Rethinking Occupant Health and Re-Entry Strategies During a Pandemic

Buildings and places – and how we use them – will be more important than ever in a post-pandemic world. Re-imagining and re-calibrating mix-used developments will be especially important in getting tenants, residents, shoppers, and clients back to engaging meaningfully with their communities in safe and healthy environments.

Despite the challenges, the current pandemic offers a unique window of opportunity for real estate companies to reevaluate their approaches to reduce risk and increase resilience, such as investment priorities and new engagement strategies. Updating policies and procedures, implementing social distancing requirements, adopting stronger IAQ and cleaning strategies, having a stronger focus on occupant health, building back up supplies of protective equipment and other essential resources, and revamping communication channels with your stakeholders are all important efforts to execute before an emergency. Whether it be weather-related or an infectious disease, these strategies are intrinsically related to ESG programs which make sustainable portfolios better prepared and more resilient to new risks.  

Managing re-entry

Employers have a duty under OSHA to provide a safe workplace. With many buildings and workplaces poised to gradually reopen this summer, convincing people to come back to work with a sense of trust and security will require thoughtfully planned re-entry strategies and execution. A phased approach will likely be the norm for most workplaces, with physical distancing measures at the forefront (reduced employee density, desks spaces six feet apart, one-way foot traffic, etc.) and a lot more control measures in place. 

For real estate managers, it’s important to immediately implement disease control protocols such as more frequently scheduled cleanings, increased orders of disinfectants and supplies, providing access to hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes in common areas, and daily cleaning of frequently touched surfaces such as elevator buttons and door handles. Visible and well-trained cleaning staff will be critical. 

Beyond hygiene and cleaning protocols, indoor air quality remains a key challenge. The majority of office buildings in the U.S. do not have adequate HVAC systems to bring in fresh air, and recirculated air promotes the spread of airborne pathogens. Running fans, upgrading to MERV13 filters, and keeping them clean, and above all, increasing the rates of fresh air being brought in is a key way to improve building occupant health. 

Frequent, clear communication with stakeholders is more critical now than ever before, across both physical and virtual work environments. Communicating regularly on your re-entry protocols will be helpful in building confidence among your occupants and ensuring compliance with evolving public health recommendations. Collecting ongoing employee and occupant feedback will enable property owners and managers to adopt best practices and stay prepared to deal with future emergency responses. Together these solutions can make buildings safer as they combat airborne diseases now and in the future. ​

As an example, to address our current building pandemic needs, we have created a COVID-19 Toolkit for our clients that include the following resources:

  • 2020 Emergency Response Guide for Pandemics
  • 2020 COVID-19 Real Estate Impact Educational Presentation
  • 2020 COVID-19 Long Term Strategy and Tracking Tool 

Educational Flyers: 

  • Commercial Flyer – Healthy and Safety Reminders for the Workplace 
  • Commercial Flyer – Building Optimization: Strategies for Low and No Occupancy Buildings
  • Multifamily Flyer – Healthy and Safety in Your Community
  • All Building Types Flyer – Guidance for Visitors
  • Retail Flyer – What You Can Expect from Us and What We Can Expect from You
  • Restaurant Flyer – What You Can Expect from Us and What We Can Expect from You 

Below are some of the key best practices that building owners preparing for re-entry should consider. 

Re-Entry Best Practices
Indoor Air and Water Quality

Take steps to improve indoor air and water quality within the building to reduce the chance of viral spread and contamination.

  • Upgrade HVAC systems with HEPA Filters including MERV 13-15 Filters
  • Consider UV light sterilization for certain systems
  • Perform a third-party audit of indoor air quality prior to re-entry
  • Optimize outside air intake 
  • Maintain optimal air pressurization
  • Maintain safe humidity levels between 40% to 60%
  • Perform a water quality testing prior to re-entry
Building Operations

Monitor guidance from the CDC for health and safety measures for returning to work and provide increased communication to tenants regarding building operations updates due to COVID-19. 

  • Increase tenant communications 
  • Increase signage with reminders, rules, and regulations throughout the property
  • Move food delivery outside and/or to designated areas
  • Consider performing temperature screenings of building staff that may interact with tenants during their shifts
Cleaning and Disinfecting

Perform enhanced cleaning following CDC guidelines and utilizing EPA-approved products for frequent cleaning of high-touch point surfaces and high-traffic areas in building common areas.

  • Restrooms: sinks, paper towel dispensers, toilets, stall handles 
  • Building common spaces: entryways, elevators, elevator buttons, corridors, stairwells, handrails, meeting spaces, doorknobs, light switches
  • Vehicle and bike parking: pay stations, EV charging stations, bicycle areas
  • Additional services available for cleaning of tenant suites 
Social Distancing

Follow the CDC’s recommended 6-feet social distancing protocols. ​

  • Post reduced elevator occupancy recommendations​
  • Limit users in common spaces and meeting rooms​​
  • Maintain one-way flow of foot-traffic​ with floor markings
  • Rearrange furniture to encourage social distancing
  • Require all building occupants to wear cloth face coverings in building common areas including elevators and lobbies 
Build Back Better

UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres advises, “As the world begins planning for a post-pandemic recovery, the United Nations is calling on governments to seize the opportunity to build back betterby creating more sustainable, resilient and inclusive societies. With this restart, it brings an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages and shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient.”  

By using the current pandemic and its financial impacts as a lens, companies should now take a more proactive approach to the climate crisis by decarbonizing and becoming more sustainable. Leadership teams need to frame the impacts of climate-related issues more urgently in their overall and risk management strategies. Just as incremental building improvements will not be enough for pandemic re-entry protocols, incremental progress on emissions and waste will not be enough to avoid the catastrophic changes a 3-4°C world would inevitably bring.

Real asset owners and managers have a key role in mitigating these issues, similar to the role they have in getting the economy re-opened safely and in a more efficient, healthy and resilient way. While COVID-19 has granted us many lessons, the U.N.’s proposed climate actions would direct coronavirus recovery funds towards delivering new jobs and business opportunities through a clean, green transition that fosters sustainable growth and empowers communities to be more healthy, sustainable and resilient. 

Sample Building Signage 

This article was written by Verdani Partners.

About Verdani Partners 

Verdani Partners is an award-winning full-service sustainability and ESG consulting firm with over 800 million SF across 4,300 properties in 11 national and international real estate portfolios with over $650 billion in assets under management. Contact us about your ESG program management and GRESB reporting needs. 

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