The work-at-home migration caused by COVID-19 may continue for some time. It’s been what some call a “forced experiment” in efficiency and practicality for both governments and the private sector.
It also represents a challenge for commercial building owners and developers. They must decide how to move forward with new projects and how to make existing buildings safe for occupants.
Technology addressing fundamental health and safety issues that protect returning workers is already available. For example, automated body temperature measurement and touchless apps using smartphones, voice commands and QR codes are being installed at many building entrances.
More daunting, however, is the challenge of moving large numbers of people vertically from the lobby to offices on upper floors in a manner that is both safe and efficient. Owners and developers must understand the potential spread of viral infection through confined spaces like elevators. After all, what could be more concerning than standing in a small box with other people, making contact with buttons and surfaces that have been touched by hundreds of others before?
The risk is real. Contact tracing in China, published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), documented how an apartment resident contracted COVID-19 from an asymptomatic neighbour living a few floors above, even though the two had never met or interacted. Analysis determined that the lower floor resident was infected by the other through contact with surfaces in the building elevator where they both lived.
Health and safety issues, accelerated by COVID-19, are spawning new developments in elevator innovation.
Technology already offers some answers to the problem of common touch surfaces and buttons. For example, occupants can operate elevators using an app on their smartphones. Elevator touch screens can be protected by glass that can then be cleaned with disinfectants. Facial recognition and voice command controls, even buttons that appear as holograms, are also being developed.
Where touchless solutions are not practical, metal fixtures such as handles, bars and walls made from naturally antimicrobial materials like copper, or those with manmade antimicrobial treatments as offered by A3 Surfaces in Quebec, can reduce potential virus spread.
Given the small volume of elevator cars interiors, air quality must also be addressed, a matter previously given little thought.
Leading manufacturer ThyssenKrupp Elevator is offering building owners two air purification systems. One is an advanced Photocatalytic Oxidation unit that produces oxidizers, including hydrogen peroxide, which converts naturally occurring humidity and air into oxidizing molecules. The other is Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization, described by the company as, “a technology that uses an electronic charge to create a high concentration of positive and negative ions.”
However, maintaining safe social distancing while moving large numbers of people vertically remains a major challenge. Reducing the number of passengers in each elevator car is an obvious answer. However, industry observer Rob Isabelle told CTV News that maintaining safe social distancing would require three hours to move just half of the 10,000 employees working in the four towers of Toronto’s Commerce Court.
One traffic flow solution from ThyssenKrupp is called TWIN. The concept has two elevator cars running independently in one shaft, effectively doubling system capacity. It’s already in use in a 21-storey building in Atlanta, Ga.
Other developments include destination dispatch systems integrated with smartphones or turnstiles. These identify pre-authorized building occupants as they enter the premises. It then directs them, and two or three other passengers with a common floor destination, to the right elevator. ThyssenKrupp has also introduced a rope-free elevator system called MULTI, featuring cars that not only travel vertically but also horizontally between buildings via skybridge connectors and then down again, in a continuous loop.
As employees return to their offices over time, they will likely discover significant changes in terms of workspace separation, desk scheduling, reduced common areas and an overall shrinkage of their office footprint. However, getting them through the main door and up to their offices safely and efficiently is today’s big technological challenge.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.