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APPA COVID-19 Message Following the January 8, 2021 APPA Town Hall

headshot of Lander Medlin

An occasional blogpost from Lander Medlin, APPA’s Executive Vice President


Healthy, Smart Buildings:  Why You Should Care

January 11, 2021 — Let me start by saying the virus is still winning!  This past month could be labeled “the great accelerator.”   The U.S. added well over 8M new cases, surpassing 22.4M total, with infections rising in every state.  It’s no longer a “surge on top of a surge.”  It’s now a viral tsunami!  The page may have turned on the annual calendar but the battle still rages at epic proportions.  Case in point.  It took 292 days to hit 10M cases and just 54 days for that number to double.  And the January surge from the holidays has yet to begin.  Add the new variant strain detected in 5 states, said to be 70% more transmissible than the original version … I shudder to think of the rising caseloads, death counts, and hospitalizations we’re facing.  The death toll doubled last month’s ominous levels, exceeding 97,000 in one month alone and totaling 374,000.  Sadly we recorded more than 4,000 deaths a day as of Friday, exceeding one victim every 15 seconds and which could crest a total of 450,000 by the end of January as the hospitals become increasingly overwhelmed.  Those are real numbers, real people, and real deaths.

The U.S. has now remained above 100,000 hospitalizations for more than a month.  This could portend a total collapse of the healthcare system if we have another spike.  Yet, the impact of the holiday season’s surge and the new virus variant hasn’t even hit us yet.  Frankly, record-high COVID-19 hospitalizations should matter to you as bed space for other serious health issues (heart attack, stroke, and accidents) could seriously, if not completely, compromise healthcare providers.  Hospital staff cannot stop that.  They can only react to it. 

It is the public that has the power to put a stop to the spread of this virus by obeying the public health guidance of the 3 Ws:  Wear a Mask; Wash your Hands; Watch your Distance, and avoid crowded settings or gatherings, especially indoors; and, institutions Boxing in the Virus through:  Strategic testing; Rapid contact tracing; Supportive of quarantine; and Effective Isolation.  Recognize these multilayered mitigation strategies accompanied by a coordinated public health strategy are the most effective measures for decreasing the risk of transmission.  Startling fact:  59% of ALL virus transmission comes from asymptomatic individuals.  Plus, we know that the virus flourishes wherever people let their guard down.  Let’s be vigilant.  Collectively, we can shape what happens over the next few months and demonstrate we really are in this together. 

Yes, two vaccines are now available – Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, boasting 95% effectiveness, and requiring two doses, 21 days apart.  The FDA says people will need both doses of these vaccines.  Unfortunately, the vaccine’s distribution and administration is moving at a glacial pace.  Fewer than 30% of distributed doses have been administered, although the goal was 20M vaccinations by the end of 2020.  Without a national plan, COVID’s grip on the U.S. will extend for several more months. 

The CDC hopes to more than double the number of coronavirus genomes sequenced to watch for new mutations in the United States over the next two weeks.  At this time, the U.S. is woefully ill-equipped to track this dangerous new virus variant.  It’s just one of the growing list of challenges that have surfaced around the globe.

Convergence of the latest pandemic spirals are further exacerbating economic recovery.  New filings for jobless claims is still hovering at a weekly number of 787,000 people.  However, the fact remains that there are well over 20M people receiving unemployment benefits.  The pace of U.S. hiring had slowed since November. Then, the U.S. lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first drop in employment since April as the economy began to backslide amid a resurgent pandemic.  Congress passed a second $900B stimulus aid package in late December with stimulus checks now being distributed, also averting millions of housing evictions.  U.S. household spending and retail sales continue to lose ground. 

COVID’s grip on higher education hasn’t eased.  As a matter of fact, our collective associations previously estimated $120B in new expenses and lost revenues that are the direct result of the pandemic.  However, the impact is much worse than anticipated encompassing bigger enrollment declines, greater student financial need, substantial auxiliary revenue losses, and COVID-specific expenses significantly higher.  That prior estimate dramatically understated the challenges schools are facing.  The current situation is unsustainable for institutions beyond meaningful federal assistance.

