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Lessons from Empty Buildings: Do’s and Don’ts of Reopening

Lessons from Empty Buildings: Do’s and Don'ts of Reopening

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter, Feb. 9, 2021

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many offices and buildings closed. Some have reopened, while others remain empty. Shutdowns have affected campus infrastructure management.

Today during ASHRAE’s 2021 Virtual Winter Conference several campus infrastructure managers will share their experiences with the shutdown and reopening at their campuses. From managing remote teams to designating essential worker and maintenance tasks to relying on building automation systems, the “Lessons from Managing Infrastructure through the COVID Shutdown” seminar covers various topics, including watering potted plants.

The seminar is scheduled from noon to 1:20 p.m. Eastern time today.

One of the seminar’s presentations will focus on the “Do's and Don'ts of Reopening.” Ahead of his presentation, Aaron Sorrell, Member ASHRAE, a mechanical engineer at General Services Administration (GSA), talked with ASHRAE Journal about common missteps and lessons learned from his experience reopening buildings.

1. What are the most common missteps you are seeing when teams are working to reopen buildings?

The most common misstep we found was well-intentioned but overeager attempts at compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ASHRAE guidance, without reading all of it, or really understanding the intention of the guidance.

A good example was a rush to install higher MERV rated filters in air-handling units that couldn’t handle them.

2. What steps can they take to avoid these missteps?

It is important to look at the whole system design and operation and avoid exceeding functional limits to allow the system to operate effectively and continuously.

3. Do people need to pay any particular attention to certain building systems when reopening a building?

[Pay attention to] ensuring outdoor air (OA) dampers are operating as expected and that the design minimums really provide the building an appropriate amount of ventilation.

4. What are your recommended best practices for reopening buildings?
We did an extensive audit of our [GSA’s] entire inventory, which, while intensive, allows us as engineers to speak confidently to each facility’s readiness for occupancy and what appropriate numbers of occupants will be.

It isn’t just HVAC that needs to be addressed; buildings that have been sitting empty or mostly empty will also require a plumbing flush.

5. What are some resources readers can use to learn more about best practices for reopening buildings?

GSA used CDC guidance, ASHRAE guidance and various industry white papers. The industry white papers discussing the intent of each piece of the guidance was particularly useful in making sure we did all the best things for each of our buildings.

6. Is there anything else engineers need to know about this topic?

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all solution here; however, there is an approach for every building. The important thing is finding the right approach for yours.