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ASHRAE HQ What It’s Like Opening a Building During a Pandemic


What It’s Like Opening a Building During a Pandemic

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter, January 26, 2021

Interview by Mary Kate McGowan, Managing Editor

 The new ASHRAE headquarters showcases more than innovative HVAC&R technology. The renovation also displayed how to open a building during a pandemic.

ASHRAE began renovating a 66,700 ft2 (6197 m2) building, originally built in 1978, in January 2020. Ten months later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the building opened to staff.

Ginger Scoggins, P.E., Fellow ASHRAE, chair of the Headquarters Building Ad Hoc Committee, talked with ASHRAE Journal about what it was like to open the new headquarters during a pandemic.

1. What was it like to renovate a building during a pandemic?

It was a little scary in the beginning. We had a tight construction schedule to leave our current space, as we had a deadline with the new owners. If construction on the project had needed to be shut down for two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak, it would have been a challenge to meet this schedule.

We had a good construction manager who enforced many COVID-related protocols, including mask wearing, social distancing and hand-washing. Other than a couple of slight delays in receipt of materials due to shutdowns at manufacturing plants, we didn’t experience significant hardship for our project due to the pandemic.

2. What was it like to open a building during a pandemic? Please describe the process and your experience.

It has been a slow opening. Due to the pandemic, most personnel are still working from home, so occupancy is very light. This has allowed us to work through some building system start-up challenges without affecting the building occupants, such as equipment operational optimization, water-flow balancing and controls dialing in of setpoints. 

Also, per the recommendation of our Epidemic Task Force, we were asked to flush the building well prior to occupancy. This has not been an issue as we have been able to flush the building thoroughly for several weeks without people being affected by this flush.

3. How does knowing the building will not be fully occupied for some time affect the building opening process?

The downside of the slow opening of the building is that some issues may not present themselves until the building is occupied. Without much use of the building, we can’t work out all the bugs that might be present that are typically noted and addressed during the first few weeks of occupancy. These items will be worked out further down the road once more employees return to the building.

The bugs that typically get worked out once buildings get occupied include space access with occupant card readers, lighting control, temperature controls and noise issues. Without occupants, it gets more difficult to address these items, and they could linger past the date when the contractors are obligated to resolve them.

4. You’ve mentioned several changes in the opening process due to COVID mitigation, such as the effect of low occupancy and flushing the building per the Epidemic Task Force’s guidance. Did anything else COVID-related affect the construction/commissioning processes?

 Other items that were changed in regard to the pandemic include:

  • Our ceiling-mounted high-volume low-speed (HVLS) fans were reversed to direct airflow upward instead of downward to limit the spread of airflow to occupants directly adjacent to others.
  • Our CO2 monitoring system was disabled to allow continuous outdoor air to ventilate the space.
  • Our filtration was originally designed for a minimum of MERV-13, so no adjustments were needed for our filtration levels.

5. What are your recommended best practices for opening a building during a pandemic?

I recommend people:

  • Review the filtration levels in the existing systems and upgrade if possible.
  • Consider increasing the amount of outdoor air if the system can handle it. If the exterior conditions are conducive to it, flush the building during unoccupied times.
  • Consider the use of in-room or unit HEPA filtration, as well as possibly UV lights in either ducts or units if feasible.