How Technology is Helping Create Healthy Buildings
Our featured guest in Episode 2, Season 2, Doug Palmer brings a wealth of knowledge on the topic of creating healthy buildings. Doug’s 28 years of experience in facilities management roles and current involvement with the Hines Return to Office task force brings our listener’s a fantastic basis for ensuring their own facilities are ready for the return of their building occupants.
00:00 – Intro
09:52 – Doug talks about what was being done to create healthy buildings prior to the onset of COVID-19.
14:00 – Doug tells us about what defines Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and some of the technologies use to improve it.
27:06 – Doug talks about maintaining clean surfaces in his facilities and the viability of creating a touchless experience in commercial real estate.
33:12 – Scott and Doug discuss people counting technology for the purposes of physical distancing and limiting occupancy in a given space.
35:45 – Doug shares his approach to communicating with tenants in regards to what is being done to ensure a healthy environment for them.
40:05 – Scott and Doug talk about how to assess new technologies for creating healthy buildings.
[00:00:00.150] – Scott Holstein
Hi, everyone, Scott Holstein here with Computrols, welcome back to the Building Technology podcast. Today, I’m joined by our guest, Doug Palmer. Doug spent the last twenty eight years in various facilities management roles where he has become an expert on energy management systems, property acquisition, disposition and talent development. Doug started off his career as a facilities engineer for Costco Wholesale, where he worked for 10 years. He then spent the next seven years as a business owner and developer of a specialized water recovery and filtration system used in the oil and restaurant industries.
For the last 18 years, Doug has been a leader in commercial property operations and management in Southern California. The majority of which he has spent as a regional certified engineering manager for Hines Real Estate Investment Trust. Mr Palmer is currently serving on the Return to Office Task Force for Hines, which is focused on returning tenants safely to their buildings worldwide.
Doug, thank you for joining the podcast today. How are you doing?
[00:00:59.550] – Doug Palmer
Thank you very much and I’m glad to be part of this.
[00:01:03.930] – Scott Holstein
Doug, we were looking at your background here. Obviously a ton of experience in facilities and then you went off for a little while and started your own business. It sounds like as far as you know, the facilities management is a career path, this is something that we really like to promote at Computrols. Can you talk a little bit about what your career path has been and what you’ve liked about it and why maybe people should consider facilities management as a career path?
[00:01:33.240] – Doug Palmer
Yeah, absolutely. You know that facility management, real estate management, property management, engineering services has really taken a turn in the last 10 years. And in that it is really focused on the experience of the customer, the tenant, people who visit, if it’s a retail setting, it’s really about the experience and what kind of amenities and how safe are you and especially, you know, the last year that, how safe are you in these environments is really exploded would be an understatement. So I’ve always been driven to how to make things better. From my time as a facility engineer for Price Club Costco, I was always looking at how to make a process better, how to make something more efficient, what makes things work.
Heck, even as a kid that was in my DNA, it got me in trouble quite a bit, too. A funny story as a, gosh, I was probably about 14 years old and I was really into understanding what makes engines work. And my parents didn’t know this, but at the time I was out in the garage with all my tools and I had done a little bit of reading. And so I wanted to actually see how carburetors and and distributers and things like that work. So I took my tools out to my mom’s car and over a period of about two hours, I had the carburetor off, the distributor out, and she came out and she needed to go to the store.
So, so that that wasn’t a very good experience. But that is is who I am in my DNA. And it’s been it’s led me to some pretty great opportunities. And it’s it’s allowed me to learn a great deal and, as we have now stepped into this, this era – experience is key in the commercial world, it’s freed me up to act on my creative side that I have, in thinking outside the box of how to make air conditioning systems, filtration systems, electrical consumption, all that kind of stuff to make it better, make it more efficient.
And Costco allowed me a ton of freedom when I was with them, and I really appreciated that. And then when I started my own business, it just exploded. I was able to create anything that I wanted to create and get it in the hands of people who could use it. So, you know, I created some of the most amazing filtration systems that use flocculants, chemical inhibitors and things like that, and doing water recovery and oil spills for gas stations and refineries and shipping docks.
I had a lot of fun doing that. And then I realized that as my family was growing, I have five daughters. My time was needed with my family and I believe that that is important. So I had to sell off my partnership in that business and go back into the corporate world. And Costco was that stop for a little while and and then from there and went into commercial real estate just through a relationship centered around my girls, me being a coach and softball.
And one of the girls on the team, her dad was the chief engineer. And we got to talking and he he just, you know, as he got to know me, said that I would be a great person to be in this industry. So I went with his suggestion and became an operating engineer in downtown L.A. and I was down there for six years and loved it. And then an opportunity came to take position with Hines, which at the time I didn’t know anything about.