We now have an incredible opportunity to begin the New Year – 2021 – with a critically important topic, Healthy, Smart Buildings and Why You Should Care.  Our focus will be on the indoor environment as a key determinant of our occupants’ safety, health, and productivity.  Ask yourself if you have ever worked in a building where you really felt great?  Contrast that feeling with one that literally made you sick!  Let me now challenge your thinking by highlighting a few relevant facts**:

  • Buildings are central to our lives and livelihoods. We spend 90% of our time in them.  Yet, the quality of the air we breathe is an afterthought.  Air pollution – not outdoors, but indoors – that is the environment that has the greatest impact on our health, how we feel and perform.
  • The true cost of operating our buildings is the people inside. Making buildings healthier make people healthier and more productive, which translates to a healthier bottom line.  It makes good business sense!
  • Buildings represent the largest consumer of materials (yes, fossil fuels) of all industries on earth. Unfortunately, the focus has been on energy savings and conservation rather than balanced with a human health and productivity perspective.
  • The convergence of health science, building science, and business science are inextricably linked and reveals the greatest untapped business and health opportunity. Yet, we’re too siloed, even as disciplines, let alone the data capture. 
  • Building engineers and facilities managers are the true heroes of our health. People who manage our buildings have a greater impact on our health than doctors.
  • Quantitative research now shows objectively and in a reproducible way that our cognitive abilities, health productivity, and well-being are directly impacted by decisions in the engineering, operating, and running of our buildings.

Recall PCBs, radon, asbestos, cancer hot spots, legionnaires disease, and the effects of stagnant water and mold!  These sick building syndromes are real.  The risks of exposure and liabilities are real.  Yet, the efficacy of healthy buildings for human health and performance is equally real.  With SMART technologies, healthy buildings can indeed be a reality. 

The following statement by the Secretary of Education captures the disconnect between buildings and student health, thinking, and performance:  “We should be funding and investing in students, not in school buildings.”  As if the two are not directly related?  We must translate the hard science into accessible language and actionable recommendations.  We made that business case during the Town Hall discussing the foundations of a healthy building; tools to operationalize strategy; and measurable and demonstrable improvements (HPIs – Health Performance Index and KPIs – Key Performance Index).  This background and context set the stage for our panel of subject matter experts.

Panel of Experts:

  • Lalit Agarwal, Director of Maintenance & Utility Services, University of Nebraska Lincoln
  • Emmanuel Daniel, Director of Digital Transformation for Smart Buildings and Campuses, Microsoft
  • Pat Duffy, P.E., LEED AP, Principal, BR+A Consulting Engineers
  • Adam Gogolski, Product Manager, Gordian
  • David Handwork, P.E., Assistant Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management, Arkansas State University
  • Rob Murchison, Co-Founder of Intelligent Buildings, LLC, & Instructor for the Harvard University Graduate School of Design Executive Education

Highlights from the Town Hall panel of experts’ remarks follow:

