Workplace re-entry: Air quality and HVAC modification considerations

When it comes to Boston’s commercial real estate market, COVID-19 has thrown the industry into flux. While many employees will continue to work remotely, companies are beginning a calculated return to a more traditional office environment. With this effort in mind, there are a variety of important factors that should be taken into consideration. According to a recent survey, 89 percent of respondents said they believe the air in their homes is cleaner than at work. Knowing what we do about COVID-19 transmission, many workplaces are doing their best to rethink their previous systems of air quality to enable employees to return safely. Here are a few important steps to take as your move toward re-integrating your team into the workplace:

Get Informed

Before any solid decisions are made about returning to the physical workplace, it’s vital to get a full understanding of a building’s air quality system. What kind of HVAC system did they have in place before the pandemic? What kind of modifications will be put into practice going forward? Consult the landlords and building operators to determine what they're doing to strategically help protect the employees returning to their building. In many situations, an outside expert is the best source of determining the right practices. In one of Cresa’s client properties, an engineer performed a study examining ways to improve HVAC systems in order to possibly decrease the spread of COVID-19. They determined three important areas that could undergo evaluation. First, was the process of humidification, where increasing humidity level in the office has shown to reduce the transmission of viruses and bacteria. Next, is the filtration system. By changing filters to a higher MERV rating, particles transferred through the air can be reduced. Also, many furniture companies are showing air filtration units that can be placed throughout the office and look like a normal a piece of furniture. Finally, diverse sanitization practices, like the addition of UV lights into duct work and surfaces, bipolar ionization inside ductwork, and dry hydrogen peroxide, may potentially play an important role in minimizing virus transmission. While many of these practices require extensive further testing on COVID-19, by identifying your building’s current systems, you can then move forward to determine what changes are right for your company.

Consider Your Options

Once you’ve determined the air filtration issues that need to be addressed, you can then start to establish a timeline to remedy them. If significant changes to HVAC systems are going to be put into place, they can’t always be made overnight. Also, the financial commitment will most likely be significant. Understanding the financial ramifications of upgrading an air quality system are likely to influence your landlord’s decisions greatly. Ultimately, these changes will funnel down onto your costs, as well. Be prepared with various options that your property could consider. For example, maybe portable space mounted humidifiers and duct mounted humidifiers, which have been shown to reduce the viability of virus transmission, are an option for you, while integrating UV lighting and a DHP generator into ductwork is not.

Be Realistic

While it would be great to implement full overhauls of HVAC systems throughout all workplaces, many companies aren’t in a place to request intensive modifications from their landlords. Not only is it a significant financial commitment, but it's one that requires time and manpower. But that doesn't mean there aren’t other steps you can take to help ensure your employees feel comfortable in the workplace. Most offices previously kept all windows shut, blasting the heat or air conditioning throughout the day. Now, they're encouraged to increase their outdoor air ventilation in an effort to reduce recirculated air back into the space. Also, complete a full review of your office's ventilation system, determining if furniture is blocking off any vents. Clean and replace air filters or purchase a portable filter unit that features a fan and HEPA filter. Utilize a comprehensive cleaning system throughout the rest of the office. There are many efforts that can help prevent virus transmission, and some of them are much less comprehensive than installing UV lighting systems and terminal equipment filters.

Connecting You to the Experts

As each company pursues their individual timeline for office return, there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve. By following important steps that ensure your team is both comfortable and able to perform to the best of their ability, the return to a more traditional office life can be a smooth one. If you’re looking to learn more about how to put these steps into practice, a member of Cresa’s qualified team can help guide you through this process and make recommendations for experts such as engineers or industrial hygienists to work with.