Out of Eastern Europe, a Window Into the Post-Pandemic Office

Special quarantine rooms. Floor-to-ceiling walls in bathroom stalls. Touchless entrances that take your temperature. This is what telecommunications company Ericsson’s office building in Bucharest looks like after coronavirus. The space has become the pilot for a 100-prong coronavirus standard that a real estate investor in Eastern Europe is pitching as a new global “immune” building standard. 

Liviu Tudor, president of the Brussels-based European Property Federation, hopes the standard will convince more employees to go back to work. He’s gathered a team of experts in construction, health care and engineering, such as such as Adrian Streinu-Cercel, the head of Bucharest’s biggest infectious diseases hospital, to develop three tiers of “immune” building certifications that he says are intended to make indoor spaces “pandemic proof.” 

The standard borrows from hospital designs to incorporate measures that create spaces for isolation and distance, and mitigate the spread of disease. It’s intended to withstand other health emergencies, Tudor says, but because it’s in response to coronavirus in particular, among the most important components of the design will be preventing the airborne spread of the disease.

Some fundamental requirements in the standard may become the norm for at least some buildings after Covid-19, including improved air filtration systems that pull in outside air and desks that are set further apart. It also includes design changes to mitigate airborne spread that might not be easy to incorporate into existing spaces, such as higher ceilings to install air filtration equipment, the avoidance of floor heating systems that can lift aerosols, and the use of rounded corners in crowded spaces, which the standard says minimizes bacterial deposits.

Tudor says he’s in talks with 50 other U.S. and European real estate developers about using the criteria in their own buildings and he plans to present his ideas to the European Union. But even if it isn’t widely adopted, he’s already implementing the ideas in a pilot building in Bucharest, providing a window into what office life could look like for some workers after the coronavirus. 

“The new workspace is going to be a different experience from the moment you walk into an office building, to all the common areas, the restrooms, the food court and all the way to the actual desks,” says Tudor, whose company, Genesis Property, owns and operates 1.6 million square feet of office space. “We are talking about mostly open floor offices, with desk separators and 2 meters (6 feet) distance between desks.”

Alexandru Rafila, an expert in microbiology and Romania’s representative in the management board of the WHO, says several of these measures, such as distance between desks and disinfecting in key spaces, are common sense. But he cautions against dramatic increases in construction costs and investments based mostly on speculation that can appear opportunistic, especially in response to a virus in which human behavior plays a key role in the spread of the disease. 

“Of course the safer the environment the better,” says Rafila, “but as long as we all respect the rules and maintain the distancing, wear the mask and regularly wash and disinfect our hands we don’t need to get into the other extreme.”

Tudor has invested at least 1 million euros in the project so far to incorporate the standard into his own buildings, where he says many employees have already returned to work. Among the other requirements in Tudor’s standard are features like hands-free access to office doors and elevators, separate entrances and exits, the use of anti-microbial paint and UV light disinfection overnight. 

Global demand for office spaces plummeted in the first half of this year, in the biggest work-from-home exercise in recent history. In the Romanian capital alone, the demand sank by 45% in the first half from a year ago as the pandemic hit, according to a recent study by real estate broker Avison Young. Before the coronavirus spread to Eastern Europe, Bucharest offered the most lucrative yields for office spaces in the region. Tudor and his colleagues are hoping that more comprehensive safety standards could ease fears of going back to the office.

But getting the certification wouldn’t be easy and will require extra costs that can vary from 2% to 4% of the total investment in a building, Tudor said. In some cases that could mean millions of euros.

Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Sue Munden says this kind of cost investment may be considered essential by property owners to weather coronavirus fear about offices. 

“Whatever the cost to implement new safety measures, the building is worth nothing if it can’t be used, so some compromise would be needed if the landlord is unable to fund the required upgrades,” said Munden. 

Some of these precautions raise the specter of what the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently called “hygiene theater,” the perception that all risk can be scrubbed or disinfected away with enough cleaning and investment, even though the current scientific consensus is that Covid-19 is primarily spread from person to person through the air, and that indoor spaces shared by many people may pose particular risk. 

The word “immune” in particular can have strong connotations that might over-promise on what such a building standard can do to protect people. “The ‘immune’ term, which carries a strong and reassuring meaning health-wise, is becoming fashionable,” said Rafila. 

Tudor emphasizes that the most important parts of the standard do focus on air transmission. And he says the standard is intended to protect against any future health threats, not just coronavirus. 

Tudor is pitching the certification as a new global standard similar to “green” labels that signal buildings are environmentally friendly. As with “green” labels, buildings designated “immune” would be certified by an independent third party tasked with assessing building compliance. 

Such third-party green standards have been widely adopted, but they’ve also been subject to criticism for “greenwashing” because some studies have found that they don’t save as much energy as predicted compared to non-certified buildings.

Tudor believes an alternative to certification is for the standard to become mandatory in some places. Right now, he says, he’s at too early of a phase to make definitive proclamations. 

“We don’t have all the conclusions yet and they will be drawn after this pandemic but our standard is open source and we invite everybody in the industry to collaborate with us,” Tudor said. “We think this standard will become mandatory by law, like the firefighting systems: You hope never to use them but you have to have it.”

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