One unanticipated outcome of the COVID-19 crisis has been the reduction in air pollution as the world entered a phased lockdown. Air quality, once a backseat concern for many occupiers and landlords, has been pushed to the top of the priority list. The installation of the right technology can go a long way in creating healthy environments and putting occupiers’ minds at rest – not only now, but in the long term.
Rather than being swept away by the immediate concern of managing a public health crisis, the climate crisis has remained firmly at the forefront of people’s minds during this time. Seeing images from across the world of views not seen in decades, such as fish swimming in Venice’s canals, will stay with us.
Of course, a ferocious global pandemic is not how we want to achieve these outcomes. It is therefore crucial that the lessons learnt from this period are not lost. The reaction from the government and the industry to change people’s behaviours, for example, is a model for long-term change. Coupled with technological change, it will be vital in fighting the climate crisis.
Air pollution continues to be a silent killer contributing to a range of underlying health conditions. When we come back to the office, I expect occupiers will have a better understanding than ever before of what is at stake when we talk about indoor air quality and the impact that air handling systems can have on our health.
With few exceptions, commercial buildings have not been designed to keep their occupants healthy, nor have they really been truly responsive to their occupancy levels. But the current situation presents a chance to make this a positive and achievable goal. In a similar way to online retail, we need to start adapting our approach to what is in demand and listening to feedback.
Sensors have proven to be an efficient and cost-effective way to do so in new and existing buildings alike. If set up and integrated correctly, they can provide a reliable signal of occupancy to the ventilation control system in real time, and optimise the supply of fresh air. These sensors can also report on a range of air quality and comfort parameters including humidity, which is key in controlling disease transmission.
As we return to the workplace, the focus will be on increasing the delivery of outside air and making sure there is adequate filtration of the inside air. Now is the time to introduce technologies that can help us properly control ventilation systems so that buildings operate at maximum efficiency even with reduced occupancy.
As air supply can be one of the biggest contributors to energy use, extensive research on a system-by-system basis is a must to strike the right balance between improved internal environments and saving operational costs.
What does this mean for the future of the commercial property industry? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are big changes to the way buildings are designed, built and operated. Newly built assets are going to be judged on their indoor air quality, and it is not hard to imagine that healthcare professionals will be more involved in the design of assets and the services within them. The choice of materials will also be impacted, and there will be more sophisticated ways to specify the most sustainable choice for new properties.
The inclusion of wellbeing aspects as key features in a property will also help an asset in its resilience. In the coming weeks we will see how those with ample bike racks and showers, for example, are better placed to welcome back workers than those without.
Installing technology that has long-term use, or is multipurpose, will ensure the property can adapt in future.
Initial evidence shows a link between high air pollution levels and the number of COVID-19 cases. It is important that in the case of a second wave, as well as on the path to recovery, we do not end up dropping the lessons learnt and keep air quality and sustainable solutions in mind.
This column first appeared in EG.