Clearing the air

Organizations look to improve conditions of indoor environments

Posted on Oct 30, 2020 :: Construction
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Think back to mid-March and the picture that probably emerges is one of anxiety and frenzy. Many workplaces abruptly sent employees home to work, and they also began to ponder how they could bring back those workers into a safer environment when the time came.

Confusion reigned in those early weeks. Should people wear masks or not? How did the virus spread — was it through touching surfaces, airborne or both?

Now more than six months into the pandemic, some facts have become clear. Yes, wearing a mask is vital to helping stop the spread, and scientists have determined that COVID-19 is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets.

“Everybody wants to know everything about what this is, what’s happening. There’s all this information getting put out, some of which is accurate and real and some of which is what they thought and ends up being sort of inaccurate information,” says Carolyn Glime, senior campus planner for Performa Inc.

As Performa began to plot how it would advise clients about adjusting to the realities of the pandemic, it took a measured approach. Glime says while crisis situations call for some reacting, it’s also important take the time to figure out “next practices” and then respond accordingly.

At its own De Pere office, Performa didn’t jump right to changing out furniture or putting up barriers. It did take steps to help employees feel safer, including adding some antimicrobial door handles. Much of the focus, though, has been on administrative interventions aimed at promoting health and wellness, physical distancing, cleaning and hygiene, Glime says. “Those are basic things. They’re not things that cost a lot of money.”

Like Performa, Miron Construction Co. Inc. changed processes in its Fox Crossing office. As Miron went through its own period of adjustment and assessment, so did its clients, says Theresa Lehman, director of sustainable services for Miron.

“Miron has a lot of clients that know they have to do something. They just don’t know what to do,” she says. “The No. 1 thing is that (leaders) want people to feel comfortable and safe coming back into their environment.”

At Miron, that has meant prohibiting visitors and sending some employees home to work, especially early in the pandemic. For those who must go into the building, they enter and exit through one door, wear masks, fill out forms that attest they are symptom-free and receive a bracelet that shows they’ve followed the protocols. Miron’s office also is designed with larger-than-average cubicles for its workers.

Lehman says as Miron’s clients consider designing new spaces or redesigning existing ones, they’re facing a lot of uncertainty — not just about the pandemic but also the economy and the election. Many organizations may wonder whether they should act now to increase their square footage to accommodate more people safely or hold off on that decision.

Neither Glime nor Lehman foresees offices moving away from open-concept designs. Most organizations still want to encourage collaboration and teamwork as well as flexibility, Lehman says.

With an open space, companies can quickly rearrange furniture to make areas less densely packed, and that’s easier and less costly than tearing down or building walls, Lehman says. Miron is seeing increased interest in systems furniture that can be rearranged easily. In addition, demountable wall systems, such as the ones made by modular wall company DIRTT, can be mounted to floors and ceilings and allow users to move an entire wall quickly.

When Glime envisions the workplace of the future, she sees dedensification of layouts, fewer independent workstations and more flexibility. As for people continuing to work from home, there’s no need to panic, and it also doesn’t mean offices will disappear.

“It totally makes sense to me. Why do we go from our home to drive to our work to work independently when we can just as soon do that at home?” she says.

When people do need to go into the workplace, gone will be tightly packed conference rooms. Instead, people will need more separate rooms to collaborate or one large, open space, as well as rooms that could serve as high-tech virtual environments.

“You are not going to be successful if you fight change. You have to adapt,” Glime says.

Increased focus on air quality

When Lehman is advising clients about issues to address to make work environments safer, air quality is high on the list. “People need to really focus on ventilation systems and bringing in fresh air,” she says, adding that air quality is a huge determinant of health.

Installing retrofitted HVAC systems to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus has become an increasing focus for De Pere-based Tweet/Garot Mechanical. Since the pandemic began, the company has implemented COVID-19 HVAC system improvements at nearly 50 project sites, including donating bipolar ionization systems and the labor to install them at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Green Bay and New Community Shelter in Green Bay.

Lisa Kogan-Praska, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club, says the gift has helped provide peace of mind and assurance that the organization is doing all it can to ensure the kids and families it serves stay well.

“Our primary goal through all of this is to keep our families, our community and our staff and our team members as safe as possible,” she says.

Nick Koch, account manager for Tweet/Garot, says the bipolar ionization system the company installs is an active air treatment system that can reduce viruses and bacteria within an indoor environment. In addition, it causes particulate matter to clump together, allowing for improved filtration effectiveness.

“There’s been a movement in the industry to improve the indoor environment in buildings for a long time.
I think (the pandemic) brought it further to the forefront,” says Dan Rehbein, manager of Tweet/Garot’s building and engineering group.

Koch sees the mechanical contracting industry changing in the long term. He anticipates Tweet/Garot will continue to see an uptick in interest from clients wanting to ensure their building’s HVAC system is operating efficiently. In addition, because existing furnaces or air handlers can be retrofitted, it’s a cost-effective solution.

“Increased outside air ventilation and higher-efficiency filtration may become the new normal for commercial and institutional buildings,” he says.