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Engineering our return to the workplace after COVID-19

July 20, 2020

By Katie Formoso

Long-term infrastructure upgrades—from technology to bipolar ionization—can help to create a safe work environment

Over the last several months, businesses have learned to quickly adapt and even thrive during this unprecedented time. Working remotely has become the new normal. But after months at home, offices are finally beginning to re-open and companies are preparing plans for getting their people back together in the office. These re-entry plans include many short-term solutions, such as reduced occupancies, one-way aisles, air filter replacements, and sanitizing stations. However, for many employers and their valued employees, these temporary solutions are just that—temporary. So, where do we go from here?  What are some of the long-term infrastructure upgrades that employers might pursue to ensure the safety of their employees?

Increasing the volume of outdoor air is one of the best ways to improve the indoor air quality. 

Without a doubt, the developing concepts and strategies for designing a safe and healthy workspace come with challenges. There are many different ideas on the table. Most importantly, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Developing long-term engineering plans will take considerable thought and a whole lot of discussion. With that said, what are some of the initial ideas, approaches, and options? 

Technology upgrades are a great place to start. From smarter buildings to more enhanced video conferencing systems, technology offers a safer path forward. As employees adjust to more flexible schedules, dedicated workstations are becoming a thing of the past. Powered furniture systems may also be on the decline. With mobile power hubs, employees can simply grab a power pack and work from wherever they choose. When the day is done, the power hub is returned to its base for charging and sterilization, soon ready for the next user. Not only does this provide employees with more flexibility and freedom within their workspace, it can be more cost effective for the employer. Power is brought to just a few central charging stations and is no longer required at each individual workstation. Furniture systems can be arranged and re-arranged with ease—no electricians needed!  With fewer assigned workstations, cleaning and disinfection after work is a breeze.

But with all this flexibility and freedom to move about, the additional introduction of automated devices is a necessity. Touchless sensors in washrooms, pantries, vending stations, and other common areas will help to minimize contact between employees.

Employees will have more flexibility and freedom within their workspace. 

In this new, post-pandemic world, indoor air quality is perhaps one of the most important elements. While many businesses may have performed air quality assessments or are expecting to replace filters prior to re-entry, increasing the volume of outdoor air is one of the best ways to enhance the indoor air quality of the space. Along with increasing the volume of outdoor air, enhanced filtration has proven effective in capturing many airborne pathogens. An air filter’s minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating will tell you how effectively the filter will trap dust and contaminants. The higher the rating, the more effective it is. However, if the HVAC system is not designed for such highly rated filters, it will not work properly, causing pressure drop issues. Other filtration options include high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) and electrostatic filtration. HEPA filtration has been shown to be the most effective in capturing airborne pathogens, but it is also quite expensive to maintain. Again, there is no “one size fits all” solution. 

Along with increasing the volume of outdoor air, enhanced filtration has proven effective in capturing many airborne pathogens.

Additional options to combat the COVID-19 virus—and other known pathogens—are similarly coming to light and are the subject of intense dialogue. Options include ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), bipolar ionization (BPI), photocatalytic oxidation (PCO), and increasing indoor humidity.

  • UVGI is perhaps gaining the most traction as it is a good retrofit option. There are also several industry and research documents that support its effectiveness, under the appropriate conditions. UVGI systems come stand alone or as a supplement to air supply systems.  
  • Bipolar ionization introduces an ionizer to the system, which produces positively and negatively charged oxygen ions that travel through the ductwork. When they are mixed with the air in the space, they interact with the airborne particles, germs, and other contaminants. This interaction triggers cell oxidation, which reduces airborne mold and bacteria to produce improved indoor air quality. Like UVGI, this is another great retrofit option for main air handlers or duct mounted solutions.
  • Photocatalytic oxidation combines ultraviolet technologies with the use of a catalyst material, such as titanium oxide. Once in contact with particles in the air, carbon dioxide and water are produced. The drawback here is that it requires a minimum airflow to be effective and may result in the production of ozone.
  • Increased indoor humidity has also been shown to help suppress virus spread by decreasing re-suspension in the breathing zone. While this may be a good option in newer buildings, it could be detrimental to an existing building’s envelope, causing condensation which can lead to mold.

As schedules change, assigned workstations may no longer be needed.

This is just a glimpse into some of the emerging conversations surrounding the future of engineering design as it relates to the pandemic. As new studies emerge, so will our options for forging ahead. Each workplace has its own unique needs and will have its own unique solutions. The goal is to have these important conversations and plan actions that work for each space individually, keeping employees as healthy as possible. 

  • Katie Formoso

    Working with our team in New York City, Katie is a principal specialized in commercial office buildings, infrastructure, critical systems, and workplace interiors.

    Contact Katie
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