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Even after the pandemic, the chief health officer could be a permanent fixture in real estate.

With office buildings empty and questions bubbling about when, or even if, people working from home will go back to working from work, the life of an office landlord during the coronavirus pandemic is “very busy.” That’s how it’s been for months for Angelo Bianco, managing partner of Crocker Partners, which owns and operates 11 million square feet of office buildings in the U.S.

In mid-March, when the pandemic began thoroughly rearranging most facets of daily life in the United States, Bianco’s company realized it needed to act fast if it was going to be able to keep its office buildings, mostly in Florida and Georgia, operational. It created a task force and implemented on a slew of safety measures to mitigate risk, like requiring disinfection and restricting common space amenities. But it took things one step further and did something surprising: It hired an infectious disease expert.

“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. And we wanted to bring that expertise in house,” Bianco says, adding that with 30,000 people in the company’s office buildings each day, it was imperative that everyone was safe.

So they hired Dr. Walter Okoroanyanwu, a New York-based medical doctor with extensive experience in HIV/AIDS, as Crocker Partners’ director of environmental health. “We’re bringing him on a permanent basis because we don’t believe that this is just a one-time issue,” Bianco says. “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.”

Okoranyanwu is about a week into his new role, and he says he’s been getting a crash course in office building operations. He recently toured company properties in Atlanta, exploring their inner workings with the engineering staff. He says the big challenge facing office buildings going forward will be their HVAC systems—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Scientists and public health officials are in wide agreement that
the virus is transmissible through respiratory droplets—droplets that can slip through HVAC filters and spread widely throughout buildings, increasing the risk of infection.

New technologies are now being explored to reduce or eliminate that risk. Okoranyanwu says the company is planning to amend its HVAC units with photohydroionization systems that use a combination of ultraviolet light and oxidizing agents to neutralize dirty air.

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

Beyond technological fixes, most of what’s needed is behavioral change, he says, and a lot of the hard work is already done, as more people are taking the basic precautions of wearing masks, keeping distance, and reducing shared contact of objects and surfaces. But he knows that if people fear the virus spreading through a building’s ventilation system, they’ll be unlikely to come back.

Aside from better air quality, Okoroanyanwu suggests that office landlords and the individual tenants may need to make other changes, particularly on high-touch surfaces. Copper alloys may become a more common material on the doors and handles of the office of the near future. But he’s hesitant to suggest any major design changes across the board. “The modifications and the redesigns have to be specific to the specific office space, because no two office spaces are the same,” Okoroanyanwu says. “It depends on also what the user groups are, how they use this space.”

The cubicle is no better or worse than the open plan office. Each office, he suggests, may need to make its own evaluation about how to maintain safe distance, sanitized surfaces, and clean air. “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,” says Bianco, who notes that the upgrades won’t be cheap, but they will be necessary. “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.”

If workers are going to return to their offices—and if companies are going to renew their leases— these medically informed upgrades may be the new standard in commercial real estate.