COVID-19 has changed the world. Some of its effects seem likely to linger—and to open up opportunities for the commercial construction industry.
Demand for reduced-infection-risk offices
Conventional wisdom says the pandemic will reduce demand for new office space as more employees work from home. Maybe not. "Tenants are reassessing per-employee space allocations with an eye toward de-densifying and providing more space per employee," said Steven Durels of SL Green Realty, New York City's largest office landlord, as quoted in Commercial Observer.
Suddenly, companies want larger, column-free offices with enough room for social distancing. Enhanced air filtration and easy-clean designs have also shot to the top of "must have" lists. "That, we think, gives new construction an edge," said David Goldstein, vice chairman at the commercial real estate company Savills, to Commercial Observer. "They can really build it in and design this new way of thinking into their plans."
Big redesigns for airports and transportation hubs
Airports, train and bus terminals, and other stations where travelers mix represent a huge health challenge in a pandemic-vulnerable world. Pittsburgh International Airport has gone back to the virtual drawing board to redesign its planned billion-dollar terminal modernization. "How do we need to pivot on our current thinking to place public health at top of mind?" said airport Chief Development Officer Paul Hoback, quoted by the airport's news service.
The airport is looking at incorporating space for social distancing, creating flexible processing points (ticket counters, security checkpoints, boarding areas) that can accommodate different numbers of people at different times, switching to hands-free fixtures, improving ventilation systems, using robots for cleaning, and much more. Bringing existing facilities up to the new standards will require tremendous amounts of work—and creativity.
Retrofits for older offices
Meet a new buzz phrase: hospital-grade air filtration. "To be able to say that with a straight face, saying we have that level of filtration in your air quality, will resonate with new tenants," said Erik Horvat of Olayan Group, a developer that's renovating 550 Madison Avenue, a 36-year-old landmark Manhattan skyscraper. He spoke with Commercial Observer.
Older spaces that seemed perfectly functional just a few months ago now face pressure for refits to meet post-COVID expectations for spacing, air quality, and other infection-related concerns.
Increased demand for satellite offices
Squeeze into a packed train car, bus, or subway car with strangers breathing into your face? Spend an hour every day gritting your teeth through rush-hour traffic after getting accustomed to no-commute working from home?
Not if employees can help it. Instead of crowding the entire workforce into one central headquarters, big-city companies may open suburban satellite offices. In New York, for example, "if you did a census of your typical office building, it's likely that a significant portion lives in the outer boroughs," said Timothy King, managing partner of Brooklyn-based SVN CPEX Real Estate, quoted in Commercial Observer. "Having a short commute time will be important."
Migration of public meetings online
In Pennsylvania, public officials have taken advantage of a new law that allows them to move zoning, planning, and council or commission meetings online. Other jurisdictions are making or considering similar changes.
That greatly expands access to such meetings. Construction companies and other interested parties can more easily marshal support for projects, learn about local fears and concerns, provide information to allay those concerns, and work with stakeholders to move projects along.
"I think the ability to reach people will be significantly enhanced going forward," said John Mondlak, Philadelphia's deputy director for development services, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer. "And I don't think that aspect will go away."