As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact nearly every aspect of our lives, building operations have had to adjust to stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders. Needless to say, in buildings and other spaces where essential work is on-going, property managers and operators must prioritize the prevention of disease transmission through disinfection, increased ventilation, and temperature and humidity controls. New information about how COVID-19 spreads and affects us seems to evolve each day and can be difficult to keep pace with. However, ASHRAE has provided some relief through its guidance for occupied building operation during the pandemic. Meanwhile, as some parts of the country are gradually restarting non-essential business, BOMA has outlined suggested preparations to ensure the safe return of tenants and other building occupants.

During a time when uncertainty about the future is at an all-time high, it may have never been as critical as now to consider how, when, and why we utilize our energy and water resources. For most commercial office buildings, the stay-at-home orders have resulted in nearly total vacancies, unlike anything the real estate industry has experienced before. In the United States, total leasing activity dropped 21.8%, quarter-over-quarter, in Q1 of 2020 and is likely to continue to trend lower into Q2.

United States Real Estate Leasing Activity

Photo credit: Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.

This has presented a number of financial and logistical challenges for building owners and managers. Commercial office buildings spend an average of $4.29 per square foot on utilities and maintenance costs which makes up about 25% of total per-square-foot expenses. Reducing financial spending on utilities helps free up funds that can be re-allocated to other initiatives such as capital building upgrades or other investments that serve to improve tenant satisfaction and to increase property value.

Take advantage of temporary vacancy for short- and long-term energy efficiency

Building owners and staff can spend this time to reflect on and evaluate their current operating strategies to identify areas that can be improved. Empty buildings present us with an opportunity to address the typically untended areas or equipment. For example, one of the easiest and lowest-cost measures buildings can implement is schedule- or timer-based controls for lighting and HVAC equipment. Many central BMS systems, programmed by professionals, already include complex scheduled setbacks and other occupancy-based controls to increase energy efficiency, but what about the more simple, local-controls like wall-mounted thermostats found in thousands of buildings across the country? Many of these, located in tenant spaces, go unprogrammed due to concerns over tenant disruption or, simply, lack of time as a result of other high-priority building maintenance tasks. Programming schedules to account for nights, weekends, and holidays, and setting those controls to operate in “unoccupied mode” during this lockdown can help to significantly reduce energy use and costs.

Get ahead of deferred maintenance

Something that may seem obvious, but is often overlooked, is the value of routine preventative maintenance. This has and always will be a critical aspect of proper building management and operation, but current circumstances allow us to go beyond the typical tasks of cleaning coils or replacing motor belts. With tenants working from home, the focus should be placed on those hard to reach AC unit filters, or the 25-year-old leaking steam traps buried in the walls that may not typically get the attention they deserve when spaces are occupied. It is more important than ever to ensure that offices are well-ventilated and maintain healthy space conditions which are only possible with clean, functional equipment and optimized controls. Executing these and other proactive measures will help ensure that our buildings and building staff are prepared to service their tenants’ and other occupants’ needs that will place an even greater emphasis on workplace comfort and health.

Prepare for the new “normal”

As some states and cities begin planning the gradual re-opening of businesses from the coronavirus shut down, we wonder about what things will look like in a society and economy that are likely to be forever changed by this experience. What will public transportation look like? Will restaurants, sports stadiums, and movie theaters relish the same crowds they did before? What will our office spaces look like, or will our jobs be virtual forever? It still feels like an eternity from now, but we will eventually find our way back to a life that resembles the pre-coronavirus-era. But it will be just that, a resemblance. Everything will not go back to “normal,” and it shouldn’t. This pandemic is forcing us to reevaluate our healthcare systems, supply chains, and social behaviors. Worker and consumer expectations and priorities have changed and we need to work together to make sure our buildings can meet their new needs.

It is like the first return home for the summer after moving away for college, when you find a treadmill where your childhood twin bed used to stand. Sure, it doesn’t quite feel the same and it will take some getting used to, but there’s no denying that the space now serves a better purpose for the parents and siblings that still live in the house. Are we, as real estate owners, managers, and experts doing everything we can to make sure our offices, retail spaces, restaurants, and homes are being revamped or repurposed to better serve building occupants and their new needs? Relying on the same old practices and strategies is simply not going to cut it going forward. During this unprecedented, historic time we have a responsibility as industry leaders to reflect, plan, and take action to improve our built environment and make it safer, healthier, and more sustainable.

– Andrew Karlovich, EIT is an Energy Engineer at CodeGreen