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How COVID-19 Is Drastically Altering Office Design

Skanska-Bank-of-America-Tower-Houston

As people return to their offices, owners and operators will be posting signage and other physical reminders to maintain social distancing. Pictured here is common space at developer Skanska’s office at Bank of America Tower in downtown Houston.

By Taylor Williams

As office-using companies and employees slowly return to their workplaces, they will see major changes in the layouts and functionalities of their buildings and workspaces as a result of COVID-19 — features and practices that could potentially rewrite the playbook for how architects and engineers approach office projects in the future.

Virtually all major components of office design stand to be impacted on some level by COVID-19, a virus that spreads through both shared contact of surfaces and physical proximity among users and employees in buildings. Further, ripple effects exist within the various components of design that have been impacted in the post-COVID-19 office market. In other words, one change in design will beget others.

That’s because all of the forthcoming changes have one thing in common: an aim to bolster health and wellness. Building operators must approach all aspects of design with social distancing and heightened sanitation guidelines in mind — a different agenda from the previous ones of comfort, convenience and service.

“Moving forward, design is going to be all about safety,” says Ari Rastegar, owner of Austin-based commercial investment firm Rastegar Property Co. “You’re going to see a move away from open layouts and a return to more four-walled offices. Companies will have to implement massive sanitization protocols, and the ways they ensure safety through sanitization will be a measure of approval for them.”

“The priority has shifted from keeping tenants happy to keeping them safe,” concurs Trevor Heaney, project manager at Dallas-based design-build firm ARCO/Murray. “There’s already been some movement to redesign open-air offices to private, single-occupant spaces where teams can trade out days or have their own private workspaces.”

Office owners and managers aren’t the only ones refocusing their priorities to reflect the importance of heightened safety. According to Larry Lander, principal at Texas-based architecture firm PDR, tenants are picking up on the paradigm shift too.

“Tenants are now asking hard questions about technical engineering aspects of their leases that, before March, they might have glossed over in favor of lease rates, leasing areas, parking or more traditional lease terms,” says Lander.

Building owners are beginning to address these issues — increased air filtering, more fresh air, toilet room improvements, elevator controls — but many are complicated and potentially costly to implement, he adds.

“The priority for tenants and employees is a human-centric work experience, from arrival at the building all the way to the desk,” Lander concludes. “Now more than ever, a workplace experience that puts people first will draw tenants, exhibit an organization’s care and attention to their most valuable resources and ultimately serve as a physical display of a business’ values, mission and culture.”

To understand how these new features and practices could manifest themselves across the major markets of Texas, consider a typical day at work in an office building from start to finish.

Arriving at Work

During this past cycle, office users have consistently demonstrated a flight to quality — a push to locate to Class A buildings served by public transportation with plentiful onsite amenities.

With walkable retail and access to public transit rising in importance for office users as they wage wars for talent in what was recently a very competitive job market, parking requirements have already started to drop.

“With office projects, meetings with clients always start with questions on how much parking is needed, and no company wants to park more than it has to,” says John Carruth, principal and director of design at Dallas-based Merriman Anderson Architects. “It goes back to future-proofing our projects — certain offices may function well or even better with some people working from home, so those users will be looking at lower parking ratios moving forward.”

Even in suburban office locations, which are more likely to lack access to public transit and therefore require more parking, design professionals believe that the longtime standard ratio of five spaces per 1,000 square feet is destined to decline. But on the flip side, demand for space at these older suburban office properties could increase in the near-term as workers of all types strive to avoid dense environments.

Getting to Your Office

Between the parking lot and the workspace, employees may pass through several “chokepoints” that have high-contact surfaces and tight quarters in which people must be bunched together. Entrance points, lobbies and elevators all fall into this category of spaces, and office owners and operators must find solutions to ensure cleanliness and social distancing within them.

“It’s important to identify bottlenecks in buildings and to understand how you can control the flow of people through those spaces to limit physical interaction,” says Joanna Frank, president and CEO of the Center for Active Design (CfAD), the sole licensed operator of the Fitwel Certification System. “If you can’t maintain social distancing in these areas, you must limit interaction via personal protective equipment and regular cleaning.”

Wherever possible and finances permitting, office owners will try to introduce more forms of contactless entry into their buildings, perhaps through the installation of automatic doors and the issuance of key fobs.

Once inside, employees may find themselves in lobbies that have introduced queuing areas and partitioned rooms where they will have their temperatures taken and be screened for symptoms before being cleared to access the rest of the building. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for these communal areas, the above examples reflect the fact that health and wellness changes are inevitable.   

Frank notes that elevator cabs will be particularly high-priority areas to address, as they feature both cramped spaces and high-contact surfaces. She believes that these features could create a push from more owners to have tenants use stairwells, which must also be subjected to stronger and more frequent cleanings. If employees aren’t willing to do that, they’ll potentially be waiting longer for rides as elevator cabs will be housing far fewer people at once.

