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Infectious disease expert could become the next big job in CRE

There have been numerous changes to the commercial real estate industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic—tenants are operating from home (and some may do permanently), rent collection has become increasingly more difficult and building owners are having to invest in solutions to help ensure their tenants will be safe from the virus.

It looks like there’s another potential change coming to the CRE industry due to the pandemic—the most sought after position might be infectious disease experts, according to Fast Company. As buildings reopen, CRE owners taking the necessary measures to ensure their properties are safe for their tenants, including cleaning common work areas and restricting common use space amenities. However, managing partner Angelo Bianco and Crocker Partners, which owns and operates 11 million square feet of office buildings in the United States, took things a step further and hired an infectious disease expert—Dr. Walter Okoroanyanwu, a New York-based medical doctor with extensive experience in HIV/AIDS, as its director of environmental health.

“The issues started becoming more complex and more nuanced, and we realized we had hit the wall when it came to our internal abilities to deal with this epidemiological crisis,” Bianco told Fast Company. “And we wanted to bring that expertise in house.”

Bianco also noted that there are 30,000 people in Crocker Partners’ offices every day, so it is critical the company did all it can to keep people safe.

“We’re bringing (Okoroanyanwu) in on a permanent basis because we don’t believe that this is just a one-time issue,” Bianco told Fast Company. “God willing, it will be a one-time pandemic issue. But having healthy buildings and having someone focus on the wellness of our employees and our tenants and their employees is something that should be a permanent fixture in our business.”

HVAC systems among CRE buildings’ biggest concerns amid COVID-19

Okoranyanwu noted office buildings’ biggest challenge will be their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems as CRE owners move past the pandemic. Other scientists and public health officials also agree that COVID-19 can be transmitted through respiratory droplets, which could get through HVAC filters and eventually spread through buildings.

Crocker Partners and other CRE companies are looking at technology solutions that can reduce or eliminate the risk of infection. Okoranyanwu said Crocker Partners in particular is planning to adjust its buildings HVAC units with photohydroionization systems that combine UV light and oxidizing agents to neutralize dirty air, Fast Company reports.

“We find it to be very efficient,” he said. “It kills 99% of the viruses and bacteria, cleans out odors up to 98%, mold up to 98%, smoke up to 70%.”

Behavioral change can also help fight COVID-19 in CRE buildings

People’s actions can go a long way towards keeping buildings safe, according to Okoranyanwu. This includes measures people are already taking like wearing masks, keeping a safe distance and minimizing shared contact of objects and surfaces. However, Okoranyanwu said if tenants are concerned about the virus spreading through a building’s HVAC system, they probably won’t return.
The physician also recommended CRE owners, landlords and individual tenants make changes on high-touch surfaces—copper alloys might become a more common material on office doors and handles. Major designs might not be necessary at this point, however.

“The modifications and the redesigns have to be specific to the specific office space, because no two office spaces are the same,” Okoroanyanwu told Fast Company. “It depends on also what the user groups are, how they use this space.”

Meanwhile, open plan offices and the cubicle set up don’t have an advantage over the other, according to Okoranyanwu. Every office should make its own decision on how to maintain safe distances between employees, keep its air clean and disinfect surfaces.

“I think this is something that you’re going to see develop throughout the industry, and more and more companies will end up with their version of a chief health officer,” Bianco said. “The costs are going to go up. We are going to pay what it takes to get this done for our buildings. We’re going to operate them safely. Period.”

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