NYC landlords move to help tenants breath easier in post-COVID office

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The May edition of the BOMA New York virtual Lunch &
Learn webinar series delivered a look at one of the most influential issues
that will shape the post-COVID workplace – indoor air quality – aka IAQ.

BOMA New York’s guest experts were Michael Aisner, SVP of Property Management for RXR Realty; and Edward Einhaus, Head of Northeast Operations at iES MACH, a leading building technology firm. Aisner set the stage with a quote: “COVID opened the eyes of the world to IAQ.”

EDWARD EINHAUS

Einhaus said that prior to the pandemic, “Landlords, maybe,
tested their IAQ twice a year. They checked the box and got a letter that they
could show to their tenants.”

Today, of course, that has changed for the better. Aisner,
whose firm adopted a real-time holistic management approach to healthy
buildings and sustainability across their entire portfolio even before the
COVID pandemic, said, “What should a good landlord do? Get responsible about
understanding IAQ and take a holistic view. In order to create a protected
environment, you need to understand the variables that drive wellness.”

According to Einhaus, the three most important metrics
involving IAQ are levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which measure how effectively
occupied space is ventilated; particulate matter, or particulates, which
measure the effectiveness of HVAC filtration; and volatile organic compounds
(VOCs), which measure contaminants that result from new furniture, new carpet,
and certain paints and cleaning products.

Unfortunately, there is no way to measure exposure levels to
viruses like COVID-19. Per Einhaus, there are no devices on the market to
directly measure for COVID.  The best way
to provide a protected environment is to monitor IAQ and continue to follow the
CDC guidelines.

Aisner described his introduction to IAQ that happened 15
years ago, as a property manager. He said, “A tenant wanted an independent IAQ
survey of their space. When I investigated it, I was told to do it after hours.
There would be people coming in wearing hazmat suits.” He added, “A few years
ago when I was introduced to a new technology that could provide real time IAQ
data to tenants, my kneejerk reaction was, No thanks!” But the market has
evolved quickly and today, he says, property owners “. . . must re-calibrate to
a new reality, and we, as landlords, should be proactive. If there really is an
issue, let us know about it immediately so that we can address it.”

According to both experts, the new IAQ reality triggered by
the pandemic also offers an opportunity for proactive landlords to “show off
and let your tenants know you have a healthy building.” Einhaus said, “How do
we get people back into the office and assure them it is safe?” Aisner added,
“One of the business drivers are our tenants, and they are asking, ‘How do we
know our air is safe?’”

To answer those inevitable questions, both presenters agreed
that an investment in real-time IAQ monitoring equipment would be well worth
the expense. Internet-connected IAQ monitoring systems, like WellStat, provide
IAQ information in real time. This hard data can be used to inform tenants who
already know that “the better the IAQ, the more productive the workers.  And the more productive the occupants are,
the happier our tenants will be.” Aisner said, with a smile, “This will lead to
our favorite thing in property management — lease renewals!” Indeed, he added,
IAQ has progressed from a “property differentiator to a must-have.”

Both presenters agreed that an overarching goal is to use
real-time IAQ data to predict trends and outcomes of property management
actions that have an impact on IAQ. RXR’s monitoring app, for example, has
produced data that allows the building owner to accurately predict the VOC
impact of painting and carpet installation. Even before starting projects, RXR
will know how the work will impact air quality; how long that VOC “spike” will
last, and how to best ameliorate its effects.

The next step, according to Einhaus, is “ formulating a
capital plan that is focused on managing both the IAQ trends and the associated
energy spend.” He said, “When you’re looking at optimizing CO2, the main driver
is the amount of energy used to condition the incoming outside air. You will
spend more to ventilate more.” The presenters said that knowledge is power.
Having the ability to measure IAQ generates the information to manage costs. As
Aisner said, “You can optimize your building to reduce energy and to operate
efficiently while still maintaining high level of IAQ.” Einhaus said, “We can
get smarter about operational procedures and take advantage of dynamic
setpoints once armed with data from our building systems and WellStats.”

For instance, COVID risk could be hedged by maintaining
40-60% relative humidity of an indoor space. Or, he said, “Higher levels of CO2
indicate the need for more outside air.” Higher levels of particulates would
indicate the need for a MERV 13 filtration system, or the need to replace these
filters.

Einhaus offered this quick “how to” when thinking about IAQ monitoring: To establish a baseline, measure the IAQ at the inlet for outside air. Then, measure the “supply air,” that is, the air that is heated, cooled, filtered, cleaned, and delivered to the tenant space. Then, and most importantly, he said, measure the “return air.” Einhaus, whose company outfitted all RXR’s 25-plus million square feet of office space with over 1,200 sensors, said that return air – usually measured on a floor-by-floor basis, is “where the metrics matter.” He said, “This is where your tenants are sitting. It is one thing to hear about the weather, but people want the ‘real feel.’ Locate the area. Locate the return air and plug in a monitor with wireless connectivity to the internet.”

MICHAEL AISNER

Aisner said that real-time IAQ monitoring can both reassure
tenants that they are working in optimal conditions and allay tenant fears and
complaints about workers’ illnesses and unpleasant odors from painting and
other improvement projects. He said that WellStat’s smartphone app will display
real-time IAQ measurements for the tenant within the workspace. If, for
example, a worker has a headache, the app can present hard data that their air
quality is fine.

In conclusion, Aisner said he was fond of the expression,
often used in property management, about “the shoemaker’s kids.” He said, the
adage “the shoemaker’s kids are the last ones to get new shoes,” relates
directly to workplace IAQ. “Our office buildings are maintained by highly
skilled engineering teams that implement detailed preventative maintenance
programs.  How many people on this
webinar are thinking to yourselves right now when is the last time you changed
the filter on your home HVAC unit?  The
fact is, the IAQ in your home probably isn’t as good as your IAQ at the office.
We all need our tenants to come back, and a major factor for that comeback will
be helping tenants feel comfortable in their office.”

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