  • Healthy buildings is the “silver lining” of the pandemic’s dark cloud with the overriding, overarching question, How safe and secure are your buildings?  Are occupants concerned about virus transmission by just coming into our buildings? Governmental and corporate environments are faced with the same concerns. 
  • We identified four basic questions critical to addressing issues surrounding healthy, smart building 1) Are you confident that building systems are optimized to deliver safe and healthy environments post-pandemic?  We might immediately say “yes” but struggle to quantify it.  There is indeed a gap in quantification.  And, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  We lack measurement of our building systems to confidently deliver optimal safe and healthy environments for our occupants.  2) Does your organization have a strategy for building systems optimization?  It’s not necessarily what you have, but how you use it to achieve optimization.  3) Should your building systems optimization strategy incorporate smart building technologies?  Technologies have come a long way with some new game-changing applications.  No matter your institutional type or programmatic needs, you can adopt smart technologies to move your organization forward.  4) Could your organization leverage an industry-wide tool to optimize its investment strategy?  The prior three questions lead to the bottom line.  We don’t presently have a tool to measure the optimization of our systems, which limits our ability to make the business case to senior institutional leadership.  Therefore, a guideline, a tool, a measurable metric(s) is needed to help us achieve that goal.
  • The “3-30-300 Rule” is a concept or framework developed by JLL. It is a framework to use as an indicator of the scale and magnitude of the financial difference, if we ignore the quality of spaces we create for occupants.  On average, we spend $3 per square foot on energy costs; $30 per square foot on maintaining and operating the real estate/built environment; and, $300 per square foot on the “productive value” of occupants.  Over the last couple of decades, we have focused most of our attention on the $3 per square foot portion to improve energy efficiencies as it is fairly easy to measure in real time.  Plus, there’s no magic way to measure the productive value or productivity of our work or learning environments.  Yet, even if you save 10% of that $3, all you’re saving is 30 cents, while many times those savings are coming at the expense of the $300 per square foot, or the productivity, safety, and health of the workforce.  In essence, by saving pennies we’re losing dollars.  However, you don’t have to compromise energy savings to achieve a safe and productive environment.  You can have the best of both worlds by using Smart Technologies.  That’s where the combination of these two worlds of healthy, smart buildings converges. 
  • This doesn’t just benefit the education industry sector, but governmental entities and the corporate sector alike all across the spectrum of real estate.
  • Buildings were built to be occupied and they need to be safe and healthy. To drive real engagement we address the “why” to instill confidence that our buildings and campuses are operating safely.  This coming decade is expected to be more transformative than prior decades in history.  We must prepare for every future, especially the education sector.  COVID-19 has just accelerated the need.  We must be able to leverage the technologies of data science, applied data science, business and predictive analytics along with the application of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and its integration in our facilities operations.  This will also differentiate our institutions across the market and further optimize the triple bottom line.  This requires measuring where we are and prioritizing our needs to plan forward movement.  The “3-30-300” Rule highlights the relative financial impact with respect to occupant productivity to achieve the greatest ROI such as space utilization, visible physical threats, invisible pathogenic threats, and high occupant safety.  Finally, the development of strategic partnerships with our IT community (CIO/IT staff) is crucial as the data of our campuses is blurring.  IT-Information Technology and OT-Operational Technology are merging with IoT-Internet of Things.  For example, data security requires a close working relationship with the IT team who are indeed the data security experts.  Furthermore, we need data scientists and information systems subject matter experts to leverage efficiencies and optimal execution of these types of strategies. 
  • The hybrid workplace is gaining increasing importance. What should or will drive people to return to campus and provide surety that it’s safe, and to some extent, guarantee the health of the individual?  Survey research has shown that given the option, people would continue to work from home and there is some acceptance of that.  The challenge has been a drop in innovation, not to be confused with productivity, as innovation is the ability to come up with new ideas better and faster which occur by working with your peers and engaging in unplanned, informal conversations and brainstorming sessions otherwise called “accidental collisions.” 
  • Driving innovation is about how effectively people/teams perform collectively who comprise multiple skills and abilities and a diversity of perspectives. You can correlate the degree of innovation with new ideas and services coming from that team and the revenue they produce.  Whereas productivity is about how efficiently tasks are performed by an individual or the team. 
  • Balancing sustainability and cost with productivity as the biggest driver is not easy. Microsoft has been modeling human value as an outcome of the innovation they are seeking to achieve.  Assessing effective utilization of space for ad hoc collaborative innovation sessions on the campus is another facet of their work.  People’s confidence and surety that their workspaces are optimized for its cleanliness depends on the quality of the building data, sensors deployed, and other types of data such as sound, light, location, etc.  These things aid in achieving an optimal level of individual and work team performance.
  • The proposed survey tool speaks to how we can collect, organize, and visualize data. It’s about measuring the health of buildings by creating a Healthy Performance Index (or HPI) and at the same time look at how smart the building is by using a Key Performance Index (or KPI) and do so at the building level.  The challenge is securing enough data that is actionable given millions of square feet, multiple buildings, and building types.  ASHRAE will be an important partner for the standards of air quality and exchange rates in buildings.  This is done now in hospitals and laboratories, so there are other solutions to help us sort out a framework to create actionable data for educational facilities.
