NAVIGATING THE "NEW NORMAL" AMID COVID-19

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How Indoor Air Quality Data for Consumers ‘Unlocks’ Buildings for Reopening

By Matt Ganser, EVP of Engineering and Technology, Carbon Lighthouse

October 2, 2020

While owners and operators of office buildings, hotels and schools are working desperately to reopen, consumers remain hesitant and fearful — at least in part due to indoor air quality concerns.

We’re headed into a new era in planning for reopening amid the fight against COVID spread – an era that is no longer just a commercial real estate (CRE) or office issue about returning to work, but a societal one, where consumers will fundamentally impact how CRE will conduct business.

This new era impacts everything from reopenings across critical sectors like office, hospitality and schools to shaping the CRE industry of the future and related financial markets.

To date, cleaning, PPE and social distancing protocols have been the top concerns. Now, with winter and flu season approaching, for the first time, indoor air quality (IAQ) is becoming a topic of conversation. Moving activities indoors brings greater urgency to focus on IAQ and providing clarity to consumers who are hesitant to re-enter public buildings due to COVID-19 spread concerns.

Six months into the pandemic, employers and employees have adjusted to working from home. Many employers aren’t in a hurry to return to the office — and on top of uncertainties around building safety, their attitudes around remote work productivity have also evolved:

A Gartner survey revealed that 74% of CFOs intend to shift at least some of their previously on-site employee base to permanently remote positions.

Hotels began to see more pickup in “drive-to” markets this summer, though not nearly enough to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

A recent AHLA report found that 65% of hotels remain at 50% occupancy or as low as 38% in urban markets — rates much lower than the threshold at which most hotels can break-even.

• And as schools are reopening, each school district is determining if their buildings are safe to reopen and struggling to address parents’ concerns about the safety of their children.

The result leaves owners and operators of public buildings with the new challenge of addressing the health and safety concerns of their occupants about indoor air quality — without sufficient and stable guidance from industry.

Rent and the viability of the business is at stake, but many CRE decision-makers aren’t sure how to navigate their tenants’ very real and growing concerns around IAQ and its role in helping make buildings safer for reopening.

Instilling confidence that a building’s air quality is safe will require proof — and data will be the key.

Like many industries before it, consumers will demand more insight into the indoor air quality of the buildings they enter. Providing up-to-date data around a building’s air quality will enable consumers to make informed decisions, quell their fears or misconceptions and be more confident in re-entering public buildings.

Consumers already expect real-time data to help inform their daily lives – from retail to managing their personal finances. And with the recent California wildfires, tools like PurpleAir provided people with an easy-to-understand rating for their local air quality. West Coast residents checked these ratings throughout the day to make personal choices for their families – when to allow their kids to play outside, when to go run an errand, when to go for a walk.

It’s experiences like these that will drive consumers to ask more data-driven questions about indoor air quality as reopenings move forward. It will no longer be enough for building owners to simply implement COVID safety measures (whether about cleaning protocols or IAQ) – they will need to effectively communicate their efforts to boost occupant confidence, and in turn drive a quicker, safer return to these indoor public spaces.

indoor air quality recommendations for reopening

The good news is the science around IAQ is clear and has been for decades. But buildings aren’t equipped with the right management systems and technologies to provide the data-driven insights tenants are so hungry for.

Most buildings in the U.S. were built before the Cold War, many lacking building management systems to provide visibility into the inner workings of those buildings, much less the capabilities to adequately then manage those buildings. COVID put these limited systems to the test with remote work, and now IAQ is the latest area to address.

However, before IAQ can be properly managed, building managers will need to determine if their systems are even equipped to handle what’s required to provide safer indoor air.

A building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system must be working properly to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. For example, it cannot establish proper airflow and ventilation with leaky ducts. Yet, the majority of ductwork throughout HVAC systems leak, according to the Department of Energy.

Having the right data about the inner workings of its HVAC system will equip owners and operators with the insights needed to ensure implemented COVID measures have the desired effect. This same data will also help communicate more effectively with occupants – helping to address their immediate hesitations and concerns about returning to public indoor spaces.

Beyond the immediate need, addressing IAQ can serve as the tip of the spear for a larger, much-needed modernization to enable a far more streamlined, agile, and resilient CRE industry of the future.

Technology that data-backs operations will facilitate accurate, real-time reporting, and uncover new efficiency opportunities that, in turn, drive profits at the portfolio level. In a recessionary environment, data-backed technology is key to showing the real dollar value of efficiency investments, as well as the overall health of offices and other assets. Further, studies and financial simulations have found that the benefits of higher ventilation alone are estimated to be between $6,500 and $7,500 per person per year.

Modernization can also help a growing area of interest from capital markets and investors – data-backed environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies.

More efficiently-run buildings with lower carbon footprints (addressing the ‘E’ in ESG) are simply more profitable, and investors are demanding measurable ESG impact as an investment qualifier. Only those portfolios with modern building management systems, technologies, and solutions will be able to deliver that level of data and stay ahead in an increasingly competitive real estate market

The business benefits of modernization are significant. Investing in IAQ and subsequent upgrades to HVAC systems will not only help with immediate reopening concerns and needs, but deeper building data will offer owners more actionable insights to manage buildings more efficiently and effectively and build long-term resilience for their business and to better serve their occupants.

The AI technology and expertise Carbon Lighthouse has developed over 10 years — reducing energy costs and carbon emissions by precisely optimizing and controlling HVAC systems — are the same tools needed now to align new COVID-19 mitigation efforts with indoor health and business demands.

Our AI technology is proven in 100 million square feet of commercial real estate, and we can leverage it to help your team solve IAQ challenges.

To learn more about modernizing your building portfolio — or to access guidance from Carbon Lighthouse’s building engineering experts around tactics for improving indoor air quality, data-backing operations or communicating with tenants around IAQ — please fill out the form below:

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