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Why COVID-19 Raises the Stakes for Building Health

Last updated: 05-06-2020

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Why COVID-19 Raises the Stakes for Building Health

Will you ever again step onto a crowded elevator without hesitation? Reach for a doorknob without concern (or gloves)?

Easing social distancing restrictions might reopen businesses, but as long as memories of COVID-19 lockdowns are still fresh in people’s minds, the experience of being inside an office building most likely will not return to “normal.”

Even before the pandemic struck, there were plenty of reasons to be concerned about air quality and ventilation in the buildings where we live and work. After all, healthier indoor environments don’t just keep us from getting sick—they also enhance cognitive performance.

To convey to managers the benefits of the healthy building movement, John D. Macomber, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, recently wrote a book about it: Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, to be published April 21.

Although facilities managers might think they’re saving a few dollars on electricity and air filters, “There's just no reason anymore to economize on airflow and filtration,” Macomber says. “That just doesn't make any sense. It's a cheap way to help people be healthier.”

Together with co-author Joseph G. Allen, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Macomber explores “nine foundations for a healthy building” and studies how simple tweaks to increase air flow and quality can have dramatic effects on workers.

But the economic benefits don’t stop there. Macomber expects that a growing public focus on health measures will drive major changes across a variety of industries, but especially in travel and hospitality. Increasingly, Macomber postulates, savvy business leaders and landlords will begin to leverage healthier indoor spaces as recruitment tools and sources of competitive advantage. Anxieties over COVID-19 are likely to accelerate these trends, he says.

“I think awareness is heightened, and in this economy there'll be a drop in demand for space, both for apartments and offices,” he says. “With those two things together, I think that the offices with the premier health story will get the premium rent and get the tenants, and the offices with a lagging health story will lag.”

Many elite companies already use their building’s efficiency or grandeur to send a signal to customers and workforce talent. As a result of the global pandemic, Macomber expects an emphasis on indoor air quality and other healthy building measures will diffuse through the rest of the economy.

As the country begins to return to work, concerns about the spread of infectious disease will “make it easier than ever to invest in the basics of a healthy building, notably around ventilation, air quality, water, moisture, and security,” says Macomber. “Those aren't expensive to begin with. So, I think those will propagate through pretty quickly, and they’ll be must-haves, because the cost is not relatively very high, and the benefit is extremely high.”

As anyone who has ever felt sleepy on a stuffy airplane can attest, poor ventilation impedes cognition. “Casinos figured this out a long time ago, pumping in extra air and keeping the temperature cool to keep you awake at the gaming tables and slot machines longer,” Allen and Macomber write.

But through scientific, double-blind studies of workers in offices with various levels of air quality and flow, in which the workers were compared with themselves to gauge differences in personal performance, the authors of Healthy Buildings can quantify these effects.

Across all nine dimensions of cognitive function, which include things like “strategy,” “focused activity level,” and “crisis response,” performance was dramatically improved when study subjects worked in the optimal conditions (with high rates of ventilation and low concentrations of carbon dioxide and other harsh compounds).

“Think about that for one second—simply increasing the amount of air brought into an office, something nearly every office can easily do, had a quantifiable benefit to higher-order cognitive function in knowledge workers,” Macomber and Allen write.

Macomber is careful, though, not to make the leap from enhanced performance to increased productivity, because productivity involves so many different factors.

Among the nine foundations for a healthy building (see graphic) is “security,” a term the authors expect will take on a broader meaning in a post-pandemic world. Building security will involve monitoring not just who enters and what they are physically carrying, but also what they might be carrying internally. In addition to metal detectors, infrared scanners at building entrances will take visitors’ temperatures, to help prevent the spread of viruses and other pathogens, similar to technology already in place at some airports.

As people begin to internalize the collective nature of public health, sharing of personal health and air quality metrics—using wearables and smartphones—could lead to new applications that provide real-time information about the conditions inside buildings. Imagine an app that does for public health what WAZE has done for traffic congestion, Macomber says.

“There is going to be substantially more awareness and interest on the part of the public, in terms of the quality of the spaces that they’re occupying, and they’ll be selective about their airplanes and about their cruise ships,” he predicts. “And pretty quickly they'll be selective about their apartments and their offices as well, and they'll share that information with other people.”

if you want to be sure your mechanical system is operating in a way that protects your health, the single best recommendation we can give you is to commission your mechanical system. Our commissioning recommendation is straightforward, but if you’re not familiar with commissioning, it’s worth your time getting up to speed quickly.

Commissioning is the process by which you make sure your building is performing the way it was designed to. (Or for new buildings, it’s the process by which you verify you are getting the building you paid for.) This recommendation for continuous commissioning stems from years of observations by John during his building projects, by Joe during his forensic investigations, and by nearly everyone who knows anything about buildings. Buildings don’t always perform as designed (actually, they never do), and they change over time. Commissioning is like going to the doctor for an annual checkup. It helps you catch things early, before your building ends up in the emergency room, where you’ll spend 10 times as much fixing the problem. With the advent of new sensor technologies, it’s also possible to do continuous commissioning, thus ensuring that the building systems are performing optimally every minute of every day.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. Excerpted from Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity by John D. Macomber and Joseph G. Allen. Copyright 2020 John Macomber and Joseph Allen. All rights reserved.

Kristen Senz is a writer and social media editor for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.


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