CO Design Forum: Forge Ahead on Retrofits, Pandemic Be Damned

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced commercial real estate design professionals to rethink building designs with safety in mind.

Panelists at Commercial Observer’s “Design Changes In a Post-Pandemic World” forum said they are forging ahead with retrofitting office towers, schools and hospitals with advancements geared toward confronting future virus outbreaks.

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“We have had to overlap departments in buildings, and we also have added social spaces and larger convenient spaces in classroom buildings,” Suzanne Musho, vice president for capital planning and facilities management and chief architect at New York Institute of Technology, said during the first panel, “Building the Modern School Campus in 2021 and BeyondHow K-12 and University Campuses Will Be Forever Improved.”

“What we are also looking forward to doing as well is making sure that all of our existing buildings … also our new buildings … [have] a forward-looking visioning plan,” she added.

Juan Matiz, principal at Matiz Architecture & Design, said his firm has focused heavily during the pandemic on addressing the needs of college professors to account for students attending classes in-person or learning remotely. Matiz’s firm is in the midst of renovating campus buildings for Columbia University, New York University, City University of New York, Stevens Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute.

The first panel — moderated by Robert Banner, partner at Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti — also included Edward McArthur, vice president of the planning & capital project management group at Columbia University, and Mark Kocent, university architect for the University of Pennsylvania.

McArthur said the pandemic has prompted faculty to rethink whether large, lecture classroom spaces are as necessary, given increased remote-learning options. He noted that schools would also need to prepare for the possibility of future pandemics that may arise when strategizing new buildings.

“We need to activate spaces across our campus that are flexible and adaptable,” said McArthur, who has managed more $75 million in projects at Columbia over the past decade. “As we build and conceive new projects, particularly on the infrastructure side, we need to be thinking about being adaptable and being flexible.”

Kocent said colleges might need to look at setting up more flexible arrangements when designing spaces to reflect more staff members potentially working remotely at least part of the week. He also said if larger research institutions adopt more hybrid approaches to classes, less square footage would be needed for administrative and support staff.

Panelists stressed that renovating older buildings to reflect new health safety standards is a bigger challenge than designing new facilities. Many building owners are tackling operational changes in buildings to reflect the current COVID-19 environment.

“We are taking a look at the type of filtration we are using,” Dmitri Konon, assistant vice provost of capital planning at Weill Cornell Medicine, said during the second panel, “Healthcare Innovations That Can Be Shared Across Building Types,” noting that the company is looking to upgrade to a MERV 13 HVAC system. “In some faculty practices, it is almost like an office environment, where there is limited fresh air coming in.” 

Konon said that Weill Cornell has instituted automated doors, sinks and soap dispensers in order to reduce touch points in the buildings. Sneeze guards were also installed early in the pandemic, he added.

Jonathan B. Cogswell, assistant vice president of facilities services and engineering for Northwell Health’s Manhattan region, said the company is examining ways to enhance ventilation and mechanical systems in buildings so that there is better preparation for combatting future virus outbreaks. Adjustments to how ambulances transport patients have also been made in order to lower the amount of patients waiting in small spaces, he said.

Panel 2 CO Design Forum: Forge Ahead on Retrofits, Pandemic Be Damned
Clockwise from left: Turner Construction Company’s Rich Lanzarone, Northwell Health’s Jonathan Cogswell, AKF Group’s Carrie Cremin, Lendlease’s Brandon Morrison and Weill Cornell Medicine’s Dmitri Konon. Headshots courtesy of speakers

The second panel — moderated by Rich Lanzarone, construction executive at Turner Construction Company — also featured Carrie Cremin, team leader/project manager at AKF Group, and Brandon Morrison, project executive and vice president at Lendlease.

Cremin said that AKF added simple safety measures to each ongoing project during the pandemic, such as increasing riser sizes, assuring that air handler units could handle more outside air. She said one project was already 75 percent when the pandemic first struck.

Morrison noted that, at the beginning of the pandemic, many behavioral health centers in New York City were turned into intensive care unit (ICU) centers because of capacity issues, and it will be important to try and avoid this scenario going forward. He said health care companies are now proactively designing new facilities so that they can accommodate overflow space in case added capacity is needed for emergency situations like COVID-19.

“We have done a whole run-through of how much outside air is in our buildings, what types of systems do we have, and I think moving forward, we are going to need to take a more innovative and closer look at that,” Michael Izzo, vice president of construction at Hines, said during the third panel, “Wellness and Sustainability Features That Every Modern Building Needs.” 

“Segregating our heating and cooling capacity from [digital object identifier]-based systems and many other things, not only from a health standpoint, but also thermal comfort, occupant satisfaction, etc., and making the space more protective,” he added.

Mike Handler, co-president of Building and Land Technology, stressed that the pandemic has taught “sophisticated tenants” the importance of keeping employees healthy, given how much productivity is lost during an extended illness or quarantine period. Handler said building owners would need to be cognizant of health concerns and design structures with features that limit exposure to viruses. He also cited his building constructing a conference room in the lobby, in order to protect workspaces from outside visitors, as one example of new safety trends that may stick around after the pandemic subsides.

Panel3 CO Design Forum: Forge Ahead on Retrofits, Pandemic Be Damned
Clockwise from left: Structure Tone’s Robert Leon, International WELL Building Institute’s Jessica Cooper, Hines’ Michael Izzo, and Building and Land Technology’s Mike Handler. Headshots courtesy of speakers

The third panel — moderated by Robert Leon, executive vice president of global services at Structure Tone — also included Jessica Cooper, chief commercial officer at the International WELL Building Institute.

Cooper recommended installing air purifiers as a feasible way for building owners to enhance ventilation systems. She said her company’s WELL Building Standard, a performance-based rating system monitoring health and wellness, has been focused on operations rather than new designs, so they can be implemented more quickly.

“Real estate professionals are becoming agents of public health,” Cooper said. “There is a greater sense of urgency now, and I think we are all being called to action to support in this fight against COVID.”