtration above MERV-13, while upgrades for HVAC systems could cost $3 per SF. Air filtration upgrades could also increase utility bills by more than $100K annually. The expenses have led some developers to seek less comprehensive green building certifications, which require specific benchmarks in cleaning, sanitation, health service and water quality management. 

“One of the trends, for projects that don’t feel comfortable going the full nine yards and doing a WELL Certification, we’re seeing a light version, WELL Health Safety,” Jahn said.

The less-comprehensive certification has been promoted during the pandemic by industry experts and even celebrities as a tool to promote workforce confidence. The wellness measures are proving cheaper for landlords and developers, who will need to hit net-zero carbon emission benchmarks in cities like Boston by 2050.

The vast majority of net-zero buildings carry little-to-no added construction cost, and operating savings can offset construction loan payment premiums, according to a study from Built Environment Plus released this month. The builders surveyed by the group, which is the rebranded Massachusetts chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, spanned regional developers, construction firms, municipal agencies and architects.

Experts ultimately suggest workforce productivity measures and remote work models will determine the fate of physical workplaces. Innovative communities are the reasons companies pay triple-digit asking rents per square foot in Cambridge’s airtight Kendall Square market, Kendall Square Association President C.A. Webb said. 

“The value proposition of renting valuable rental space in Kendall is not just your conference room, not just your floor plate. It's the sidewalks, it's the elevators, it's the restaurants, it's the green space, because it's where those creative collisions happen,” Webb said. “It’s where new companies are born, new technologies, the germ of the idea gets started.”