Commercial Strategies to Combat COVID-19 Spread in Buildings

April 1, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a wide range of issues for commercial real estate. Building managers and owners should consider reviewing their operational strategies in light of the virus, experts said during an Urban Land Institute webinar last week, before many areas of the country issued or extended shelter-in-place orders.

Catherine L. Troisi, associate professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, discussed some of the unknowns in the trajectory of the coronavirus that point to the need for long-term vigilance. “Most respiratory conditions subside in warmer weather. Even if this virus does significantly decrease, would it return in the fall?” Troisi said. “How long do we need to do physical distancing? Two weeks is probably not long enough.”

Places matter, especially buildings, given that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, said Whitney Austin Gray, senior vice president at the International WELL Building Institute. “It’s difficult to tell if buildings are healthy without third-party verification. The invisibles of water and air need to be made visible through performance testing.”

Gray also emphasized the role of prevention. “It’s important to increase ventilation—open windows if possible. Turn off air recirculation. Consider how units and components of HVAC and filtration systems are cleaned and disinfected. Keep the humidity above 30%.”

Susan Bazak, principal of Bazak Consulting, recommended incorporating three key areas in building planning:

  1. People, including tenants and staff. Encourage sick people to stay home, practice appropriate etiquette, use cleaning protocols, and follow travel guidance. Employees who have a sick family member should inform the employer, who should keep the information confidential. Revisit your HR policy.
  2. Communication based on best practices. Pitfalls include mixed messaging, getting information out late, and failing to counter rumors. “Look at who your audiences are and what the communication modalities are,” Bazak said. “Use credible sources of information, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.”
  3. Continuation of essential business. Think about how your business can adapt to long-term challenges in its supply chain and transportation. How will you deal with shortages?

“Certain factors—including increased trade and travel, deforestation, climate change—are pushing us into a new era of viruses,” Bazak says. “We need to include growing risk in our planning and work toward resilience.”