About half of the U.S. population was working from home during April and May, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey. This included more than 35% who reported they had been commuting before the COVID-19 pandemic. Although workers were home largely because of stay-at-home orders, many companies have extended remote work through the fall and beyond because of continued concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Given the dramatic shift, what are real estate professionals, inside and outside the United States, doing to ensure the viability and safety of commercial spaces? We hear from Tommy Faulkner of Raleigh, N.C., about his company's response to the crisis and his long-term outlook. Then, Liviu Tudor of Bucharest, Romania, talks about a new set of building standards he has developed in cooperation with a team of professionals.

Tommy Faulkner is CEO of JDSfaulkner, a civil engineering firm in Raleigh, N.C.; a broker with Fathom Realty, in Cary, N.C.; and a general contractor. For many years, he's been involved in building code development as a member of the Structural Committee of the International Code Council.

I've had to confront COVID-19 on several different fronts and really think through the process to keep all our people safe. I’m happy to say that, at this moment in time, with over a hundred people working with me, no one in our company has contracted the virus—and they’ve all stayed active. Some of our staff are still out visiting job sites; they are now deploying from home, and we have a protocol for them to follow. In our 12,000-square-foot office, we allow no more than seven people, and we have specific protocols for them as well. To prepare for more people to come into the office, we've installed ultraviolet light ionizers in our HVAC systems that are supposed to take 99.9% of all germs out of the air. That was about a $10,000 investment. We’ve also spent a fair amount on hand sanitizers, toilet paper, and paper towels.

JDSfaulkner works in several different sectors. Some have not slowed down one bit; others, like the university marketplace, have slowed down significantly. The reason I’ve been given for that is, “We don’t really know what our sticks-and-bricks demand is going to be, and we may need to rechannel those funds to keep people safe.”

Because so many people look to the ICC to be the standard for safe buildings, it was the first organization that a lot of people turned to for guidelines on safe building reentry. It’s interesting to note that much of the ICC's guidance is wrapped around not just how to make the environment more safe but how to keep people out of that environment if you can right now. They’re trying to minimize the contact that we have with one another.

A lot of think tank groups are talking about how the pandemic will change the workplace. What will remain after the pandemic, and what will go back to normal? If we begin to redesign everything to fit the model of current events, what happens when the current event is over? There are many who feel that this separation of people from one another, even six feet apart or eight feet apart, is unhealthy psychologically. Then there are those who say, “No, this is probably the right way to live forever.”

There’s still a lot to learn, but we’re using the knowledge we’re getting now. Like anything else, it will change, and we’ll adjust as it changes. I also can’t help but look at history. I look back at the pandemic from 100 years ago and the H1N1 flu from just a decade ago. How much did those change our behavior? And so there’s this fundamental question of how much this pandemic should change our behavior and what happens when the vaccine comes.

Will workers ever return to the office in full force? This is my prediction: As leases run out, these large office complexes are going to find themselves with more vacancy than ever before. There’s been a trend here in our cities in North Carolina that we have been taking old buildings, warehouses and even residential apartment buildings, and turning them into office space. It may well be that we’re moving in a direction to repurpose office space into potentially residential or some other use that’s more in demand.

Commercial real estate pros will need to get creative. Align yourself with people like myself, architects, people in the design field. Be part of a think tank to figure out how to capitalize on changes in the market. Change isn't new; we’re always dealing with it. It’s a matter of who can be the most creative or recognize a long-term change early enough to provide a solution.

Liviu Tudor is CEO of Genesis Property in Bucharest, Romania, and president of the European Property Federation, which represents major property owners throughout the continent.

July and early August saw governments across Europe begin to encourage workers to return to the office, but there is still a sense of unease. The Guardian cites Morgan Stanley research from July showing that offices in the United Kingdom had the fewest number of people return to offices. Just over a third (35%) of white-collar employees in the UK had returned to work, considerably below France (83%), Italy (76%), Spain (73%), and Germany (70%).

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Giving employees the confidence to return to the workplace hinges on assuring them that they are returning to a safe and productive environment where they can enjoy their work, collaborate with colleagues, and achieve organizational objectives. Following implementation of lockdown measures and the closure of commercial buildings worldwide, it was clear the property sector was neither prepared nor equipped to manage a situation of this nature.

In that context, we have worked on introducing an opensource framework we’re calling The Immune Building Standard, with a strategy to engineer safer built environments for people and organizations returning to their offices. It’s a set of measures, technical solutions, and facility management practices to certify how built environments can withstand present and future health challenges. A team of around 20 multisector R&D professionals from health, technology, real estate, architecture, and engineering—borrowing learnings from hospitals and the IT industry’s clean rooms—drew up 100-plus recommended measures. An authorized building assessor in the field of sustainable building design and development will evaluate and award properties as Strong (3 stars), Powerful (4 stars), or Resilient (5 stars). We initiated the standard in April and have received considerable interest; a phase one pilot includes Ericcson, Société General, Siemens, Accenture, HP, Garanti BBVA, and Alpha Bank in Bucharest.

The standard can be applied to buildings at any stage of their life cycle and type, such as new, in-use, or a regeneration project, and can apply to multiple building types such as offices, hospitality, retail, residential, health care, and education. Some of the most significant changes include modifications in the equipment and architecture of the building, such as upgrading the filtration system, UV light air treatment inside air handling units, and ozone water treatment for sinks. For building owners and managers who lack the resources to attain the full Resilient certification, there are low-cost measures that can bolster tenant confidence, including hands-free systems to allow access to tenant office areas; application of physical distancing and signage; and availability of protective personal equipment, along with receptacles for hazardous waste disposal at entry and exit points.

Just as we enhance our immune systems, so too we should strengthen the immunity of buildings by rethinking how they are designed, constructed, maintained, and run. We envision the Immune standard, like fire safety regulations, would be mandated as part of wider health and safety measures. Learn more at immune-building.com.

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