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We’re finally getting a glimpse of what the COVID-safe skyscraper will look like

February 22, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

When coronavirus-induced lockdowns first began nearly a year ago, millions of Americans were forced to abandon their morning commutes, pack up their offices, and begin working from home. 

Not much has changed since. A December study from Pew Research Center found that 71% of workers who reported that their job responsibilities can mainly be done from home were still working from home “all or most of the time.” And of that same group, 54% reported that they would want to continue working from home even after the pandemic ends, according to the study. 

For building developers across the country, this posed a distinct challenge: How do you make a sealed, double-digit tower serviced by elevators attractive to workers again? How do you convince millions of Americans so used to working from their pajamas that it’s time to get back on that morning subway and return to the office?

“A lot of these improvements have gone from being nice to have before the pandemic, to things our buildings now must have because of the pandemic,” said Paul Teti, senior vice president of leasing and asset management at Columbia Property Trust in New York City.

Things nobody ever wants to touch again

Many developers are starting small—microscopically small. After all, the legions of germs that could conceivably pile up during a given day in the office are enough to keep anyone set on working from home forever. 

To make matters worse, it’s no longer just the average, everyday filth emanating from the guy at the next cubicle down that’s cause for concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”

At heavily populated indoor office buildings, this presents a legitimate concern to workers frequently touching things like door handles, light switches, and bathroom sinks or toilets.

This is why many new buildings, like Zero Irving in New York City, will soon feature entirely touchless experiences for employees, from the street to their desk.

Developed by RAL Companies & Affiliates, Zero Irving (pictured below) is set to open later this year. The building is equipped with state-of-the-art touchless technology that will allow tenants to enter the building using an app on their phones. The app will open the building’s electric revolving doors, get tenants through security turnstiles automatically, and arrive at their floor through elevators equipped with destination dispatch—all without touching a thing. 

Covid Office Building-Zero Irving-featured
Zero Irving is equipped with state-of-the-art, touchless technology that will allow tenants to enter the building using an app on their phones.
Courtesy of RAL Reps

“It’s a completely touchless experience for visitors to the building,” said Spencer Levine, president of RAL Companies. “Not only is this great for public health, but it also aids in the efficiency of how the building operates.”

And the touchless experience won’t just be limited to entrances. At 799 Broadway, a new office building developed by Columbia Property Trust (CXP), all lighting fixtures and bathroom doors, sinks, and toilets will be entirely touchless, on top of the destination dispatch elevators. 

“We’re trying to create the best, healthiest, and safest environment to give people the confidence to know that when they come back to the office, it’ll be safe,” Teti said.

An emphasis on air quality

Because the coronavirus is easily transmitted through the air, improving the quality of a building’s air through new ventilation and HVAC systems is another major area of redevelopment in many new and existing buildings.

“In response to the pandemic, we enhanced our indoor air quality at all of our buildings by adding MERV 13 filters and a technology called bipolar ionization,” said Steve Trapp, senior vice president of construction and development at CXP. 

According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), using “combinations of filters and air cleaners that achieve MERV 13 or better levels of performance for air recirculated by HVAC systems” is a core recommendation for reducing exposure to airborne infectious diseases.

At Zero Irving, HVAC systems are isolated by floor, ensuring that air isn’t circulating with that of other floors. Tenants at Zero Irving also have the ability to upgrade their air ventilation systems themselves, providing them the option to install high-grade MERV filters or bipolar ionization systems, according to Levine. 

“We also have new air quality monitoring stations on every floor,” Levine said. “This allows for real-time monitoring of the indoor air quality in all of the building’s common spaces.” 

Many believe that in a post-COVID world, monitoring indoor air quality in public spaces may become commonplace.

“We feel like indoor air quality measurements are the types of measurements that will be displayed everywhere in commercial property going forward, just the same way we look at the weather,” said Julie Goudie, communications manager at Sterling Bay, a major developer in Chicago. 

Sterling Bay recently became the first property owner in Chicago to be certified by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) as having achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating at a portfolio level. The new WELL rating system, developed in response to the pandemic, assesses the ability of a commercial property in reducing the risk of virus transmission and preparing for a safe return-to-office experience.

Terraces on every floor

Implementing outdoor spaces is another key way to limit the spread of the coronavirus in office buildings. The virus is far less transmittable outside, and developers say the addition of outdoor community spaces is a key component of the new focus on wellness in a tenant’s office experience.

At 799 Broadway, outdoor spaces were a key component of the building’s redevelopment plans, which include “terraces on nearly every floor,” according to Trapp. 

“From the moment you enter the building, you are greeted with an outdoor garden immediately behind our lobby desk,” said Teti. “Between access to the outdoors and a lot of natural light, it’s something we’ve truly integrated [into the building].” 

Covid Office Building-141-Willoughby
A rendering of 141 Willoughby Street in Brooklyn. The space is designed to include 10% outdoor air in its ventilation—a 77% increase of the outdoor air code in New York City.
Courtesy of Savanna

At 141 Willoughby Street in Brooklyn (pictured above), increasing the amount of outdoor air is a key aspect of the building’s development plans. Developed by Savanna, an integrated real estate investment managing firm, 141 Willoughby was designed to include 10% outdoor air in its ventilation, a 77% increase of the outdoor air code in New York City. 

“In addition to the increased level of outside air throughout the building, tenants will be able to further increase their outside air for a total of 40%+ outside air at their option through dedicated louver systems provided to each tenant floor,” said Cooper Kramer, Managing Director at Savanna. 

The new normal

Developers say they know they have a long way to go in convincing the majority of Americans that returning to the office will be a safe experience—and improvements come at a cost. 

Asking rents at Zero Irving are currently in the low triple digits per square foot, placing it at the higher end when compared to other available office spaces in the area. When it opens later this year, the building’s second through seventh floors will be occupied by a digital skills training center and tech accelerator, while floors eight through 21 are currently being pitched to like-minded tech-focused companies.

While these improvements may cost tenants more, developers say it’s the price of doing business in a post-COVID world in which Americans are prioritizing public health.

“What’s really resonating with people,” Teti said, “is the approach to design that suggests that you’re really thinking about every employee’s experience as they inhabit the building.”

“There’s definitely a new normal,” said Peter Rosenthal, director of development and chief sustainability officer at Savanna. “The pandemic has quickened the pace of the adoption of these technologies. Moving forward, as new buildings are getting designed and built, I’d be very surprised if any of the new innovations were not included.” 

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