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Potential CRE Property Improvements To Adapt To COVID-19

August 5, 2020

Potential CRE Property Improvements To Adapt To COVID-19
Social Distancing in Modern Office With Glass Cubicle.

How the pandemic is changing—and could transform—commercial real estate spaces

In addition to everything else we can blame on COVID-19, the pandemic has altered what’s important in commercial real estate. Not long ago, landscaping, security, and lighting were among the key elements to increase property values, and often ranked high on the list of tenant wishes.

But with the pandemic and re-openings, the most significant concern is the health and safety of anyone entering a property. Much of that reflects growing health concerns and awareness of how the virus spreads. But there’s also a very practical interest in limiting liability and the potential for lawsuits.

To that end, preventative measures come in numerous shapes, sizes, and price points—and many of them are contingent on property usage.

Immediate steps for reopening

At the top of any reopening checklist is evaluating the floor plan of the property, followed by making adjustments based on the best practices outlined by leading health authorities, such as the CDC. Generally, this means keeping at least 6’ of space between people, limiting group interactions, and mitigating air-droplet spread.

Steps that some properties are taking include:

  • Using furniture to create distance. Desks, for example, should be at least 6’ apart. If space is tight, some furniture may be removed or roped off. Bookshelves and other office furniture may be moved into positions that help maintain distance, while temporary walls and partitions can be brought out of storage and put to better use. In some cases, plexiglass partitions are attached to furniture to create boundaries.
  • Since communal spaces are discouraged, converting that space into storage for any pieces removed from the main work area is an option. So is using it as a workspace for a portion of socially-distanced employees.
  • Implementing foot-traffic patterns that make sense for the property. For example, signage can remind people to move in one direction when walking about the office, up and down the aisles of a retail space, or when entering or exiting a conference room.
  • Steps to maintain distance can be as simple as signage, arrows, and colored tape on the floor, or as elaborate as “The 6-Feet Office,” which uses bold colors and patterned carpeting to delineate social distances for offices and traffic.
  • Enacting policies that stress flexibility, choice, and wellness. These can include elevator etiquette reminders, the creation of cohorts or teams to limit the number of people actually in the office on any given day, hand-sanitizing stations, and a clean-desk policy so surfaces can be disinfected easily. Enhanced cleaning protocols are considered critical.
  • One possible way to minimize COVID’s spread in interior settings is to open windows and allow fresh air to circulate. For many buildings, however, that’s not an option—either windows don’t open, or the weather is too hot and humid. But some companies are moving specific workspaces, such as conference rooms, outside.

Looking to hospitals for CRE inspiration

By reopening, many commercial properties and their occupants have joined others on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle. It only makes sense, then, to look to the veterans of the war: hospitals. These facilities have valuable lessons for preventing the spread of diseases to others.

  • For decades, we’ve been warned about the dangers of ultraviolet (UV) light, specifically UVA and UVB, which are responsible for sunburns and skin cancers. But there’s also UVC, which, because of its short wavelength, cannot penetrate Earth’s atmosphere. There is a subset of wavelengths (far-UVC) that has been shown to kill “99.9% of seasonal coronaviruses present in airborne droplets.” Handheld, mounted, and mobile UVC devices have already appeared in hospitals, nursing homes, and food establishments.
  • Because weather and design keep many windows sealed, there is growing interest in how recirculating air from HVAC systems helps spread COVID-19. One potential solution is the addition of UV lights into HVAC ductwork to sterilize indoor air and improve ventilation. Also, proper air filtration (depending on the size and scope of the unit) and maintenance contribute to better indoor air quality.
  • One of the challenges hospitals have faced in the COVID battle is having to increase Airborne Infection Isolation Rooms, also known as negative pressure rooms. Air from the positive pressure space is forced under the door opening into a room with negative pressure, where dangerous microbes are then “captured.” From there, microbes are released into the outdoors, where they disperse and eventually die. The fundamental difficulty for many commercial buildings, however, is in maintaining an even, positive pressure due to HVAC issues and building usage.
  • COVID may call for leveraging Internet of Things (IoT) technology to make energy systems in the property smarter. With changes in the work dynamic, such as fewer in-house staff or staggered hours, owners may see savings by embracing an adaptive energy system. The building’s energy system knows when and how to operate based on the changed occupancy and hours of operation.

Reopening in SoFlo

While debates continue about states reopening too quickly, businesses are opening as cases are skyrocketing, and people want to get back to work. For owners, property managers, and tenants, the challenge is ensuring that enough has been done to protect the health and safety of occupants.

The complicating factor in COVID-based property improvements is that people are using commercial spaces differently—and the demand for some buildings is waning. And many of the most useful property upgrades—such as enhanced HVAC systems—are expensive.

Money may seem cheap due to very low interest rates. But many lenders are factoring risk into rates, and some institutions only lend to applicants with exceptional credit and significant resources.

In addition, the benefits of any property improvement must be balanced against the financial risk to owners. Installing a new HVAC system for a 10-story office building, for example, is a major capital investment. This expense may be unrealistic in light of diminished demand for a space and increased demand for shorter leases, which reduces the odds of recouping the investment. Then, there is the risk of lawsuits from customers and employees who may become infected on the premises.

We will cover many of these issues in future blogs. For now, sound advice for tenants and owners is to stay current on best practices for reopening as safely as possible. And everyone must carefully evaluate their financial and health-risk scenarios—and make decisions that make sense for their people and businesses.

At Morris Southeast Group, we stay on top of commercial real estate trends and will continue to update our clients and readers. As always, we are here for all of your CRE needs, including helping you evaluate potential steps to create or lease a safer property.

To learn more about what Morris Southeast Group can do for you, call us at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

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