Commercial Features

Considerations for Reoccupying Vacant Office Spaces

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

New York City is such a resilient city. Over the years, I have seen so many things that have tried to drag us down and have been amazed by how fast and how well we recover. I can recall the moving trucks lined up to move people out of Battery Park City a month after September 11, 2001, and I also remember the line of moving trucks moving people back in just a few weeks later. We bounced back after the financial and real estate downturn in 2008 and then again after half of the city was flooded from Superstorm Sandy.

This pandemic is no different; we have seen the highest amount of vacancies in both commercial and residential real estate ever. Then, we look again, and there is hope on the horizon. Big Tech is moving into New York City in record volume, taking advantage of the deals that have come available as a result of this event. Before long, the resurgence will extend to residential real estate and then retail. That is the magic of our amazing city and country — we always come back!

With the expected re-occupancy of vacant office spaces, a few matters should be considered. Below is some food for thought:

Dust
Dust is just a normal byproduct of spaces sitting vacant for so long. Especially in densely populated places like New York City, where pollution gets mixed in with normal household dust, it can accumulate heavily over a few months. What is contained in the dust is where we need to be concerned. In addition to carbon (pollution), dust generally contains some living organisms such as bacteria, dust mites and a fair amount of human skin cells. When cleaning up previously unoccupied spaces, it is highly recommended to utilize HEPA vacuums. These vacuums prevent the discharge of the contaminants contained in the dust back into the room. Another consideration regarding cleaning previously vacant spaces is that in order to do a proper disinfection of surfaces, the surfaces must be clean and free of dust and residue first.

Plumbing
Plumbing should be checked regularly in unoccupied spaces. There are many risks involved with leaving water service on in spaces that are not monitored regularly. That’s how small leaks turn into major floods. But one of the things that people do not consider as quickly is the drain systems. When spaces are left unoccupied for several months, especially in the colder months when heat is on, water that is supposed to sit in the trap beneath every drain (sink toilet etc.) could dry up. You can then run the risk of sewer gasses coming in and affecting the air quality. This is easily fixed by running the water to refill the traps and doing a full air exchange, but that isn’t always obvious to everyone.

HVAC
The HVAC systems in spaces that were left unoccupied for months can have a few issues that would need to be addressed. The first is the possibility of excessive dust, not just in the space but within the systems’ ducts and fan cabinets. They should be inspected and, if necessary, cleaned before returning the systems to service. It is always recommended to have an HVAC mechanical contractor inspect the systems before reactivating a system that has been off for months. Filters that may have been almost new when the systems went down would still need to be replaced, since sitting inactive could cause residues to congeal on them and restrict airflow.

Another consideration with HVAC systems is upgrading their filtration. Many different health organizations have recommended upgrading to MERV-13 filters or better in order to limit the possible transmission of diseases. The issue with these recommendations is that not all air conveyance systems can handle a MERV-13 filter. It is recommended that a mechanical contractor check the capabilities of the system and provide recommendations as to how to upgrade the filtration. In some cases, the fan cabinets and motors may be able to be modified to allow for better filtration; in other cases, it is not possible. One thing is certain: people have started investing in the best-quality air filtration that their systems can handle (pleated vs. flat panel fiberglass).

Social Distancing Considerations
Office spaces have morphed over the past few years, opting more for open environments compared with traditional closed offices and cubicle configurations. With the new normal as we see it now, people are reverting to the closed office environment and have made other accommodations to allow for better social distancing. Some new offices have unidirectional hallways and separate entrance and exit doors. Opting for several smaller kitchen and bathrooms compared with the large areas where people would tend to congregate seems to be a wave of the future as well.

Pre-Occupancy Disinfecting
Many companies are still calling and looking for disinfection services before they occupy a space. I believe this is being done just to satisfy overly-anxious people and has very little benefit. I would prefer to see people focus on a daily maintenance plan that includes disinfecting touch-prone surfaces in high traffic areas on a regular basis. Also, further considerations should be made toward temperature checks, contact tracing and encouraging anyone not feeling well to stay home.

I am excited to see the rejuvenation and recovery of this amazing city. We are home to millions of people who come from all over the world, but once they here, they are New Yorkers for life!

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