  • The tool’s framework is very basic with two indices – placing Healthy Building Performance on the Y or vertical axis and Key Building Performance or the building intelligence on the X or horizontal axis. To make it actionable, place all the buildings (or your designated subset) along these two indices.  Therefore, we ask:  “Are we able to demonstrate improvement in the student and building occupants’ outcomes, hence, the $300 per square foot measures?”  ”Are we able to utilize the building intelligence – how smart our building is – to demonstrate operational improvements?”  This helps us understand how smart our buildings are, i.e., how much we actually understand them.  The beauty of this simple framework is you can actually pinpoint very specific and obvious buildings to target for more in-depth discussion, prioritization of need, and decision making.
  • The data dashboard is in its infancy and needs member input. We provided an example of how we want to visualize the data to show quickly where we are as a campus, the hot spots, possible comparisons with similar institutions, how we’re doing over time to get meaningful data that is actionable.  We seek to maximize space efficiency, energy usage, and human potential in those buildings determined as healthy, smart buildings. We hope the data dashboard will drive action and conversations within facilities and the executive leadership with clarity and focus.
  • To achieve the dashboard’s goal of quickly being able to see what’s occurring, the dashboard presented is speaking to the manageability of the data and its corresponding actionable results.
  • The idea behind this concept is not to limit the focus on HVAC alone just because it’s easier to measure in terms of real time data and has an immediate impact. The tool/measures need to be viewed holistically.  For example, if survey data determines more people want to work from home, then we have not created the environments where people “prefer” to come to work, collaborate, have the tools, and feel safe, healthy, and comfortable working in that environment.  Mining social media’s conversational data represents another mechanism to assess what’s viewed as good and bad in a residence hall or academic building.  This real-time feedback can help us be more proactive.  And, it’s not just air quality.  It’s light and sound levels, the location of the space, and the informal nature and uses of space (i.e., dynamic spaces) that bring people together.  Then, add the demographics of a multi-generational workforce and other such parameters to understand and gain clarity on the real effectiveness of space.  It begs the question:  “How can we redesign the workspace based on this data, without misaligning the core infrastructure, so it suits the collaboration needs to engage the team and ultimately drives collaboration, innovation, and productivity?
  • We caution you not to let all the technology overwhelm and deter your efforts. This framework can put the data into business terms/language that can drive better communication with senior leadership to make informed institutional investment decisions.  We can get so caught up in the technological details that we lose the essence of the “end game,” what we’re trying to achieve and why (e.g., make their lives more comfortable, improve student outcomes, enhance research outputs).  Then connect those to the metrics the institution uses to demonstrate achievement and you have real institutional alignment.
  • We need to focus on what is needed in our learning spaces that makes a student want to come to that space. Frankly, students’ technology needs are actually pretty basic – WiFi connection, plenty of plugs, sit near a window. It’s the accidental/casual collisions with other students, faculty, and staff that create that meaningful college experience. 
  • The real challenge is finding the right balance, the sweet spot, to achieve higher efficiency and higher productivity. A building that gains both operational efficiencies and improves occupants’ outcomes.
  • Temperature, light, and pressure levels represent the data you need to drive personalization of the workspace and adoption of the spaces in your buildings.
  • At some point we will be able to monetize our building operations data. No matter the industry, data is highly valuable because it tells us so much about our people and institutions.  Discerning that data and creating models for its application is highly valuable.  Unfortunately, we are data rich and information poor.
  • A discussion ensued around the efficacy of needlepoint, bipolar ionization and MERV 13 filters to mitigate COVID-19 and further justify the costs. The former technology continues to be researched, so there’s still not enough conclusive data.  However, filtration does a better job of picking out the smaller particles that can be transmitted through your HVAC.  Yet, many air handlers are older and do not have MERV 13 frames and as such might not achieve the same benefit.  Consider creating a standard for your air handlers that is MERV 13 rated going forward.  If retrofitting, you may be better off just replacing the whole area, but that will depend on a case-by-case evaluation and assessment.  Other technologies such as UV and UVC show effectiveness but should be “designed” for your specific air handler(s).
  • The survey being developed will help inform the team on what systems and technologies are being utilized and how; what data is generated and how it is used. The metrics and measures for the HPIs and KPIs serve as the basis for performance and provide the content and focus of the dashboard.  The formulas create actionable intelligence or outputs from these inputs to prompt conversation, prioritize need, and make decisions.  We are curating this survey now, planning to distribute the middle to the end of February, and hoping for a high level of engagement from across the membership.
  • APPA’s website will provide a central focal point for populating information on this topic, sharing reference materials, and generally updating the community on this initiative.

Author Dan Green says, “When faced with a challenge or adversity, I remind myself regardless of what came before or what has yet to come, what matters most right now is how I choose to respond to the challenge before me.  Will I lie down or will I engage?  The choice is mine and I choose to engage and finish strong.”  This message feels particularly relevant in a year filled with so much adversity.  No matter what challenge you are facing, whether on campus or your personal life, will you choose to engage and finish strong?

So remember what Winston Churchill said during an incredibly tumultuous time in history:  “Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.

E. Lander Medlin
APPA Executive Vice President

**Excerpts from Healthy Buildings:  How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, by Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber, Harvard University Press




























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