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As people get ready for the big return, how safe are our offices? 

Paul McNeive


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With traffic levels back to 82pc of pre-Covid levels, it’s clear that many employers and employees have had enough of working from home, have redefined essential work and are returning to the office. That’s good news for the office market, but the question now is: How safe are our offices?

The drive towards zero carbon emissions has reinforced the importance of monitoring the performance of buildings, and that technology is now playing it’s part in reassuring people that it is safe to be in a building. And the paradigm shift is that safety data is now being made available on staff and visitors phones, and is no longer the sole preserve of the facility manager.

Tony O’Keefe, COO of OPNBuildings, an expert in the collection and analysis of data on building performance, told me that the two big issues in the commercial building market are decarbonisation and the return to the workplace.

His firm worked recently on the UCC Campus in Cork where Internet Enabled Sensors (IOT) have been installed. These are wireless, battery powered sensors which constantly send anonymised information to the cloud on carbon dioxide levels in a room and on the numbers of people in rooms. The resulting information on air-quality is used to keep spaces open, and that reassurance is underpinning the safe reopening of the campus.

Whilst there is no monitor available yet that detects Covid, Mr O’Keefe told me that CO2 monitoring is a good indicator of general air quality. Indeed, the reopening of indoor hospitality in Belgium has been allowed on the basis that every business must have a prominently displayed CO2 monitor, so that the public can assess the quality of the ventilation.

On the broader issue of decarbonisation, Mr O’Keefe reminded me that the operation of  buildings produces 28pc of global carbon emissions . According to the Building Performance Institute Europe, 97pc of commercial buildings in Europe need energy-efficiency upgrades and 75 pc of commercial buildings are “wholly inefficient”.

To help address this issue, OPN Buildings are operating a partnership with Sirus Engineering, who employ 100 people in Ireland, specialising in heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and building management systems. I spoke with Michael White, CEO of the Sirus Group and Stuart McIntosh, the General Manager, and they confirmed the new focus on “building wellness” and stressed the importance of data, in assessing the performance of a building.

Mr White explained that the first step in assessing how a building is performing is to identify the existing conditions. This can be done using very affordable sensory technology which allows you to start building the profile of your building and how it lives and performs. This can include occupancy monitoring which provides detailed information on how the building is being used. This is followed by a deeper analysis of the existing heating and ventilation systems in the building, and a solution can be worked up, utilising natural ventilation, or a forced ventilation system may be required.

Mr McIntosh also pointed out that rapid advances in technology, particularly around chillers, but also for heat pumps and fan controllers, have halved the period over which a new system pays for itself-now to approximately five years.

Mr O’Keefe, Mr White and Mr McIntosh are presenting a workshop for the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland on July 21.   Details from the SCSI.

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