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Underoccupied buildings a post-COVID challenge, say Buildex speakers

Warren Frey
Underoccupied buildings a post-COVID challenge, say Buildex speakers
SCREENSHOT — Pinchin Ltd. national practice leader for environmental quality David Muise (left) and operation manager, IEQ BC Heather Swall (right) both spoke on Sept. 29 at a Buildex Amplified virtual session titled Under Occupied Buildings – Risks To Remember.

Empty buildings will need extra attention before welcoming back workers. 

Pinchin Ltd. national practice leader for environmental quality David Muise and operation manager IEQ BC Heather Swall shared speaking duties for a Buildex Amplified virtual session titled Under-Occupied Buildings – Risks To Remember held Sept. 29, where they addressed maintenance problems offices may face­ before workers can return in large numbers.

While some employees have returned to the office since March 2020 when most offices closed down, buildings aren’t anywhere close to their former capacity, Muise said, and with that comes risks of contamination from several different sources.

The three top risks to returning workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control are mould, legionella and lead and copper contamination, Swall said.

She added when mould is discovered in a building it has to be disposed of as soon as possible.

“With bread you can throw mould out. Unlike bread, it’s a bigger deal when it’s in your building,” Swall said.

The lack of workers in buildings meant less likelihood of quickly identifying problems with leaks or observing red or black fuzzy spots that indicate mould, she added.

“It’s always cheaper to catch the problem early. It’s something you don’t want to wait on,” Swall said.

“If you see a problem act right away, because the problem gets worse quickly.”

Common mould problems include roof and plumbing leaks along with condensation, but “mould will grow on just about anything. It loves cellulose material, loves drywall and ceiling material and needs nutrients to feed on and most of our building material is very conducive for that,” Swall said.

Legionella can potentially breed in under-occupied buildings because while it isn’t contagious, it can spread by growing in “dead legs” in plumbing where water sits in a stagnant state.

“With COVID and nobody using the system all sinks are dead legs, so you need to flush the system more so water isn’t sitting and allowing bacteria to multiply,” Swall said.

Chemicals from pipes can also leech into water within a dead leg, she warned, “so keep the water regularly moving.”

As people return to the office it’s important to focus on building maintenance, Muise said.

“Obviously some maintenance has to happen, even in an empty building. At a minimum systems should be addressed on an ongoing basis,” he said.

Even if a building is in the middle of its maintenance cycle, Muise said, it is important to go through a complete inspection before employees come back in to work.

Muise said Pinchin, an environmental, engineering, building science, and health and safety consulting firm with offices across Canada has been receiving many questions as to the “sweet spot” for re-occupying a building.

“What’s the optimum percentage of people to have back in a building? A lot depends on how old the building is, what is has for a ventilation system and what’s the filtration on the building,” Muise said.

The first thing needed is a plan and a risk assessment of the building, he added.

“How you communicate risk to stakeholders is extremely important. We have to provide management solutions,” Muise said.

“But there’s a need to get back into some semblance of normal and getting work spaces back to 100 per cent will do wonders for mental health, peace of mind and increase productivity.”

Some people will still be risk averse post-COVID, he said, meaning buildings won’t be at full capacity.

“We’ll probably still see buildings in that under-occupied space for a long time,” Muise said.

 

Follow the author on Twitter @JOCFrey.

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