By Matthew Ganser
Nearly nine months into the fight against COVID-19, we’re entering a new and unfamiliar phase where consumers will directly impact how commercial real estate (CRE) conducts business and its prospects for economic recovery. Consumers (occupants of any building, really) have always impacted CRE revenue through their preferences on building amenities — How modern is the lobby? Is there parking? Is the building secure? What services are offered? Now for the first time, consumers are wondering about a building’s backend systems, specifically the heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) systems’ management of a building’s indoor air quality.
With winter upon us in many locations and more activities moving inside, there must be a greater sense of urgency to focus on the IAQ of public buildings. Consumers are already asking owners and operators about indoor air quality as part of ongoing lease negotiations resulting from the pandemic.
As a result, it’s critical that building owners not only determine the best safety measures for their buildings but also effectively communicate that to their occupants to help instill confidence in safely returning to those buildings. After all, any investments made won’t matter if people aren’t comfortable walking inside.
A majority of consumers (76%) expressed that a “rating system” on the IAQ of a building, similar to restaurants, would make them feel better about entering, as reported in a recent consumer study by my firm, Carbon Lighthouse. And this is true for office buildings and hotels alike. For offices, it directly impacts leasing negotiations with existing and potential new tenants. For hotels, it directly impacts guest bookings and more importantly, big revenue drivers like group bookings and events as employers further prioritize employee health and wellness.
The report found that 74% of people say having information on IAQ would make them feel more comfortable returning to an office at least part-time, while 77% say it would impact their decision on which hotel to stay in.
The good news is that the science behind IAQ management has long been proven. To adequately manage IAQ, a building’s highly complicated HVAC system must be working properly. For example, if the HVAC system has leaky ducts (which most do according to the Department of Energy), it cannot establish proper airflow or ventilation and will take longer to remove contaminated air from a room. Building systems must also be able to handle the new safety measures. If a building upgrades to MERV-13 filters teams must ensure the system fans are able to support the extra work. Buildings must modernize their systems with the right systems to deliver the desired health and safety benefits. Once IAQ is optimized, it’s then critical to have the technology and data in place to effectively communicate the impact of those efforts on occupants’ health and safety.
A word to the wise, however: building owners and operations shouldn’t just revamp management systems for the immediate need today, but rather do so with an eye on the long-term business benefits modernization offers. Buildings that operate more efficiently and sustainably will attract greater investment over time, especially as environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices increasingly become a qualifier for investors. Consider this, along with the fact that data-backed technology improves operations and facilitates real-time reporting, uncovering entirely new opportunities for buildings that will drive profits at the portfolio level.
As we continue to navigate through the evolving phases of the pandemic and its impact on CRE and the markets, it’s important to recognize patterns that can help give a competitive edge — especially in the highly competitive economic climate we’re currently operating in. As consumers are increasingly aware of and asking about indoor air quality, this could very well be a key differentiator in how (or if) a CRE portfolio navigates its economic recovery.
Ganser is the EVP of Engineering & Technology at Carbon Lighthouse, an Energy Savings-as-a-service company for commercial real estate. In his position, he oversees the teams responsible for developing, executing, and maintaining the technology and energy solutions that reduce energy consumption in buildings. Ganser joined Carbon Lighthouse as one of the first employees in 2012 after graduating from Stanford University, studying first in the Atmosphere/Energy and then the Energy Resource Engineering programs as a National Science Fellow. Prior to grad school, he worked for Shell Oil Co, focused on drilling engineering and operations in natural gas tight sands in the Rocky Mountains. While at Shell, he was also responsible for developing a novel diesel gen-set emissions technology, which later won a Federal BLM Best Management practices award. Ganser graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.