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M|O Perspectives

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Reopening in a COVID-19 Environment

May 01, 2020

Among the many challenges facing real estate owners and operators today, perhaps the most relevant at the moment is how your building operations teams prepare to reopen properties, especially taking into account the complexity of higher density properties like office buildings and hotels. As shelter-in-place orders expire and building occupants start to return to work, many with some level of trepidation, it is important to fully understand the complex relationships between building systems and develop a plan to proceed through the reopening process in an effective manner.

Marx|Okubo recommends developing a set of building-specific, reopening protocols using the following phased approach:

Phase 1 - Preliminary Screening

  1. Finalize your pre-opening priorities and, if you are a portfolio owner or operator, determine the prioritization of buildings of highest need or most challenges.
  2. Assemble building-related information such as: Construction drawings, previous reports related to system performance, service agreements, maintenance records during the shelter-in-place period, and other information beneficial to review prior to modifications or enhancements.
  3. Determine feasibility and priority to implement building opening recommendations. Bottom line: What is the population density, and what are the needs going forward as you reopen your building?

__Phase 2- Building Opening __Recommendations

This phase includes the determination and implementation of specific recommendations that will need to be customized to individual buildings. There are four main categories that initial recommendations will fall into:

  1. __Flushing. __Using increased outside air and equipment run times to purge buildings of airborne contaminants. Flush plumbing systems to purge waterborne contaminants.
  2. Filtration. If possible, upgrade filtration in existing HVAC systems to capture airborne contaminants. We recommend that property owners and operators order upgraded filtration products as soon as possible to avoid potential shortages. Read our COVID vs. HVAC blog for more information on this recommendation.
  3. __Cleaning. __Upgraded EPA and CDC compliant janitorial cleaning procedures to wipe down and disinfect existing occupied spaces. This would include efficacy of specific cleaning products, as well as evaluating potential chemical incompatibilities between cleaning products and building materials. Long-term solutions could include reducing horizontal and porous surfaces that collect airborne contaminants.
  4. __Screening. __Implementing procedures to check and monitor entry of building occupants who may be sick or have been in contact with sick people. In addition, office supplies, packages and other materials that enter occupied areas should be evaluated for potential contamination and dealt with appropriately.
  5. __Social Distancing. __Implementation of social distancing control measures should be undertaken with visual guidance implemented in areas prone to clustered assembly such as elevator lobbies, building reception areas and other common areas or related tenant amenities. This includes managing vertical transportation systems to ensure social distancing requirements.

Phase 3 - System and Design Modifications

In conjunction with or as soon as practicable, building owners and operators should look at what interim or, likely permanent, operating, system or building and site modifications will be required to provide an ongoing safe environment for building occupants and visitors. There will be options specific to a property and could include items such as:

  1. Access controls
  2. Elevators and escalators
  3. Restroom fixtures
  4. HVAC systems and ability to meet upgraded filtration and air distribution needs
  5. FF&E modifications as needed for appropriate fabrics, cleanable surfaces and social distancing
  6. Consideration regarding impact on those who are visually-impaired or disabled by the proposed system and design modifications

While some solutions are seemingly easy on the surface, many singular choices made as an accommodation may have a connected relationship to other building systems, fire/life safety implications or lease conflicts that will need to be considered. It is also anticipated that many new products may make their way into the market that will (or may) not meet the required specifications necessary to achieve the desired result. Additionally, new building operational and system changes will impact how building users react and adapt to the new environment; therefore, building operators’ clear and consistent communication will be required to assure a successful transition.

Marx|Okubo has always taken a holistic perspective in our building and construction evaluations and understands the challenges of prioritizing prudent solutions with limited budgets. We are here to help in any way we can, as we have worked directly for owners or as part of the management or development teams. We want to ensure, as you do, that when society re-enters the work force, the places where they perform are as safe as they can be.

If you have questions or would like to have more conversations about this topic and how Marx|Okubo may be able to assist you at a building or portfolio level, please reach out to 

Be safe, and stay optimistic!

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Marx|Okubo is a national architecture/engineering/construction consulting firm that works with real estate owners, investors and lenders—at every point of the property lifecycle—to evaluate their building projects, solve complex challenges and implement tailored solutions. We help clients understand their projects’ complexities, so they can make more informed decisions and, ultimately, mitigate their risk.