04 Sep 2020

Air Quality and Safety at HBS: A Q+A with Facilities Management


by Shona Simkin

Many of the new COVID-19 safety modifications around campus are visible and obvious, from signage and hand sanitizer units to single tables and capacity caps. Equally important are the changes that are invisible—notably the air in our offices, common spaces, student dorms, and in classrooms. We talked with those tasked with monitoring, evaluating, and upgrading those systems, Doug Scatterday, senior director of Facilities, and Rich Stewart, director of Facilities, to find out more about their crucial behind-the-scenes work.

Cumnock Hall's air handler.

How did you begin the process of evaluating safety and air quality of HBS buildings?

Very early on we surveyed all of our buildings and more than 100 air handlers. We hired an engineer to evaluate issues including outside air ventilation, filtration, and cleanliness. We met regularly with Dr. Joe Allen, associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Healthy Buildings Program of ForHealth.org, who has advised us on many other Operations projects, to get his advice and perspective. We also often consult with Harvard’s Environmental Health & Safety group, and did so throughout this process as well. This was also a major topic for the Harvard University Return to the Workplace Planning committees which gave us the opportunity to hear what our peers around the University were doing as well.

Stewart: In the beginning it was very challenging with the rapidly changing information and data. It wasn’t clear if the virus was airborne, and there was a lot of misinformation. We were bombarded by pitches for new technologies that claimed to eliminate the virus. We needed to evaluate and vet all of those claims and all of the information. Once it became clear that the virus was airborne, we could move forward with larger modifications. In many cases, we're not just meeting the new requirements—if the equipment allows us to do so, we're striving to exceed them.

What are the modifications that your team made to ventilation and filtration systems?

Many of our buildings on campus were newer or recently renovated, and already met or exceeded the increased level of filtration that is now being recommended—a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) 13 or higher. We also worked with our controls contractors to reprogram the ventilation rates to increase the outdoor air while also maintaining a comfortable temperature. We went through the critical buildings first; Spangler and classrooms, common spaces, and now we're working towards some of the other buildings and office spaces that aren’t fully occupied. We're going to continue working and monitoring and testing.

Aldrich restroom with HEPA scrubber.

Stewart: Many of our buildings were already in good shape from a filtration perspective, it was the ventilation piece that was a departure from the norm. In the past, there has been such a focus on energy efficiency—buildings are designed to be tight and to bring in smaller amounts of outdoor air in order to save energy. Now, we’re focusing on bringing in as much fresh air as we can, and trying to balance that with occupant comfort in terms of temperature and humidity.

That’s an interesting point, balancing efficiency and comfort with new standards for health and safety. How do you measure and test that balance?

We monitor and track our energy consumption, so it'll be interesting to see the energy and greenhouse gases that we use once we have more people on campus. The Re-Entry Pilot Day was a great test. It was 95 degrees Fahrenheit and very humid. We were able to run a variety of different scenarios to measure the cooling capacity and air handling equipment. The Pilot Day was important to give us confidence that we're where we need to be—and we were.

Stewart: In conjunction with the Chan school and Dr. Allen, we installed supplementary sensors for Pilot Day. The goal was to verify the readings on the sensors already in place—we have sensors that measure carbon dioxide (CO2) in all classrooms as well as to take readings for particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other indoor environmental conditions. Measuring CO2 is important because it tells you how well you are ventilating a space—if you’re bringing in a lot of outdoor air, the levels should be almost as low as they are outside. On Pilot Day, the sensors showed that we achieved close to outdoor conditions in the Aldrich classrooms, while also keeping everyone comfortable.

Aldrich Hall with new MERV-14
filtration system.

Can you tell us a bit more about the modifications to Aldrich, as the classrooms don’t have any windows?

We doubled the outside air coming into those classrooms, and upgraded the filters to MERV 14. The Pilot Day testing showed that the rooms were flush with outside air.

Stewart: We also added cooling systems to the closets—all the new technology equipment for the hybrid classrooms creates a lot more heat—and to enforce social distancing beyond signage, we tethered all of the extra chairs to desks so that they cannot be used. We really focused on making those classrooms safe and healthy.

What about ventilation and health improvements elsewhere on campus?

We’ve done a lot of work with bathrooms, as they are an area of concern where the risk of transmission is suspected of being higher. An air-balancing contractor tested all of the bathrooms to verify adequate exhaust airflow rates and we’ve made modifications based on those tests. We have also upgraded more than 300 fixtures to make bathrooms nearly completely touchless—soap dispensers, paper towels, faucets, toilets, and urinals are automatic. Elevators were another area of concern. They have their own exhaust system, so we checked all of them with our elevator contractor to make sure they’re all functional. We've also added signage to limit capacity depending on the size of the elevator.

HEPA filtered air scrubbers in Spangler Center bathrooms.

Stewart: We’ve added HEPA filtered air scrubbers to most of our larger multi-occupant bathrooms. You might see them in the Spangler bathrooms, they’re big blue machines with fans. HEPA filtration is the same technology used in hospital operating rooms and clean rooms in labs—rooms that need to be extremely clean. They offer the highest level of filtration available, and offer an additional layer of protection.

Chao Center's MERV-14 air
filtration system.

How have you been keeping up with all of the health and safety information?

We have a standing weekly meeting with Harvard Environmental Health and Safety, where we discuss training, new guidance, anything that has changed in the past week and make sure that everyone is up to speed. We’ve worked with them on safety protocols for situations such as trade workers servicing student rooms. They've been a great partner.

Scatterday: We've also been working very closely with the HBS re-entry team and the re-entry team at the University. We follow their guidance on training and contractor protocols. We see what other schools are doing, learn about best practices, and we share what we're doing here. The work that we’ve done, and continue to do, ensures that our buildings are as safe as they can possibly be.

All of this is a lot of extra work! What has that been like for the maintenance staff?

Our staff has done a great job. Initially we rotated the crews to cover the peak of the virus in the spring and limit their exposure. They were divided up into two different groups, each working three 12-hour days per week. We tried to limit contractor use, so our staff has really stepped up and have been hanging signs, installing plexi-glass barriers, and covering project-based work that we may have otherwise outsourced. Many of them have commented that they enjoy doing different tasks and working on new projects. It’s been important to keep them healthy and to keep up morale during a tough time.

Stewart: In mid-June we brought back all staff to their standard schedules of five days a week. As essential personnel, they've all been very flexible, and have been out on the front lines throughout the entire pandemic. There have been students in the residence halls all summer, so our team has been supporting them and helping to keep the campus running the whole time. I really have to hand it to them for sticking through all of the unknowns and taking on new tasks.

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