Retrofits at MedViron LLC and Industrial Woodworking Corp. offices in Zeeland.  Retrofits at MedViron LLC and Industrial Woodworking Corp. offices in Zeeland. COURTESY PHOTO

Businesses, property owners tackle indoor air quality in pandemic fight

BY Sunday, October 11, 2020 05:50pm

ZEELAND — The time and money invested to renovate the MedViron LLC and Industrial Woodworking Corp. offices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has been more than worth it for President and CEO Brad Davis.

“I haven’t been doing this for 25 years to have something like this take my business down,” said Davis, who heads the Zeeland-based medical and industrial furniture manufacturers. “I’m happy with what we did — I would not take it back for a second.”

Davis spent about $30,000 to fully renovate the office, stripping down outdated fixtures and replacing furniture to make the work space easy to clean. He also reconfigured what was previously an open-concept office and purchased 84-inch-tall fabric-covered cubicles for his staff. 

He also invested in the building’s less-seen infrastructure to protect employees, including hospital-grade High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters that cycle air every few minutes.

Davis said several people have told him the precautionary office retrofits were “overkill,” but he is not alone in taking a closer look at HVAC systems as a health precaution in the COVID-19 era. 

CWD Real Estate Investment LLC has faced ongoing questions from tenants about steps the company is taking in its buildings to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Air quality is often a key topic in the conversation, said Cullen Hillary, CWD’s vice president of operations. 

Air cleaning technology is not enough to protect someone from contracting the coronavirus on its own, but can help when used alongside other best practices such as social distancing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

CWD has been regularly replacing common area filters with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended MERV13 filter. The company has also modified equipment occupancy schedules wherever possible to circulate fresh air, while offering to replace filters for tenants who are responsible for their own HVAC systems, Hillary said.

Uptick in HVAC interest

According to CDC guidance issued on Oct. 5, inadequate ventilation can potentially contribute to an environment where COVID-19 is more easily spread by airborne transmission.

Exposure to respiratory droplets carrying the virus is the main way people contract COVID-19, according to the CDC. Updated guidance says the virus can spread through airborne particles that can linger in the air for minutes or hours, even among people who are more than 6 feet apart under certain circumstances.

There has “definitely been an uptick” in businesses showing interest in updating HVAC systems during the pandemic, said Cheri Holman, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan

“At the USGBC we always wanted people to look at this — it’s always been a priority,” Holman said. “The technology and best practices already exist that will help building owners balance a healthy indoor environment with their energy efficiency goals.”

Potential health benefits have always been a driver for investments in improved air quality technology, Holman said, which has become more obvious with the highly infectious COVID-19.

“Measuring air quality in a building by how many people get sick is not a new metric, but it’s more compelling now and more devastating for the property owner,” Holman said.

The potential lost revenue from employees or customers contracting COVID-19 can cause a dramatic financial downturn, Holman said. The USGBC has held regular informational webinars related to indoor air quality in commercial buildings.

“The interest has expanded, and the importance is more top of mind now,” Holman said. “What we’ve been saying at USGBC for years about indoor air quality importance is getting proven now. It’s almost a silver lining in some ways because people are looking at this with a new lens.” 

Davis’ companies remained open during the pandemic as a producer of medical furniture for hospitals. After a manufacturing engineer tested positive for COVID-19, Davis credits the upgrades for preventing the spread in the office.

“That meant what we did worked,” Davis said. “If we had not had those cubicles and air filtration, we would have all been sick.”

He added that the upgrades have kept the 40-employee staff productive and free from health-related disruptions.

“I listened to science,” Davis said. “It was either I took the bull by the horns and kept people employed and myself employed, or risked spreading the virus and shutting down.”

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