Office owners and operators must also consider the common corridors within various wings of buildings, as these hallways also represent chokepoints in which people can find themselves in close proximity to each other.

Sitting Down to Work

Pre-pandemic, many modern workspaces were designed with open layouts to encourage collaboration and idea-sharing among employees. The advent and growth of coworking office space further propelled this trend.

But as previously noted, some architects and engineers believe those types of floor plans will be shelved in the short term in favor of larger, single-occupant offices. Implementing such a shift would inevitably have ripple effects, says Carruth of Merriman Anderson.

“Even if the traditional office building stays the same size, we’re fielding questions on whether individual offices will get bigger,” he says.

Other types of questions architects are now trying to answer include whether halls will get wider via new spacing requirements or if size of the office furniture will change. “There’s a real trickle-down effect here, but these questions raised by COVID-19 are the kinds of issues that always lead to innovation,” says Carruth.

Taking Breaks

According to Frank, the concept of building trust — wherein property owners and operators display visible sanitation and social distancing measures to assure users that they’re attuned to safety — is going to be increasingly important in the post-COVID-19 office market. From bathrooms to foodservice areas, the manner in which common areas are treated will go a long way in establishing this trust.

Spaces-West-Plano-Village

Just as increased filtration and circulation of air inside office buildings will be paramount in the post-COVID-19 world, so too will access to spaces with natural fresh air, such as the patio area at coworking provider Spaces’ facility in West Plano Village (pictured).

“Trust, safety and security are linked, and signs of disorder negatively impact the perception of trust, so building operators must understand that they can’t just have a clean bathroom — these cleaning protocols need to be elevated,” she says.

Frank also points out that shared outdoor amenity spaces can contribute to optimizing trust among staffers and users by addressing safety and security. In addition to providing sunlight and fresh air, Frank notes that the presence of nature, greenery and water features can help limit stress and anxiety.

“Landlords and owners that can demonstrate the cleanliness and hyper-sanitization of their building, particularly in the common spaces, will have a distinct advantage,” adds Lander of PDR.  “Look for a certification process that will designate healthy buildings in a commonly understood way that is devoid of industry jargon. This certification will roll up cleanliness and sanitization with engineering systems, filters, fresh air and toilet room design.”

In terms of indoor common areas, office owners are already enacting key security measures that emphasize solidarity as opposed to co-mingling, which has long been the function of the common area — to bring people together.

Office buildings are now more likely to have measures like glass barriers between workers and customers in foodservice areas, as well as more spacing between tables, or the removal of touch-screen directories in lobbies. And for newer projects, design and engineering professionals are generally looking to go smaller with their indoor common areas so that tenants can enjoy them in relative isolation.

Similar protocols will apply to common areas in multifamily projects, notes Rastegar. His firm’s biggest project is a 270-unit development at 1899 McKinney Ave. in Dallas, and the pandemic has already forced his team to rethink its approach to amenity spaces.

“We’re looking at all sorts of different modalities to ward off the virus, whether it’s special light fixtures that could mitigate possible risks or installing copper instead of stainless steel in certain common areas,” he says. “Copper has an inherent anti-microbial factor, meaning the virus and bacteria can’t live very long on its surfaces.”

Behind The Scenes

A final facet of office buildings that will be significantly impacted by COVID-19 is utility systems, sources agree. From regulating humidity to boosting the circulation of fresh air to introducing bacteria-killing ultraviolet light fixtures, owners and operators will be forced to find cost-effective ways to get their utility systems to contribute to people’s health and well being.

“There’s an emphasis on exchanging fresh air more consistently and frequently than previous engineering plans called for,” says Heaney of ARCO/Murray. “Many of your recently constructed projects will already meet these requirements.”

Heightened filtration limits the spread of particles throughout the building, and elevated humidity is not conducive to the virus’ survival. Some systems may not have the capacities to deliver these changes, and inevitably newer, more expensive systems may have to be put in place.

“In terms of HVAC, you have to consider how frequently you want to change your air and recirculate it,” says Jerry Merriman, owner of Merriman Anderson Architects. “These changes may increase costs to some projects, especially those involving retrofits of older buildings to meet codes, but they shouldn’t make a project cost-prohibitive on their own.”

HVAC systems will play a role in increasing building safety and sanitation, and the need to upgrade and revamp them speaks to just how deeply the impacts of COVID-19 are infiltrating the physical work environment.

“This crisis is one that, even if it’s only a once-every-40-year event, it’ll be a hard one to forget and not to learn from,” says Merriman. “Whether we’re design professionals, business owners, building owners — we all have to decide how far we go in reacting to what we’re going through. It’s a serious event that has changed people’s lives, and we’re going to talk about this on every project we do going forward.”

— This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Texas Real Estate Business magazine. 

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