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Environmental Sustainability May Lose Out To Wellness In Office Buildings If Push Comes To Shove

In order to make workers feel safe returning to the office, building owners and tenants may have to sacrifice some environmental sustainability.

SageGlass windows in the offices of Tombola in Sunderland, UK

The coronavirus is still such a new phenomenon that the scientific community is constantly learning new things and adjusting its recommendations. Research has begun to strongly indicate that aerosol transmission is the most common method for transmission of the virus — and that means air quality and circulation are paramount in keeping the occupants of a building safe and healthy.

“Air quality has come front and center, so enhanced filtration systems are what we’re spending the most time on,” Keystone Property Group Vice President of Leasing and Development Tom Sklow said during Bisnow’s Pennsylvania Sustainable and Healthy Buildings webinar on Thursday.

“Where we can, throughout our portfolio we’ve changed our filtration system to have a higher MERV [filtration efficiency] rating,” Sklow said. “And now, when people walk into those buildings, they feel the air move in the building; there’s a lot less of a feeling of stagnant air.”

Infectious disease researchers liken the spread of aerosolized virus molecules to cigarette smoke or e-cigarette vapor: It wisps and diffuses away slowly and can linger in the air for minutes at least in a still room. That explains why air circulation is so important, but the ways to achieve it all require additional power from a building’s climate control system.

“Buildings are not designed to run on 100% outside air,” Evolution Energy Partners Vice President Dailey Tipton said. “That’s what the recommendations have been, but that’s the equivalent of running your house’s air conditioning with all the windows open on a hot day. And that isn’t only ineffective at cooling the building down; it puts stress on the fans and filters.”

Virologists have preached bringing in outside air as the most effective weapon against the coronavirus, something many buildings designed to be as green as possible aim to avoid to maximize energy efficiency, Jacobs Director of Sustainability Jonathan Weiss said. Modern Class-A offices are often designed with windows that can’t open, and any other method of increasing a building’s air circulation involves potentially expensive renovations.

Clockwise from top left: SageGlass Regional Director Michael Lane, Evolution Energy Partners Vice President Dailey Tipton, Keystone Property Group Vice President of Leasing and Development Tom Sklow, University Place Associates founder and CEO Scott Mazo and Jacobs Director of Sustainability Jonathan Weiss.

Filtration systems that use bipolar ionization have shown to be the most reliable substitute for outside air in the most current studies. Ultraviolet light can also be effective, but its danger to humans exposed directly to its radiation hampers its practicality.

If the choice for a landlord (or a tenant with many years left on its lease) is between spending money to combat the coronavirus’s spread or being stuck with empty office space, it isn’t much of a choice at all. But in order to justify the hit to the bottom line, a company needs to be assured that the workers will be convinced of a building’s safety.

“I’m hoping that people are very conscious and interested in [health and safety] because there are a lot of steps we’re taking and a lot of costs, but creating that environment is not always sustainable [in terms of energy efficiency],” University Place Associates founder and CEO Scott Mazo said.

None of the panelists advocated for over-advertising a building’s safety to lure workers back; rather, they preached lower-impact methods of reminding occupants that the work is being done.

“There are visual and psychological things we’ve been doing, like a lot of signage and wayfinding, [as well as] cleaning high-touch areas multiple times per day, which is visible to tenants,” Sklow said. “We have weekly calls with our tenants to keep in communication about what’s happening in our buildings.”

Even though wellness has jumped significantly higher up the priorities list for office real estate in the past six months, developers recognize that it can’t come completely at the cost of environmental sustainability. Instead, it has just become one more thing that needs to be done in order to remain relevant in the industry.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more coupling of efficiency and wellness, considering everything that’s going on,” SageGlass Regional Director Michael Lane said.

UPDATE, AUG. 31, 2:45 P.M. ET: The quote in this article from University Place Associates' Scott Mazo was updated to include context. The added clarification has been denoted with brackets.