Pandemic places focus on interior environment

Office Market office rendering by DVM.

Office interior elements have been integrated by developers and investors into the concept, design, leasing strategy, and Property Management (PM) and Facility Management (FM) of office projects, in reaction to more sophisticated tenant and staff demands and, more recently, due to the COVID-19 virus and expected post-pandemic working patterns.

Receiving accreditation from independent, third-party sustainability organizations such as BREEAM, LEED, and, increasingly, WELL requires meeting a range of demands regarding interiors and COVID-related issues.

“In this post-pandemic world, we foresee people working one to two days per week from home, but spending the rest of their working hours in their offices, where the environment is more supportive for healthy (for example, touchless features and taking into account social distancing requirements) and collaborative (for example, increased collaboration and project areas, not dedicated workstations),” comments consultancy JLL.

“So, at the end of the day, we do not expect a significant decrease in office demand, especially if, following the economic recovery, companies start to expand and hire new employees,” it adds.

In the last few years, pre-COVID years, companies and office providers had pushed down the sqm/workstation ratio to gain greater efficiency and better profitability; during the pandemic, this started to be seen to have been a bad practice, according to András Lesták, head of development and design at New Work Offices, the leading CEE serviced offices provider.

“Interiors will surely have to adapt to the functional and mechanical changes caused by such a pandemic. Everyone in the planning and fit-out process has to understand that the workspace does not only have to meet the technical needs for work, but also the health and well-being factors of the end-users,” he explains.

“The main technical challenge from the PM and FM side will be the fresh air supply and the ventilation system. Normally-used filters and units are not able to remove bacteria and viruses, which will not be acceptable post-COVID, so they will have to find a proper solution to manage the air in the buildings. FM will also have to rethink whether a bi-yearly HVAC system maintenance and filter change is adequate, or should they go for a seasonal schedule at least?” Lesták says.

Forced Evolution

The pandemic has thus resulted in the forced evolution of internal organizational structures. “Continuous online communication can indeed be tiring and there are more and more obvious negative impacts on people’s mental health,” comments Tibor Massányi, managing partner at the architectural, interior design, and construction engineering DVM group.

“People lose their sense of connectedness if those personal, ad-hoc coffee breaks and small talks are not part of their life. Returning to the office requires the re-definition of corporate culture and the strategy of the office space,” he continues.

“There is no universal solution for all, but the office is first the place where people can meet. Communities are the cradle of the development of our societies and innovation. Collaboration spaces, not only for work but also for recreation, will be central areas in post-pandemic offices. Design for uncertainty is what we do now when we design for the future, opting for easily transformable, flexible solutions,” says Massányi.

The leading green building certification programs are increasingly integrating health and wellness (indeed, WELL is based upon it) into their certification criteria to address the current public health crisis according to JLL.

“They promote sustainable building solutions that involve monitoring air quality to prevent the spread of infections, support social distancing, and promote non-toxic surface cleaning,” says Balázs Agócs, workplace strategy director at JLL Hungary.

“Hence, the health and wellness of buildings’ occupants will be considered throughout the design, building, and operation processes. Open concept floor plans that can be used for multiple purposes with plenty of space to allow for social distancing will be crucial to slow the spread of coronavirus,” he explains.

“As I see it, the pandemic has made office building users aware that environmentally conscious ratings, previously used only as a marketing ploy, require real awareness on the part of those who use them, regardless of their role in the development cycle: developer, designer, contractor, operator, or user,” adds Massányi.

Core & Shell

As an example of the growing use of interior accreditation systems, Skanska has received WELL “Core & Shell” pre-certification for the first phase of its H2Offices complex, designed by the Danish studio Arrow Architects. The WELL standard, created by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), certifies if a building is providing healthful and human-centered features for the people using it.

The project is on course to reach “Platinum,” the standard’s highest level, according to Skanska. The firm (and other leading office developers such as Horizon Development and Futureal), is committed to developing projects in line with WELL accreditation in addition to the established LEED and BREEAM systems.

“The air quality within the building will be ensured with increased fresh air supply, monitoring, and demand-controlled ventilation. A healthy level of humidity will be maintained in the rooms, which impedes the spread of viruses and bacteria,” says András Schmidt, environmental manager of Skanska’s commercial development business unit in Hungary.

“H2Offices is designed to maximize daylight access and minimize glare while LED fixtures provide efficient and high-quality light for building users. The multifunctional garden and the green terraces will support people to relax and recharge during the day. Bicycle storage, changing rooms and showers, as well as a rooftop running track will encourage recreation and a healthy lifestyle,” he explains.

“The office complex will promote good hygiene practices, and touchless technologies will play a significant role in increasing user safety when moving around in the building. Future users can be sure that their needs and their physical and mental health were considered during the design of the project,” Schmidt adds.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of  May 7, 2021.

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