Developers, Architects Assess Workplace Strategies
Office building owners better brace themselves for possible multimillion-dollar facility upgradesif they’re going to successfully lure back health-conscious tenants after the pandemic crisis finally eases.
Despite a rocky start to the state and nation’s vaccine rollout, there’s growing confidence that the end is insight for the now year-old COVID-19 outbreak that’s forced unprecedented changes to the workforce, including the emergence of remote working that’s called into question just how much office space will be needed in the future.
Many landlords have already begun making upgrades to offices, both in Boston and surrounding suburbs,as lockdowns have been lifted, workplace capacity limits increased and the economy has gradually opened up.
But Janet Morra, a principal and partner at Margulies Perruzzi, an architectural design firm, said much morewill be required to make buildings “healthy and safe,” now that it appears a post-pandemic return to workmay be possible, perhaps by this coming fall.
“All the things we’ve been talking about over the past year have to be acted on,” Morra said of health-and-safety planning for office buildings. “And the time to act is now.”
Depending on the age of a building, office property owners will have to invest big bucks to prepare buildingsfor a post-pandemic world, from introducing new smart “touchless technologies” throughout buildings toinstalling new air filtration systems. Landlords may also have to provide new health clinics within buildings,revamp janitorial cleaning schedules, install new ultraviolet (UV) lighting to fight bacteria, upgrade elevatorsystems and improve access to outdoor spaces.
How much will this cost?
“It all ranges,” said Douglas Gensler, co-managing director and principal at Gensler, a multi-disciplinarydesign firm. “It could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or the millions of dollars, depending on howdeep you want to get. We’re trying to make all these changes fit into costs.”
New Buildings Better Positioned
Most sources agree that newer buildings, with their more modern electrical, plumbing and heating-and-air systems, are in better position to adapt than older buildings. And most predict that new buildings either under construction or set to start construction are in even better shape.
“Fortunately, we had the opportunity to make adjustments,” said Tom O’Brien, head of HYM InvestmentGroup, developer of the new 600-foot tall One Congress tower, part of the giant Bulfinch Crossing project next to Boston’s Haymarket MBTA station.
Construction of One Congress, half of which will be occupied by State Street Corp. when it’s delivered in early 2023, was already under way when the pandemic hit, but HYM still had time to tweak its designs to accommodate expected post-COVID-19 demands from tenants, O’Brien said.
Some of those changes had to do with new touchless technologies for elevators, or the ability to use cellphones to dispatch elevators to and from different floors, O’Brien said.
Building developers and designers view these touchless technologies – which are controlled via phone apps specific to individual buildings – as critical to the future of “smart buildings.”
Besides control over elevators, the apps are expected to allow health-conscious people to open security turnstiles and doors without touching anything other than their phones. Using the apps, employees will alsobe able to reserve conference rooms within offices or even reserve tables at in-building restaurants.
COVID-19 as Catalyst for Retrofits
Sara Ross, an associate principal and director of corporate services at Dyer Brown, an architectural firm, said many of the touchless technologies existed before the coronavirus crisis.
“But COVID-19 has been a real catalyst” for their widespread installation in office buildings, she said.
Another big upgrade many facility owners face is improving the so-called “MERV” levels of air-filtration systems in buildings – or improving the efficiency of air-filtration equipment to reduce contaminants in the air, usually by more frequently recirculating air within buildings.
A typical office building has a MERV level of around 8, or recirculating indoor air about once or twice an hour, O’Brien said. But One Congress will now have a MERV 15 air-filtration system, meaning air will be recirculated about four times an hour.
Other steps office-building owners are expected to take to prepare buildings: installation of hand sanitizer stations in offices, more partitions in office areas and more UV lighting throughout facilities and other measures.
Hybrid Workplaces Could Be Here to Stay
Tenants are going to need reassurances that buildings are healthy and safe. According to Liz Berthelette, research director at Newmark Knight Frank, there is now 3.6 million square feet of downtown Boston sublease office space on the market today, up from 1.4 million square feet before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, there’s now 3.8 million square feet of sublease office space on the market in Boston’s suburbs– and most executives expect those numbers to rise in coming months. The reason: Most tenants will
probably stick to some form of “hybrid workplaces” moving forward – with some employees working in offices and others working remotely – will thus need less space.
Ultimately, the number of employees working in office settings, and working remotely, will be determined by corporate tenants. But most tenants don’t even know how much space they’ll need until things settle down after the pandemic crisis passes. Only then will they get an idea of their true office needs – and how to redesign future offices.
Some of the questions both tenants and office-building owners are now asking about the post-pandemic world: How many office desks and workstations will be required in the future? Will there be shared desks?How far apart will be desks? Will there be partitions? Will there be more or fewer meeting and conference rooms?
“No one really knows how much space will be needed,” said Margulies Perruzzi’s Morra. “It’s anyone’s guess. This is all new. There’s going to be a lot of experimentation.”
As the workplace dust settles, Morra said she expects office-building owners, as well as corporate tenants, to start measuring and touting the health-and-safety standards of individual facilities, possibly using therelatively new “WELL Health-Safety Rating” system, similar to the well-known LEED rating system that measures the sustainability levels of facilities.
“I think it’s going to gain traction,” Morra said of the WELL Health-Safety Rating system. “Many employers are definitely looking for ways to get employees back into buildings. This may be one of the ways.”