CHICAGO — There’s an invisible obstacle to reviving the economy from the coronavirus pandemic.
Potential transmission of the virus through air conditioning and heating systems is the latest issue employers and building owners are focusing on as they prepare for more people to head back to office towers and other non-residential buildings, whether they’re office workers or school teachers and students.
Research on the coronavirus continues to evolve, and there’s no clear consensus from public health agencies on how great the threat of airborne illness is compared with close personal contact. The World Health Organization only recently acknowledged the potential for airborne transmission.
As a precaution, some building owners are making big investments toward cleaner air. Changes to heating and cooling systems are being made late in construction or soon after a building’s completion.
The pandemic is speeding up the adoption of touchless technologies and fancy air purifying systems, moving air quality from an obscure and unseen issue to one that big corporations and their employees want to know more about. One office building owner recently received six pages of questions related to air quality from a tenant, demonstrating how the issue could become a key factor when companies consider where to lease space.
“There is great concern,” said Sean McCrady of UL, a global safety certification company based in Northbrook, Ill. “We get questions over and over about how to navigate this.”
“What we tell people is, you can’t put a force field around your property,” said McCrady, the national service line manager for indoor environmental quality. “You have to know what you can control and what you can’t.”
Efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 primarily have focused on cleaning hands and surfaces, wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet of distance to prevent exposure to large droplets from an infected person’s mouth or nose.
Unlike large droplets, which fall to the ground within a few feet, scientists believe smaller droplets can linger in the air and within indoor ventilation systems.
More than 200 scientists earlier this month signed an open letter warning that public health agencies such as the WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control were ignoring the potential risk of the virus spreading through air circulating indoors.
The WHO responded by updating its guidance to acknowledge the possibility of airborne transmission of COVID-19.
“I think improving ventilation and improving air cleaning is one of the few lines of defense that we have,” said Brent Stephens, an engineering professor and chair of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Department of Civil Engineering, who signed the open letter.
“I don’t think we really have a good sense of how important it is,” said Stephens, who specializes in air quality in buildings. “We’re still learning.”
There are several ways to improve air flow and quality, but many virus-fighting technologies are relatively new and difficult to research, experts say.
Costly changes to HVAC systems also can create a false sense of security, said Raj Gupta, executive chairman of ESD, a Chicago-based engineering firm.
Gupta said companies first should focus on three primary goals before addressing air quality: keeping sick people out of their space; enforcing distancing and mask-wearing; and emphasizing cleaning and hygiene.
“It’s important to realize that if we want to throw money at filters and everything, it’s not going to matter if we don’t do those first three things,” Gupta said. “People should not rely on it as a quick fix.”
Ways to improve air quality include humidity control, boosting the amount of outside air flowing into buildings, improving ventilation in areas such as bathrooms and cafeterias, and upgrading air filters to capture smaller particles.
There also are technologies such as ultraviolet light in air ducts, and filtration systems such as bipolar ionization and non-thermal plasma to help capture contaminants.
All add to the cost of building or maintaining a property, and much of the technology still requires more testing, experts say.
“It’s a bit of a wild west landscape out there when it comes to air cleaning,” said IIT’s Stephens. “You don’t know whether you’re buying snake oil or what. It’s buyer beware for building engineers. They need to do their due diligence.”
That includes evaluating the cost, said Sudesh Saraf, of architecture firm Wight & Co., who leads the firm’s engineering group that focuses on mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
Wight recently invested about $45,000 to add bipolar ionization systems and other improvements in its Darien and downtown Chicago offices, Saraf said.
The firm’s clients include several schools and municipal buildings, as well as private-sector clients. All of them are trying to weather the financial impacts of the pandemic.
“This thing has hit our clients at a time when they can ill afford it, from a money standpoint,” Saraf said.
Riverside Investment & Development, a developer of some of Chicago’s highest-rent office towers, said it has received far more questions about air quality from tenants and prospective tenants in recent months than it ever did before the pandemic.
One tenant submitted six pages of questions, according to Riverside. In response to COVID-19, the firm is making more than $1 million in upgrades to air flow in the trophy office tower at 150 N. Riverside Plaza, a building completed in 2017.
Riverside also is bolstering its ventilation systems at the nearly completed Bank of America Tower, and in the recently begun BMO Tower next to Union Station, according to CEO John O’Donnell.
The developer is working with ESD and a spinoff of the company, smart-building technology firm Cohesion, to improve air flow and quality and limit high-touch areas. Using an app, tenants at 150 N. Riverside soon will be able to view measurements of pollutants in the building. The app will show readouts for several aspects of air quality, ranging from specific toxins in the air to ventilation and humidity levels, within a particular floor or room.
“In the post-COVID world, transparency is going to be key,” ESD’s Gupta said.
Cohesion expects its growth to come in part from increased demand for technology in buildings because of COVID-19. The firm recently announced $6.5 million in seed funding from investors including Hyde Park Angels, Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin and GCM Grosvenor CEO and Chairman Michael Sacks.
Cohesion in May conducted a study of more than 1,300 workers throughout the country, mostly in office buildings.
After working from home, 65% of respondents said they wanted to return to their office sooner rather than later, while just 8% hoped to continue remote working indefinitely.
Only 20% of the workers surveyed said they thought regularly about air quality or the overall health of people in their building before the pandemic, but more than 80% said they expected to do so in the future.
Protecting and reassuring office tenants will be one of the biggest tests for office landlords since the 2001 terrorist attacks stoked fears of working in skyscrapers and led to extensive security measures, said Chicago real estate veteran Bob Wislow.
“This is a really big challenge, just like Sept. 11 was a challenge for tall buildings,” Wislow said. “We learned how to secure and manage those buildings in a way that regained the trust of the public. As an industry, we have to work our tails off to regain everyone’s confidence during a pandemic. And I think the real estate industry is doing that.”
Wislow is chairman of Parkside Realty, developer of the 12-story Fulton East office building in the Fulton Market district. The building, which has yet to sign tenants, will be completed in August after making changes in response to the pandemic, including adding non-thermal plasma air cleaning units throughout the property, Wislow said. In such systems, ions attach themselves to pathogens, making them larger and easier to capture and kill.
Other changes included adding elevators that can be operated by foot, rather than by touching buttons with hands. Wislow also is an owner of the space leased to the Chicago French Market within Ogilvie Transportation Center, where two wall-mounted non-thermal plasma units have been installed.
Another boutique office building, the 20-story structure at 145 S. Wells St., which opened last year, is being upgraded with an ionization and air purification system in response to the pandemic, according to developer Moceri + Roszak. The firm is installing the same system into the 26-story Parkline Chicago condo and apartment tower, which will open next year near Millennium Park, according to principal Tom Roszak.
“The healthy building idea is going to be prevalent for everybody,” Roszak said. “I think you have to have this.”
Air cleaning also is likely to be emphasized in other types of real estate, such as hotels and retail.
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that state regulators would require large shopping malls to have air filters that can trap the virus particles.
James McHugh Construction Co. expects to see more hotel projects designed with outside air flowing directly into each unit, said McHugh executive vice president John Sheridan. “Post-COVID, you’ll see more and more developers pay that extra dollar per square foot to bring air directly to the unit,” he said.
The extra duct work could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of a high-rise, but such expenses may be part of doing business in 2020 and beyond.
“A lot of it is just giving people comfort that you’re doing everything you can,” said Riverside’s O’Donnell. “This particular virus will go away, but there may be mutations or other pandemics. I think this will continue to be on people’s minds, and we’re committed to keep adapting.”