Carol's Corner Columns Management

Condo-Co-op Helpline: Understanding COVID-19 and Ventilation

Contrary to our wishes and hopes, COVID-19, with its many dangerous variants, is now and will for all time be part of the human experience. We will have to adapt our lives and systems to this reality. That will include better ventilation in high-rise buildings, to ensure that there is the level of air exchange required to promote human health. Managers and board members in residential cooperative and condominium buildings need to understand these issues.

For many years, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has published standards on heating, air conditioning and ventilation of interior spaces. ASHRAE standards are among the official reference standards in use by the New York City Department of Buildings to provide standards in heating, ventilating and air conditioning. In response to COVID-19, ASHRAE has published new ventilation standards for office and commercial buildings that recommend 100% air exchange every 10 hours. Commercial buildings are also looking at ultraviolet lighting, masking policies, social distancing in work areas and damper and variable air volume box adjustments to achieve the required 100% air exchange every 10 hours.

The issues for residential cooperative and condominium buildings are different. The uses of residential spaces are less dense and generally by family groups, so some ventilation concerns such as social distancing and masking are not material in individual units. Moreover, in many residential cooperative and condominium buildings, temperature in individual apartments is controlled by the packaged terminal air conditioners (PTACS) located within the unit. Regardless, unit owners can ensure fresh air intake by opening a window or using the fresh air setting on the PTACs.

However, there are hallways and other building interior spaces to consider as well. Traditionally, there has been some effort to provide some heating or cooling to these spaces, based on the outside air temperature, i.e. heating the air in the winter and cooling the air in the summer. But fresh air exchange has not been a major consideration for residential high-rises.

COVID-19 may be changing that calculus. There are building residents, such as the very young, who cannot be vaccinated. Moreover, there may be residents such as the elderly or immunocompromised for whom vaccines may not be as effective. Members of these groups might benefit from more fresh air in hallways and other common areas of residential cooperative and condominium buildings, particularly high-rise buildings. The fresh air is believed to help reduce virus load within the buildings which in turn would reduce human exposure to the virus.

In addition to the COVID-19 considerations, there may be some efforts to increase passive ventilation in residential cooperative and condominium buildings, particularly high-rise buildings as a countermeasure in climate change. During certain seasons, passive fresh air might be a substitute for heated or conditioned air. This would save energy. There may also be a cost savings.

For building management, the issue is whether there should be increased passive fresh air or fresh air exchange and, if so, how to address this sensibly and in a cost-effective manner. One option is to open a door or window that may be located in a common area, where it is secure, to allow in some additional fresh air to enter the building, passively. In some instances, this might mean opening a main door or a door to the roof area. If there is an opportunity to increase make up or fresh air in a system replacement, perhaps that should be considered, as well. Additionally, a louver might be added to a roof mechanical room.

This is a developing issue in terms of both acceptance of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the operation and maintenance of residential cooperative and condominium buildings and passive ventilation to reduce the impacts of climate change. But like all such issues, board members and building managers need to think about these issues and being alert to opportunities to make cost-effective changes to improve quality of life and building operations. Building management must be alert to regulatory changes that might impose some of these changes in residential buildings in the future. One certainty in all of this is that research on mitigating both COVID-19 and climate change will continue. The likelihood is that regulatory changes to implement the results of this research will take place, the question being what and when.

This column presents a general discussion. This column does not provide legal advice. Please consult your attorney for specific legal advice.

Carol A. Sigmond
Greenspoon Marder LLP
590 Madison Avenue, Suite 1800
New York, NY 10022
(212) 524-5074
carol.sigmond@gmlaw.com

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