One of the biggest conversations of the day is how and when to reopen facilities. Some universities are planning fully remote fall semesters, while others have announced reopening plans that include a combination of cautiously optimistic in-person and remote coursework. Presidents and deans of some universities, like the University of Tampa, have eschewed most remote learning altogether by deciding to open their doors to students in late August.
Which of these options is the safest for building occupants and communities? Have presidents and deans of universities, as well as CEOs and COOs of companies, included facilities management engineers as key stakeholders at the decision-making table alongside their board members? If not, how can building occupants — students and workers — trust that any reopening plan is focused more on their safety than on profits? Perhaps they can’t.
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting a long-ignored problem that requires an immediate solution: namely that facilities management (FM), who have remained locked in the proverbial basement of the cost center by upper management, must instead be allowed to not only step into crisis leadership, but to assume permanent leadership positions, equal in weight to other strategic leaders within their organizations.
Giving facilities management its proper respect
For the executive suite to give engineers their proper seat at the table, FM departments must be re-categorized from cost centers to strategic partners. Historically, FM has been viewed as a cost center that has been constrained by reactive maintenance and repairs. Yet, just as new technology helped transition IT departments from cost centers to strategic partners starting in the 1990s, resilience, energy management and sustainability can provide strategic contributions that allow FM to contribute to the overall success of their organizations.
Of course, this isn’t a new conversation. Facilities management has long lobbied for a seat at the table and its fair share of the corporate budget. Re-opening plans related to COVID-19, however, means that building occupants themselves are starting to recognize that it isn’t their presidents or CEOs keeping them protected during a crisis, but, rather, the engineers who work behind the scenes to maintain safe environments. On-site classrooms are only as safe as their engineering allows, and semantics and pandering to building occupants won’t change that.
Best practices for the COVID-19 era
Once their departments are viewed as strategic partners, the recommendations of facilities management teams must not only be considered, but also adopted. We read a lot about reopening guidance — about cleaning and disinfecting public spaces, wearing masks and creatively dividing spaces to prevent people from breathing in each other’s potentially virally rich respiratory droplets. Essential businesses, including healthcare facilities, grocery stores and utility plants, each seem to have their own best practices. Are their methods enough? Probably not. In fact, the following methods are the only ones that we believe can be viewed as best practices.
Air filtration is always top of mind for many facilities managers, but the pandemic now has the rest of the world adding the word “droplets” to their everyday vocabulary.
It’s important to note that the facts keep changing as science catches up to the virus. Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve learned that within indoor spaces, respiratory droplets travel four to five times farther than previously thought. A more recent review also shows that the distances that must be maintained between people who are infected and others who are not infected is poorly understood. As buildings reconfigure their work spaces by adding tall plexiglass divisions or walls, they also need to consider their air filtration systems.
Most dense office spaces easily transmit viruses. Consider what happened at a South Korean call center in Seoul back in April: 94 employees sitting on the same floor got sick, the majority of them sitting in the same section. The facility quickly responded by closing the building, and the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other entities offered testing and worked to isolate people who were ill. But by then it was too late. Ultimately, the call center’s office density proved too dense to prevent the spread of the virus.
While most air droplets will fall out of the air quickly, the smaller, virus-rich particles of 10 microns (µm) or less can stay afloat for up to three hours. Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values (MERVs) describe how well a filter is able to capture particles between 0.3 and 10 µm. The standard for most facilities is MERV-7, which isn’t capable of filtering COVID-19 from the air. MERV-13 or higher, however, removes a large percentage of even the smallest particles. Retroactively installing MERV-13 or higher filters is part of the standard reopening guidance released by the CDC, ASHRAE and others.
Unfortunately, most facilities don’t currently have MERV-13 filters, and adding them would be expensive and — in some cases — impossible because of the filter rack limitations within many standard air handling units. Therefore, facilities management may turn to the option of increased ventilation as a mitigating strategy.
How much ventilation is needed to maximize the safety of indoor spaces? Most CEOs and university presidents won’t like the answer: a whopping 100%. In the middle of summer, opening all outside air dampers to 100% in order to properly ventilate indoor spaces will make building occupants very uncomfortable. School and office buildings are not designed with chillers that can cool outside air 100% and maintain occupant comfort. The equipment in a call center, for example, must remain cool if it’s going to function. In winter, the opposite is true: facilities simply aren’t equipped to warm outside air only and require re-circulation to maintain comfortable temperatures.
Creative thinking and a way forward
What is the answer if air filtration and ventilation can’t be used as methods to keep entire campuses or enterprises safe? For some facilities, it will mean prioritizing spaces. If a university chooses to open, it might not be able to open all of its buildings. Under the guidance of facility management teams, some universities are choosing to keep libraries and other common spaces closed, and factoring in ventilation and air filtration when deciding when and how many classrooms can realistically — and safely — open.
Facilities that reopen too quickly or that don’t include facilities managers in reopening decisions may face a reckoning down the road as students learn that short-term profits, not safety, were prioritized. Unlocking facilities management from the cost center basement will not only keep building occupants safe during the current pandemic, but it will increase the future bottom line for many operations by increasing public trust in the organizations.
Smith is the Industry Principal for Facilities and Data Centers at OSIsoft, where he focuses on deriving digital value across Universities, Data Centers, and Manufacturing, Pharmaceutical and U.S. Federal Government facilities. In his current role he collaborates with facility teams to integrate the PI System, which enables a data infrastructure for operational intelligence that provides visibility into their assets, and empowers real-time, data-driven decision making.
O’Driscoll is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, with a Mechanical Engineering Ph.D., a Bachelor of Science (Engineering with Management), and a Post Graduate Diploma (Statistics). Eoin’s specific areas of expertise are: energy management, energy auditing, building automation optimization and smart building implementations. Eoin is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the Commonwealth of Virginia and an AEE Certified Energy Manager (CEM). Eoin also serves as a reviewer for a number of academic journals, including Energy, Energy Policy, the Journal of Cleaner Production, and Energy & Buildings.