A Touch of Tech
Proptech may help increase safety and sanitation — and that potential was realized in one Chicago-based retail-office project.
To say that things changed when COVID-19 shut down the global economy - and, not to mention, daily life for a few billion people - is an understatement. But when it comes to design in commercial real estate development, the pandemic merely accelerated adoption of some trends. Air quality, sanitation, and ergonomics as a whole were certainly considerations before anyone knew what social distancing was. But in 2021, these concepts are all the more essential to design and development.
Work on the Fulton East project in Chicago's bustling West Loop neighborhood was underway before the pandemic. The 90,000-sf retail and office building emphasized design elements like natural light, open communal spaces, and health and wellness. But what was desirable in a pre-COVID environment quickly became necessary in 2020.
“When the pandemic hit, we needed a hard pivot,” says Bob Wislow, chairman and CEO of Parkside Realty, a boutique real estate venture in Chicago responsible for the Fulton East project. “We were fortunate. We [were able] to be really flexible and say, 'Hey, we need to figure out what we should be doing to address [COVID-19].' Then we just went into research mode to determine what we could do.”
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As it turned out, there was plenty to do. Proptech has been focusing on these concerns for years, so adoption motivated by a global pandemic meant options were available. Wislow and his team aimed to retrofit Fulton East in the middle of development. From high-tech to low, here are four of many COVID-19-specific improvements included in the building that began leasing space in the second half of 2020.
Elevators. A natural bottleneck for foot traffic coming in and out of every multistory building, elevators also present a sanitation challenge with those pesky buttons. But Fulton East was able to remove that common touch point by working with two elevator companies to design a fully hands-free system.
“In our research, we learned elevator buttons are one of the most contagious points in a building,” Wislow says. “Now, if you're in the hallway wanting to call an elevator, there are foot pedals down at the baseboard below where the buttons would normally be - one for up and one for down. When you get in the elevator, all of the floors are indicated by touch pedals at the base of the floor.”
Filtration. “We needed to address air and surface disinfection. What's the best way to do that?” Wislow says. “Because we were already thinking of health and wellness [before the pandemic], we had installed a double filter system, but we were able to add a non-thermal, plasma technology.”
The airPHX system is in use in hospitals, dental clinics, and college athletic facilities where on-site testing has shown reductions of more than 90 percent of viruses, bacteria, and mold, both on surfaces and in the air.
Technology will continue to be a method for developers to improve building safety and sanitation, reduce costs, and improve user experience.
Keyless Entry. Fobs were nothing new in the office setting in 2020, but Fulton East was able to incorporate a phone-based system that eliminates common touch points throughout the building. Additionally, the hands-free approach improves access and efficiency by reducing the requirement for lights and elevators to be on 24/7.
“The system knows when you are approaching a door so it can unlock it for you,” Wislow says. “It will open an elevator door. It will improve security through geofencing.
Sanitation. Probably the last thing to come to mind when you imagine the tech-heavy office of tomorrow is paint. But that's not because the paint industry isn't putting in the work.
“In researching what could be done with paint, we found a Sherwin-Williams product that's used in hospital-type settings,” Wislow says. “You normally use an antibacterial paint in washrooms, but this two-coat process can eliminate bacteria and viruses. We went back and repainted all the washroom walls with this and plan to reapply it every four years as intended.”
Technology will continue to be a method for developers to improve building safety and sanitation, reduce costs, and improve user experience. The extent of which proptech will do so remains to be seen, but Wislow draws a parallel between today's situation and what the CRE industry went through years ago when LEED certification. That program started as something only a handful of developers were interested in but after some municipalities started to mandate it, became something that's commonplace today.
“When I visited Shanghai, air quality monitors were in the lobbies of the newest buildings, showing you what the air quality was that day,” he says. “People are going to become very cognizant of that - air quality controls will be built into leases. All of these initiatives are going to become standard in buildings in the future - and that's a good thing. It's good that this pandemic has made us more aware of the environment we're in.”
Editor's note: This article is an adapted excerpt from a full-length Commercial Investment Real Estate podcast. Visit www.cirepodcast.com to listen to the full episode or stream wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.