Can Engineers Tune Properties for Safety & Equity in a Post-Covid Context?

In Brief

Buildings can serve as the locus of improvement in energy use, air quality and health-promoting ventilation. The array of landlords anxious to fill properties after Covid also makes buildings a magnet for investment. 

Can building upgrades that address air quality also foster efficiency and energy justice? It's a dynamic question that we'll examine more in coming issues. 

Building-services companies know, in any event, that whatever tune-ups they give buildings now will have to true up to the challenges of resilience, sustainability and occupant health. This article lays out some key considerations. 

Empty office floor, full of possibilities?

Retrofitting buildings after Covid-19 emptied many commercial properties can boost efficiency and sustainability- but doing so will take coordination, patience and strategy. 

Investments in efficient energy systems can save millions for every diligent manufacturer, tenant and landlord.  They can also drive down carbon emissions, helping states reach clean-energy targets. They can help lower energy costs and with them energy bills, which can help resuscitate urban property markets. And they can coincide with investments in air quality, which can save lives. These benefits flow if investors place their capital with care and foresight into systems that clean indoor air while lowering carbon. Given those bonafides, shouldn’t large landlords and tenants think hard about ways to commit to those systems? 

They are thikning, according to speakers at a Climate Week NYC webinar on September 23- though they’re couching it in terms of coaxing office workers back after Covid. 

Climate Week consists of hundreds of events, this year all virtual, at which companies and partnerships often guide each other to bolder carbon-cutting promises. Speaking in the second half of an energy-efficiency showcase, executives from building-systems servicers Johnson Controls and Trane Technologies set out the three pegs to advancing energy efficiency after Covid.  They described the need to lure anxious workers back to offices, the imperative to serve the millions who keep working from home, and the obligation to keep cutting fossil fuel output everywhere. “We are shifting the home from a place where you spend 50 percent of your time, mainly for sleeping, to a place where you spend 80 percent of your time,” said Rasha Hasaneen, vice president -product management excellence & innovation for Trane. “We need to do that without increasing energy use, and we need to be in a position where people can take public transit.” (Hasaneen will run Trane's new Center for Healthy and Efficient Spaces, a cross-cutting advocacy and product-development shop that the firm announced September 2.) 

 The context for their remarks flowed in two directions. They were joining Climate Week NYC, a series of hundreds of events that climate-forward organizations time in sync with the United Nations General Assembly, against an American election that pits a climate denier against a career politician who is now centering his campaign on sustainability. They were also talking about plans to upgrade air quality as members of a panel on methods for saving carbon through increasing energy efficiency.  Instinctively, this overlap makes sense. Making air quality higher in buildings should coincide with making those buildings waste less fossil fuel. In practice, professionals have some innovating yet to do  in connecting measures to lift tenant confidence with commitments to clean energy. 

In practice, overlaps can slip away. It’s not clear that enhancements to building systems, though, suppress transmission as much as ventilation does.  Consultant Peter Yost, who serves as the Green Building Alliance’s technical director (and teaches at the Yale School of the Environment, a cosponsor of this publication), blogged in March about the link from building materials to viral transmission. Quoting his brother Nathan, a retired physicist, Yost emphasizes that building materials don’t provide environments on which viruses can really thrive. 

“Building science and design can play an important role in reducing infections caused by COVID-19, influenza and many viruses,” Yost quotes his brother as saying. “[These include] reducing the number of surfaces that people touch and installing easy to clean surfaces that people will touch frequently. Think hand rails, door knobs, light switches.” 

In the webinar, though, Hasaneen and Mark Lessans from competitor Johnson Controls spoke to the idea that building systems could both entice and meaningfully protect tenants in office buildings. Lessans, Johnson Controls’ director of regulatory and environmental affairs, set out the charge in terms of repopulating offices. But he spoke in tune with the physicist Yost when he underlined that investors and landlords would be wise to look at a range of conditions. 

“The challenge now is to provide needed levels of indoor air quality  in response to changing environmental conditions and control cost,” he said, and cited complicating factors such as dirty outdoor air or wintertime conditions. “The system needs to be optimized as well as flexible.” 

In that context, since energy efficiency improvements  set free other benefits, the building sector may want and need to bundle those improvements with measures to clean indoor air.  In that spirit, Peter Yost said in an interview, ventilation strategies may bring stronger anti-viral results than mechanical strategies. These can be as simple as opening windows and installing sensors to detect how crowded a room is.  Strategies like these can interlock with strategies to lower toxins and costs. 

Greg Hale, an advisor to New York governor Andrew Cuomo and another panelist on the webinar, made the case for these comprehensive approaches. “The important measure is getting at increased value and including that in the value proposition,” he said. “The goal would involve doing comprehensive projects that improve health and safety.” That improvement can play out across a range of hazards, he said, from making a building more habitable after a natural disaster to making it less likely to aggravate asthma and concurrent public-health costs. 

In that context, the air-quality investments that many participants may discuss in coming months form part of a rational post-Covid investment strategy- but only the beginning. 

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