As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to change, it has become clear that the traditional office is not dead. However, its use continues to rapidly evolve. Today’s “new normal” encompasses a hybrid work environment with many companies focused on collaboration and a customizable employee experience.
Building owners and facility managers play a key role in creating an environment that invites employees to return by creating healthy and comfortable buildings that are centered around occupant wellbeing.
The pandemic has magnified the importance of wellness and the connection buildings have to human health. The Harvard School of Public Health has identified nine key pillars of healthy commercial buildings, and it’s no surprise that ventilation, air quality, thermal health and moisture make up half of the matrix. This research, coupled with the launch of the EPA Clean Air in Buildings Challenge earlier this year, makes HVAC performance more important than ever before.
The design, installation, operation and maintenance of a building’s HVAC and ventilation systems can not only impact comfort but optimize it for improved health. Having the right systems in place is a crucial first step to establishing building performance and supporting occupant well-being. A clean air strategy is anchored in an HVAC system that can provide several of these critical features:
Fresh air is key to a healthy indoor environment. Modifying an existing HVAC system, such as an air handler or packaged rooftop unit with outside air dampers, can be used to increase fresh airflow. In larger capacity situations, the addition of a dedicated outdoor air system may be required to meet the building’s ventilation needs. Duct sizing and configuration should also be evaluated to determine if the system capacity and air-flow paths are adequate.
Properly treating both outdoor and recirculated air is required to eliminate pollutants and irritants. HEPA and MERV 13-16 filters mechanically remove particles from the air to improve IAQ levels.
Maintaining optimal space temperature and humidity levels not only provides a more comfortable workplace, but it also works to destabilize pathogen transmission and prevent mold and mildew growth within the system and throughout the building. Ideal space relative humidity should remain between 30-60% to minimize the risks of virus transmission and mold growth and maintain occupant comfort.
When recirculated air is present, UV-C disinfecting lights applied in air handling systems can be used to create a healthier environment. Effective for both surface cleaning and air cleaning, UV-C systems help eliminate fungus and mold that may form on an HVAC system’s coils as well as reduce and deactivate any airborne viruses or bacteria not captured by filtration.
System performance and building environment data can be used to inform decisions that promote safety, productivity and occupant satisfaction. This can be further advanced through the concept of people-first technology in which building data is made transparently available to all occupants.
The situation also presents an opportunity to harness digital technology that allows building owners and managers to reshape every area of the office into a healthy space that maximizes the potential and productivity of their most important assets: their people.
Empowering employees to access building information via a smartphone can allow individuals to identify an ideal area to hold a meeting or do personal work based on their unique needs. For example, a person sensitive to allergens could book a room based on air quality reports, or a hybrid worker could access real-time occupancy information to reserve a hot desk and then use foot traffic data to route a path to their workstation that avoids crowded areas.
Touchless entry and building navigation via smartphone or key fob further help to limit the spread of germs and reduce unnecessary traffic and contact throughout buildings.
Creating a thriving building environment means all employees must feel comfortable and unburdened by environmental imbalances such as ambient temperature, air quality and sound—all of which can hinder cognitive function, including sociability, attention span and mood.
Because comfort preferences are unique to biological and neurological makeup, an individualized approach often yields the highest level of satisfaction. Specific zones can be used to establish areas based on employee personas and activities conducted within each space. Empowering occupants to adjust and inform building controls within these zones can produce improved employee performance and satisfaction.
HVAC systems engineered with multiple or modulating cooling stages and multispeed fans work to fine-tune temperature and humidity criteria. Variable air volume (VAV) controls can be used to create climate zones throughout the building based on airflow paths and ductwork configurations to improve comfort and reduce equipment noise.
Using a variable frequency drive (VFD) with a variable airflow fan prevents wide temperature swings to maintain a consistent comfort level within each zone. In an open work environment, employees can then choose to work from the zone that aligns with their personal preferences, thus improving the overall healthy working experience.
The addition of an economizer increases fresh air intake to optimize ventilation levels while offsetting heating and cooling demands. For higher ventilation demands, the addition of a dedicated outdoor air system can be used to provide the space with the required fresh air without impacting occupant comfort. Employee comfort can be further refined using building technologies to allow occupants to request ideal temperature ranges through a voting feature within an app that uses an algorithm to establish optimum settings based on the aggregated results.
This approach to zoning can also incorporate adjustments to natural and ambient lighting levels or functional noise control features such as sound dampening curtains that can be operated by individuals as they use various spaces within the building.
Convenience and Collaboration
Humans by nature are social creatures, although individual needs vary greatly. Designing a flexible work environment where employees are free to move between solo and group work fosters collaboration without neglecting individual abilities and preferences. Configurations must be adaptable to support hybrid, on-site and fully remote workers.
With continuous transformation at the forefront, the agile office space requires management. Smart-device apps and centralized kiosks offer a convenient solution that can provide seamless room booking, in-building traffic monitoring and navigation, calendar syncing, company-wide communication alerts, technical assistance, and keyless/touchless building access and navigation. Additionally, occupant feedback can be submitted via email or mobile device to inform operations teams of immediate adjustments required or potential health risks.
These productivity enhancing systems allow employees to select workspaces based on comfort preferences, neurological requirements and the task at hand. Hot-desking or hoteling employees can quickly find an available workstation or reserve a storage locker when a fixed space is not needed. Insights into the equipment and physical space of the room can help to advance both in-person and virtual collaboration, bringing all employees together regardless of their location.
Re-opened and Reimagined Workplaces
The future of the workplace is people-focused and adaptable. Every organization is looking for solutions that work best for their unique work model and facility structure. Fortunately, these advanced HVAC and digital technologies can be customized to provide wellness, comfort and collaboration for any type of workplace structure, from small offices to complex corporate campuses.
To discover the ideal technologies for your specific operation, it’s important to survey your building’s digital capabilities and organizational goals. Research technology and service providers who have experience with your facility type and can offer customized solutions that will evolve with your business as employee and building needs change. Understanding and leveraging this technology landscape can help building owners and facility managers be well-positioned for success as the world returns to the office.
About the Authors:
Beth Stana is a senior product manager for Johnson Controls. Matthew Kelley is a senior application engineer for Johnson Controls.