Architects, developers ponder pandemic workspace needs, designs

Lisa Ferguson
Prosper Press
Construction continues June 25 at Prosper Gardens Office Park, on Prosper Trail near Coit Road, in Prosper.

In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has changed nearly everything about how individuals and businesses function daily.

The configurations of and operations at office buildings locally and nationwide have been dramatically impacted by those changes.

From socially distant work areas to enhanced sanitizing measures, a major push is on to rethink the design, function and maintenance of buildings to help keep workers and visitors safe.

Safety+Health, a magazine published by the National Safety Council, recently shared the results of a survey of 2,000 people conducted by Utah-based experience-management software company Qualtrics.

Seventy-four percent of respondents reportedly want their work areas to be regularly and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, while 60 percent desire options for maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet from others while on the job.

Mike Fazeli said he saw the writing on the wall in early March, just as many companies around the country began having employees work remotely due to the pandemic.

At the time, construction at Prosper Gardens Office Park, on Prosper Trail near Coit Road in Prosper, which Fazeli owns and developed, was in its early stages.

Regardless of when a vaccine for COVID-19 is created and distributed, he believes that going forward “there’s going to be some level of people just being more aware of the virus’ impact and bacterial issues and health” at office buildings.

Fazeli said he thought it was important that each suite at the office park feature its own separate entrance versus one attached to a lobby, hallway or other common area where people could come into close contact.

Tenants who purchase or rent suites, which are in the final phases of construction, may have an opportunity to select amenities (possibly for additional fees) that are touted for potentially minimizing the spread of the virus.

Fazeli mentioned antibacterial fixtures such as countertops, germ-killing ultraviolet lighting, specialized cleaning services and transparent doors that he suggested may help those inside determine whether a person exhibiting symptoms of an illness is attempting to enter an office suite.

“These are small things,” he said, “but we spent time researching it.”

Najdi Rafaty with Linc Commercial Realty in Dallas, which is overseeing the rental and purchase of units at Prosper Gardens Office Park, said the response from potential tenants has been largely positive. “Everybody seems to be very pleased and surprised … how quickly we have come to this point.”

Gary Pitts is a core-and-shell client leader at the Dallas office of the design firm DLR Group. The company is not affiliated with the Prosper Gardens Office Park project.

Amid the pandemic, Pitts said, DLR Group is advising its clients about “emerging best practices” for office building construction, functionality and amenities.

“There’s a shopping list of several things,” said Pitts, who is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified.

He is in the process of also obtaining WELL certification, which relies on several criteria to measure, certify and monitor building features that impact the health and well-being of people.

Pitts said “the jury is still out a little bit” on how truly effective certain antibacterial countertops and even paints are when it comes to thwarting viruses such as COVID-19.

Ultraviolet C light (or UV-C), on the other hand, has proven effective and has been used for decades to prevent viruses from replicating.

However, Pitts said, “That light is like a heavy sunburn, so it’s caustic to your skin and especially your eyes, so that has to be done in a certain way.”

UV-C lights are frequently used as a component in certain heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, particularly at large office buildings, to help eliminate the growth of bacteria and fungus on the unit’s coil and drip pan.

The lights may also be installed in rooms that house industrial HVAC equipment to treat the return air before it enters the system’s air handler.

“We can never say that it kills it all,” Pitts said. “There’s not a way to say that, so we want to make sure that our customers understand that.”

Other technologies available for office buildings include touchless, Bluetooth-enabled elevator buttons that are operated via cell phone, and infrared thermal cameras connected to alarms that automatically lock inward opening doors upon detecting that a person’s body temperature exceeds a certain degree.

When it comes to putting social-distancing protocols in place, it may be reassuring to learn that many office areas have actually expanded in size in recent years.

“A lot of people are thinking that office spaces are getting smaller due to more people working from home, but it’s really the other way around,” he explained.

Pitts suspects that many of these office construction and design trends are here to stay.

“We’ll never truly be free of COVID, and who knows what’s out there next,” he said. “These are emerging trends, but I see them being not trends (for) too much longer. They’ll be kind of set in stone. This is the way things need to be done.”