Technology at the Forefront for Healthier High-Rise Buildings
The COVID-19 pandemic has real estate developers turning to new tech, like UV light treatments and touchless entrances, to create safer environments for residents
Wellness, a trend that has been influencing residential design and amenities for a decade or more, took on new meaning when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Developers, owners and managers of condominiums and apartments took some immediate steps to increase the health and safety of their residents and are now looking for long-term solutions to protect people.
“It’s a whole different world now, and we have to be responsive to what people will want and what’s required to create the safest possible building for residents,” said Kenneth Horn, president of Alchemy Properties in New York City, developer of 378 West End Avenue in Manhattan, a condominium on the Upper West Side. and the Woolworth Towers Residences downtown.
At 378 West End Avenue, Alchemy focused immediately on high-tech solutions for touchless entrances and cleaner air.
“We think the added cost of changes to our new condo development will be at least $250,000, but we’re 20 months out from when it will open, so there may be more modifications by then,” Mr. Horn said.
Like Alchemy, real estate developers are turning to technology to create a safer environment for people in their buildings.
“There is a lot of creative thought among startups and tech companies going into how to solve problems such as reducing the need to touch surfaces in public and to improve air circulation,” said Christopher Yip, a partner and managing director of RET Ventures, a real estate technology venture capital firm based in Park City, Utah.
Air and Water Filtration
The airborne coronavirus made everyone more conscious of the importance of fresh air circulation, an issue many developers were already addressing.
“There’s been a struggle between buildings wanting to reach LEED energy-efficiency standards, which went a little too far in reducing air circulation, versus wellness standards that value fresh air,” said Shahab Karmely, CEO of KAR Properties in New York, developer of the 2000 Ocean condominium in Hallandale Beach, Florida.
The air conditioning system at 2000 Ocean has high-density HEPA filters for better air quality, and wiring is in place in the system’s ducts to add UV lighting to kill germs.
At Waterline Square, a luxury apartment building on Manhattan’s West Side, filters preventing air recirculation and air migration between residences and common areas were installed. In addition, small particulate water filtration was also added “—from the first stage of design, as these systems are very difficult to add into buildings later,” said James Linsley, president of GID Development Group, developers of Waterline Square.
At ELEVATE in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, hospital-grade UV-C/HEPA air filters have been installed to mitigate airborne germs, said Dan Slack, principal of Baker Development, which developed the luxury apartment building. The filters remove germs from the air and the UV lighting element kills germs that settle on surfaces.
“Right now, we have small standalone machines that hang in the elevators or sit in doorways and larger versions in the common spaces such as the office and lobby,” Mr. Slack said. “It was a significant investment, but we plan to continue to use them even as the threat of the virus diminishes. We may install them in a slightly different manner since we were less concerned with aesthetics at first.”
The possibility of infection with the coronavirus from touching surfaces meant that most people quickly learned to press elevator and crosswalk buttons with an elbow. Next came the “covid claw” device to hook open doors. But technology is already providing new solutions to reduce or eliminate the need to touch surfaces that may have been contaminated by others. For example, the elevators and exterior doors at 378 West End Avenue will have hands-free access, Mr. Horn said.
Reducing the spread of germs on surfaces is also a focus at Waterline Square.
“Our buildings feature touchless entrances to minimize contact on door handles and our elevator systems are high-speed with destination dispatch technology to minimize contact on buttons and to spread out elevator usage more effectively,” Mr. Linsley said. “We have touchless entry kiosks at our Waterline Club, the shared amenity center.”
At 10 George Street apartments in London, self-activated key fobs provide access into the building, the elevator and amenity spaces, but Alastair Mullens, head of Vertus, developers of the property, said they are looking into adding something smarter that will allow people to hover their fob or smartphone over the elevator button to choose a floor.
At 2000 Ocean, biometric scanning technology with facial recognition provides access to each residence’s private elevator, Mr. Karmely said.
“Technology is increasingly available for facial recognition systems to provide access to shared amenity spaces and elevators, but there are still privacy and security issues to work through,” Mr. Yip said. “Another challenge that companies are addressing now is the critical link of a motorization system for doors so they can not only unlock but also open without the need to be pushed.”
Cleaning with Chemicals and Light
Most condo and apartment managers instituted more frequent cleanings when the virus hit, but some went beyond traditional cleaning methods.
“We’re installing copper handles on the stairwells and in the common rooms because copper has anti-virus and anti-bacterial properties,” Mr. Horn said. “We’ll be purchasing Black Iron Strength antimicrobial gym equipment for the building, too.”
Many developers are still looking at the research about the germ-killing capability of UV lighting and how it can be used in buildings. At ELEVATE, a mobile UV light sanitizing device is used to provide an extra layer of cleaning on all surfaces in an apartment before a new resident moves in.
“The problem with UV lighting is that no one can be exposed to it, so we’re experimenting with installing UV lighting in the elevator with a timer that turns it on at 2 a.m.,” Mr. Slack said. “It has a motion sensor, too, so it will automatically turn off if someone is nearby.”
Taking wellness one step further, residents at 2000 Ocean will have an iPad in their residence that can take their temperature, check their heart rate and their blood pressure. Residents can register for 24-hour access to a virtual doctor, Mr. Karmely said.
“Consumers were already conscious of their health and wellbeing, and the current situation certainly increased that awareness,” Mr. Linsley said. “We know how important it is to feel safe in one’s home.”