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5 Ways CRE Pros are Altering Building Operations in Response to COVID-19

With the world scrambling to contain the spread of COVID-19, every industry is stepping up to do its part. As one of the largest purveyors of public space, the commercial real estate industry is critical to this effort. Prioritizing the health and safety of tenants and property staff while continuing to operate buildings efficiently may feel like a considerable challenge. Here are five things property teams are doing right now to meet this challenge. 

Ramping Up Communications with Tenants

Leading property companies know it’s important to communicate with tenants on a regular basis but now it’s more important than ever. With closures of everything from bars to gyms to movie theaters around the country, companies are increasingly sending employees home to work remotely full time. Property teams should proactively reach out to their tenants to understand their plans for the coming weeks or months. Armed with information about which tenants are still planning to use their space full time, on modified hours, or not at all, operators have the opportunity to save energy by running floors or potentially entire buildings as if they were vacant. Be sure to obtain tenant approval before modifying the HVAC schedule for their office spaces.

For tenants that still have employees coming and going, it is also important to communicate any changes in how your building operates, what the property team is doing to mitigate risk, and how tenants can help protect themselves and others. Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene near building entrances and in other common areas like elevators and bathrooms where they are likely to be seen.

Operating Buildings Under a “Holiday” Schedule

Many offices are advising their tenants that their buildings will be operating under a “holiday” schedule which can include modifying the availability of on-premise services, staff, and facilities, and requiring key cards or fobs for entry to the building or for use of elevators. A “holiday” schedule gives offices an opportunity to reduce HVAC services during unoccupied periods and can result in savings up to 35 - 40% of utility expenses.

A foolproof holiday schedule will include sufficient setbacks (e.g. unoccupied heating setpoint of 55F and unoccupied cooling setpoint of 85F). However, a modification to such a holiday schedule may be in order to provide additional ventilation to the space. Fortunately, many commercial buildings can take advantage of free cooling due to the mild weather. 

Bolstering Cleaning Efforts and Closing Common Areas

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance for businesses and employees to plan, prepare, and respond to COVID-19. Following its interim guidance may help prevent workplace exposures to acute respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, in non-healthcare settings. The guidance also provides planning considerations if there are more widespread, community outbreaks of COVID-19.

The CDC recommends routinely cleaning all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs and providing disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use. More information and resources are available on the CDC website.

Many property teams are also indefinitely shuttering common areas that attract larger gatherings such as gyms and limiting capacity in cafeterias and eateries. The main goal of this is to aid in social distancing but by verifying that all gyms and common areas are set to an unoccupied schedule, additional energy savings can be gained. Be sure not to overlook potentially overriding units feeding these areas, which will minimize waste.

Leveraging Technology such as Remote Monitoring and Remote Access to Work from Home

When possible, property teams are working from home to contribute to the nationwide efforts of social distancing. They are relying on or investing in software platforms to remotely monitor their buildings and equipment. Remote energy monitoring allows property teams to retain visibility into the inner workings of their buildings and be alerted of issues while decreasing their time on-site. While there will likely always be a need for at least one engineer on-site or nearby in case of emergency, teams are choosing to work in alternating shifts to reduce contact. 

Remaining Energy Conscious 

Guidelines from the CDC and OSHA that pertain to occupant and worker safety should always take precedence during this crisis, but here are some energy saving tips to consider:

  • For sites with tenants who may have closed their office or reduced staffing requirements, adjust for optimal scheduling of HVAC, lighting, and plug loads.
  • Use ventilation a few times per day to bring in fresh air and exhaust stale air. Use economizer modes and limit cooling when possible.
  • Holiday schedules need to have sufficient setbacks (e.g. unoccupied heating setpoint of 55F and unoccupied cooling setpoint of 85F). 
  • Use temperature setbacks instead of disabling equipment. When disabling equipment is required, confirm freeze protection is functional. 
  • Evaluate common areas and event spaces, make sure the set points are relaxed to minimum comfort levels. With the buildings likely to be unoccupied, the occasional occupants are expected to provide notice or be able to adjust their space as needed. 
  • When possible, have all non-emergency lighting circuits scheduled off. Allow tenants to manually override lighting schedules when necessary.
  • Verify chiller sequencing to make sure the appropriate chiller is running for your load and occupancy conditions. 
  • Consider rightsizing the number of open retail vendors in your buildings. For hotels with zone control valves, work closely with operations to place guests and tenants in areas such that equipment can be used to condition only occupied areas while relaxing unoccupied spaces. Consider placing guests in rooms on the same floor as it to minimize conditioning.  
  • Log into your remote monitoring platform to verify operations.