But I am so glad that I went that route because Hines in their DNA is very much like me. They are in the forefront of energy efficiency, the experience of building a better product, and they are very conservative by nature, they’re very humble, the leadership, and they have just such a high level of integrity that it was a perfect fit for me. And that’s where I’ve been for the last 14 years. And they, like Costco, have allowed me the freedom to create and get into to things in a deeper way and not just do things that a mundane fashion or yeah, so that’s that’s kind of it in a nutshell for me of my path and where I’m at now.
[00:08:02.520] – Scott Holstein
Yeah. And I mean, I think you’re being put on the return to office task forces a reflection on kind of your desire to work, work things through and and find alternative solutions. But for any of you who find yourself taking things apart and putting them back together out there, facilities management may be for you. We have a veteran of the industry on the podcast today. And and you know, Doug, I’ve known you for three or four years now, and I didn’t I didn’t know all that back story, so I enjoyed that.
As we get into our topic today, really what we’re focused on is how technology can help create healthy buildings. This is clearly a very important thing that people are talking about a lot right now. And certainly I think we’re all at least a little bit encouraged with the COVID vaccine starting to be distributed out there. But when we’re talking about coming back into these buildings, there’s going to be a clear concern for how clean is the air that I’m breathing, how clean is the surface that I’m touching.
People are just hyper aware of these things today. And this is a topic that is getting a lot of attention because of the pandemic. But I’m curious Doug, what, if anything, do you think was being done in this vein, pre covid, you know, around making sure that these workspaces where we’re safe in this capacity?
[00:09:37.550] – Doug Palmer
Yeah. So, I mean, we we have the agencies that govern this ASHRAE and OSHA, so obviously there’s a lot that goes into an HVAC system and office space and manufacturing space and retail space and and and basic standards and over the last probably, I don’t know, 15, 20 years, we’ve seen these standards kind of blend the the health aspect, as well as the energy efficiency aspect into design and meeting the standards put out by ASHRAE.
You know, it’s forever morphing as new technology as new health standards as as we learn, as humans and as a society of what’s Not good and what’s what Is good and the reasons why our standards are forever changing. And so in in the built environment, in class A office to, you know networking type of eclectic space, if you will, it it really has the basic foundation of how is this safe for me and it it comes down to, you know, we spend a great deal of time in the places that we work and in the places that we visit and because of that, we we want to have these assurances in these agencies that they’re doing the right thing and that they’re continuing to push the envelope, if you will, and we’ve seen that in the last year, year and a half. The thing that you really need to be wary of, though, is new technologies and new processes and new equipment. All those things can get a little bit overwhelming and and also a little bit, I don’t know, out there.
I’ve seen so many different things in the last 15 years of people pitching stuff. And you really need to take a conservative approach in new technologies. To make sure that they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do and they’re not going to hinder something else down the road that you’re maybe not thinking about.
[00:12:47.060] – Scott Holstein
Right. And there are certainly, you know, lots and a lot of industries and a lot of products have sprung up from the pandemic that we’re experiencing. And, you know, one of the one of the most difficult things is while you want to get these things implemented as quickly as possible, you also want them to be proven before you go and make that investment and implement that in your facility. So certainly understanding a conservative approach to that. So with that said, you know, you mentioned some of the ASHRAE standards, you know, starting with indoor air quality.
This has become a huge topic. I know I’ve talked to a lot of facility managers out there who are being asked what’s the rating on our air filters and things like that now. Can you give our audience a little bit of background on what makes for good indoor air quality and a couple of the technologies that you might be deploying or someone might want to deploy to accomplish this?
[00:13:50.660] – Doug Palmer
Yeah, absolutely. So indoor air quality is really dealing with some basic foundations, and that is oxygen, CO2 and the potential bio aspect of indoor air quality. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into this and a lot of different countries, as I’ve looked into this, do it very differently. As an example, in Australia, new construction in office, space, hospitals, stuff like that, hotels needs to have a certain amount of off-gassing take place and off-gassing of new materials the only way to get that done right is through time and temperature. And I found this very interesting as I talked with some of my counterparts in Australia that this was a big thing to them in their research and what they do. And it’s it is really true. I mean, you know, we require low VOC (volatile organic gasses) material now in all construction because of the off-gassing. So there’s there’s certain aspects to indoor air quality that doesn’t always revolve around the HVAC system.
