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

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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