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Healthy Smart Buildings vs. Privacy: Striking the Balance in a Complex Global Landscape

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COVID-19 is placing urgency on risk mitigation for CRE leaders. Building re-occupancy requires improved health and wellness standards from thermal sensors, touchless controls, proximity tracking and contact tracing to elevator management, virtual assistants, delivery robots and conference room management.

Part VI of Realcomm’s ongoing coronavirus webinar series on business operations and COVID-19 examines technologies and strategies to mitigate building risk. A panel from Kilroy Realty, GIGA, and Lynxspring discuss strategies and technologies for re-entry as well as mounting privacy concerns.

Enhanced standards for healthy buildings

WELL certification to advance health and wellness has been the standard for measuring and improving the built environment since 2014. WELL accreditation is earned through high standards of occupant health and wellness, rating elements such as air, water, light, fitness, and physical and mental comfort. The Fitwel certification is another standard for human experience in buildings developed by the Center for Disease Control and General Services Administration to optimize health and productivity. These programs are part of the overall sustainability goals many companies use to foster productivity and wellness within buildings and as responsible community members.

Kilroy Realty Corporation's SVP of Sustainability Sara Neff said environmental and sustainability concerns laid the foundation for the connection between buildings and human health at her company. “We've had strong building programs on that intersection for a long time, with WELL-certified and Fitwell-certified buildings and inter-air quality testing,” she said. “We participated with the Harvard School of Public Health on their third cognitive effect study. Now we are trying to figure out how to adapt buildings’ operations and development to this post-pandemic world.”

GIGA is combining the development of building standards with cloud technology to increase the accessibility and impact of healthy buildings globally. Founder Raefer Wallis pioneered standards for data quality which are now used internationally. He currently lives in Singapore and said air quality and particulate matter (PM) monitoring began in China 15 years ago. “Data on the impact of virus transmission due to PM goes back prior to SARS,” he said. “The impact of humidity on virus transmission is information from the ‘60s. We’re answering a lot of questions on things that are perceived as new, but have actually been around for a long, long time.”

GIGA is working on a new standard for advanced broad-spectrum monitoring of PM with very high-resolution capability. This new standard will enable accurate data on the spectrum of matter in the air to determine potential risk and health impact.

Pivoting and problem solving in the new work environment

Panelists agreed COVID-19 will persist for months or years and pandemic preparedness may be an ongoing way of life. No one can guarantee buildings will be capable of preventing 100 percent of contagion spread, and cost is an increasing issue for expensive technology that might not be effective or quickly becomes outdated. More data is needed to measure equipment effectiveness as building owners and operators feel the pressure to find solutions.

Numerous theories on how to treat and reduce COVID-19 transmission further complicate building safety. “I don’t want to suggest that it's hard to do; it's just knowing what to do,” said Wallis. “The classic adage is ‘you can't manage what you don't measure’ and nobody's measuring. Taking the next step is hard without a base layer of data to build upon.”

While much of the world continues to work from home, returning to the office requires planning which might include staggered schedules to reduce contact, the panel explained. Managing occupant density in elevators and alternate workdays or shifts are other possibilities. But some solutions pose new problems: Extended work hours to accommodate additional shifts raises energy consumption concerns because businesses typically closed at night might remain open for longer hours.

However, CRE leaders are quick to strategize solutions for the new normal.

“We've seen a net shift away from trying to manage everything from the core of the buildings to putting in mini BMSs to provide heating/cooling filtration much closer to tenants,” Wallis said. “You can accommodate staggered scenarios and still keep a lower energy footprint overall with this type of higher flexibility system. I think we're going to see that explode over the next few years.”

Privacy and data gathering around the world

Health standards around the world add a layer of complexity to building wellness and safety. HIPAA Privacy standards are a cornerstone of U.S. health policy, while in parts of Asia, occupants are required to pass health scans to gain building entry. Health codes and requirements range from simple temperature checks to apps that track a full health evaluation and can reveal serious conditions. Health tracking can be invasive, the CRE experts explained, and poses significant concern about the collection of personal data. Building owners must balance health-safety with privacy at a time that lacks clear guidelines for information protection.

Marc Petock, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at Lynxspring, thinks air quality and filtration are of utmost importance. He calls for new systems that monitor building hygiene and tie into the building operating system. “At some point in the future, will our buildings be rated like we rate restaurants with an A or 100 rating? Are we going to have a COVID-19 or pandemic rating that buildings need to adhere to?”

Businesses are collaborating with health organizations to determine new standards for wellness, the panel said, and language for building ratings will develop as organizations determine which methodologies are most effective. Compared to sustainability guidelines, for example, there is more gray area in quantifying the data.

“There are a lot of lessons learned on the Asia front over the past 15 years that we're now deploying to Europe and the U.S.,” said Wallis. “We focus on health indexing, and what is just nice as an idea versus what's actually scalable and possible.”

“Ratings are only of value when they're dynamic and are able to respond and follow the actual operations of the building,” he continued. “A static rating has absolutely no value. A building system that's communicating this type of information should be like your fire alarm or sprinkler system. Eventually it's running the way it should and falls into the background.”

“When [the coronavirus pandemic] first hit, people were panicking,” Petock said. “But as we’ve weathered it, the dialogue has changed to recovery-readiness so we can start immediately and not drag this out for months.”

Powerful owner-tenant partnerships

Establishing trusted and sincere relationships will help everyone move toward reopening and re-entry. Building owners can empower tenants and work together to achieve the best outcomes. Continuous two-way communication allows tenants and occupants to share ideas, success strategies, and anonymous performance data. CRE leaders should have a steady pulse on occupant needs and suggestions the panel said.

“Learning doesn't have to just be from landlord to tenants,” Neff emphasized. “Knowledge is going to be a two-way street rather than giving tenants some magical checklist. Have those collaborative conversations early.”

Realcomm’s coronavirus coverage provides CRE insight and perspective on business continuity plans, cybersecurity and health-safety for commercial and corporate real estate. Check out the webinar series and articles in the Weekly Briefing.

Tina Danielsen, Sr. Writer, Realcomm
Tina Danielsen is a corporate writer, editor and business owner, specializing on the topics of technology and business management. She is a former executive in the printing industry, with an extensive background in sales management and marketing. Tina has over 25 years of experience in project management and professional outreach in multiple business environments.

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