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Life after Lockdown: Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace

By Liam Rock
26th May 2020

When lockdown lifts and we return to our workplaces there will be increased concern and heightened awareness on how buildings impact our wellbeing – and what we should be doing to control this. That means that those of us who own, manage, operate, and optimise, those buildings are charged with responding to that, whilst also considering what future advisory and regulatory landscapes will look like. At the time of writing there are emerging guidelines around building operation and the commercial real estate is now in a new phase of the crisis; making plans for facilitating reoccupation.

 

THE CHALLENGE

This is an onerous task and discussions are framed around practical measures that can be taken, maximum occupancy numbers, changes to cleaning duties (more visible and with renewed focus on touched areas), different entry and exit points to buildings to manage the flow of people, and many others. Challenges around lifts and toilet facilities are likely to be particularly challenging.

In terms of building services, behind the scenes and unseen by regular occupiers, there will also be changes. Ventilation strategies will focus on providing 100% fresh air and may operate around the clock. Temperature and humidity control will be important to ensure that the proliferation of viruses is avoided. A wider positive impact of this will be that many other factors that can negatively impact wellbeing will also be improved.

A significant cause for concern potentially is the absence of humidity control in buildings in the UK. In many cases humidity control systems have been decommissioned to save energy and/or reduce maintenance costs. This means that the relative humidity (RH) of delivered air will entirely be as a function of outside air starting condition (temperature and RH) and the effects the heating or cooling has as that air passes through air handling units.

This is important because in terms of air quality, temperature and humidity are key parameters that influence the proliferation of viruses. It is going to be imperative that RH in buildings be kept within the recommended range of 40% – 60% and most buildings are not equipped to manage that. RH is arguably the most important factor to manage now, not fine particles (PM2.5) or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

 

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE SECTOR

It seems that the next phase of this is going to be that fundamentally buildings will be operating at  reduced occupancy, meaning an increased cost per head to operate that may not be palatable. Ventilation will almost certainly be 100% fresh air (no recirculation) and at increased operating hours. Temperature and humidity, key factors in providing protection against the proliferation of viruses, and other ailments will have to be more tightly monitored and controlled.

We may also have to ask questions about existing certification standards and do they address this new world order sufficiently. The standards (WELL, RESET, Fitwel, etc.) in this space are moving quickly to address this but how much will they have to adapt, how fast can they do that, and how will the changes be rolled out and managed?

While it seems certain that there will be an increase in building energy consumption as we tentatively emerge from the crisis, in the longer term we will need to seek means of safely taking control of building energy efficiency once again. Perhaps the 100% fresh air requirement can be offset by tuning fan speeds to occupancy based on CO2 levels, for example. Although, that may be effective at the whole building level but what about in smaller local spaces?

It is in smaller, poorly ventilated spaces that the risks of airborne transmission of a virus are more significant. In these spaces virus-laden aerosols may remain airborne for several hours. Although we don’t have technology that directly measures virus presence in air, proxy points can indicate if the risks are greater or increasing. High CO2 will indicate if a room is overpopulated or underventilated, for example. 

So, individual meeting rooms should have air quality monitoring systems that provide important insights in real time. That monitoring should be able to respond, not just with an alert or alarm, but an actionable insight. For example on seeing an increase in CO2 in a meeting room an intelligent system could advise on taking a break or opening the door for a few minutes, or advise to delay starting a meeting for a short time.

 

ACTIONABLE SOLUTIONS

Measure & control working environments: Using IOT products to measure conditions that would lead to comfortable and productive working environments and by proxy will indicate cleaner, safer air. Our Wellbeing programme is predicated on the principle of occupier engagement followed by a period of measurement and further engagement. 

Optimise your building’s operational performance: Optimised buildings will be safer and healthier and, with a good communication strategy this can be conveyed to occupants to mitigate concerns and create a positive impact on mental wellbeing. 

Engage your occupiers: We also expect occupiers’ understanding of these matters to deepen and they will engage and challenge landlords on the basis of impacts on wellbeing caused by suboptimal building performance. Landlords should take this opportunity to educate themselves and open up the wellbeing discussion as a conversation between tenants and themselves and work together to find solutions. 

 

SHORT AND LONG TERM CONSIDERATIONS

In the very long term there will be fresh considerations about what we expect from buildings to ensure wellbeing is not compromised and we will see that in emerging design guidelines and requirements. Here it seems likely that continuous indoor air quality monitoring will become an integral part of technical building services.

The very foreseeable future is beset with uncertainty and there will be a lot of learning along the way. A better understanding of how our buildings are operating post-COVID will allow better management of risks on physical wellbeing and the very act of doing so will, in all likelihood, reduce negative impacts on mental wellbeing, especially when communications between the stakeholders are strong.

Wellbeing considerations were an increasingly important consideration in the operation and occupancy of buildings with an increasing body of actions and research in the field. The Covid-19 crisis is simply pressing hard on the accelerator pedal and will drive changes faster. This is clearly a good thing but it will still take time; and there will be trade-offs along the way, with energy consumption and carbon emissions likely to increase – at least in the short to medium term. 

 

CONTACT US

If you’re concerned about the implications of occupiers returning to your buildings get in touch with our team today, we can help provide the data insight and strategy to help you reoccupy buildings safely and efficiently, email info@carbon.ci

Download our Quick Wins to Managing Facilities in the COVID19 Lockdown