So like your construction materials being one of those, but going back to ASHRAE and and HVAC, you know, we’ve you did mention the MERV rating of filters is become a huge topic. The other thing that has become a huge topic, too, is air exchanges per hour. And one of the things that we have implemented and it was so easy to do once we started thinking about it. And this is one of the things that a plug for you guys, but for any really good automation system, my engineer was able to take our our Computrols automation system at some of our properties and write simple language that shows the air exchanges per hour for each tenant space.
Now, what we do with that information, whether we want to share that information, create a dashboard in the lobby that shows the amount of outside air coming in and the air exchanges per hour, that different owners and different firms will take a different approach to that. But for me, it just like I said, going back to my DNA, you know, that was a huge win for us here. And now that we can look at every tenant space and see the air changes per hour, we in title 24 and in California you know, we have implemented for the last 10 years the use of CO2 meters in conference rooms and air handling units, so we’re able to monitor how much CO2 is in the building. If you do have the ability to do 100 percent outside air capabilities, that has been a huge plus in this covid climate of purging buildings, interior spaces, especially if there are known cases. We don’t know what that means. If you if you have a high level case count in a particular office or in a particular building, you know, is it beneficial?
We’re not so sure, but we have the ability to do it. And so you can purge a building throughout the night and bring in a ton of fresh air in checking that box, if you will. The the MERV rating filters you know, a lot of people don’t realize as far as the normal lay people out there, that the higher rating that you go, the greater pressure drop you’re creating and that costs money in energy. And so if you can reduce pressure, drop and still maintain great filtration, that’s what you want to do, going to these HEPA filters and and MERV 17, MERV 18, that that really seems counterproductive to what you want to do.
And there’s technologies out there with filtration like Aeolus Filters that have this this this microscopic makeup of the filter and the material that is designed to resemble the like a coral reef and they have the ability to capture airborne particulates and still have a decent pressure drop, so there’s a lot of stuff that’s coming out right now that we’re seeing, you don’t have to go crazy, you know, these knee-jerk reactions or sometimes oftentimes not warranted and have more adverse effects.
What you’re trying to accomplish than to stay with the basic fundamentals of proper filtration, proper maintenance, proper cleaning, all these things go a long ways in achieving the goal of creating an environment that has a great IAQ as far as their indoor air quality and still dealing with the whether it’s perceived the issues or potential problems without having all the proper knowledge of what is actually going on. So, yeah, I know there’s a lot of information shared there, but that’s the world that we’re living in right now.
[00:20:42.170] – Scott Holstein
Yeah, absolutely. And you touched on a lot of things there, Doug. So I just want to recap a little bit. You know, you talked about you all were able to bring in more outside air. You were able to accomplish more air changes per hour. And one of the things that we discussed in a roundtable we did with you and some of our other partners is know that’s that is something that being in Southern California and having the mechanical system that you have, that you have the capabilities of. But certainly there are challenges for those in different climates where it’s just not quite that easy to bring in that many air changes.
Now, one of the things that you also mentioned was purging after hours in the evening. That is something that I think everybody can get on board with to some degree. Whether you’re down in Houston, Texas, or up in New York, you can you can certainly be doing that at the very least. And you also mentioned the fact that Title 24 requires you all to have a lot of those sensors in place.
And that’s one thing I think when people are looking at measuring outside or measuring indoor air quality, excuse me, they forget about that. It’s it’s yes, you can do all these things, but to measure to measure indoor air quality properly, you also have to have those sensors in place to do so. So luckily in your case, it’s it’s it’s all in place and you’re able to do a lot of that right off the bat. And, you know, one of the things that I do want to touch on a little bit more that you talked about, we’ll get into it a little later, is dealing with your building occupants because everybody is educating themselves now to some degree on what should be done.
And, you know, if you ask the building occupants, you know, they probably tell you, will you be you should basically be doing everything that a hospital does. And it’s just not it’s just not necessary. But it’s hard to communicate that at times. So I do want to get into that a little bit more. You know, two of the indoor air quality technologies that I’ve heard more about in the last several months or year even than I certainly never had before, were ionization, bipolar ionization and also UV lights.
Yes. Can you just talk a little bit, because I know you’ve done your I know you’ve done your research there. And I think that be valuable to hear your take, if you don’t mind.
[00:23:20.510] – Doug Palmer
Yeah, absolutely. So I have spent quite a bit of time investigating the UV light systems that technology’s been around since the fifties and they’ve really dialed it in as of lately to where they they break down the different spectrums of UV light and figure out which one of the spectrum works the best, especially dealing with biological aspects.
And and really my takeaway on this is UV lights. They have a purpose. And the we’re I’ve seen the benefits of UV lights are in the environments that are high humidity because that’s where you have the potential of a lot of growth and growth, that’s not good. And so the UV lights do a fantastic job of killing off them, the biofilms and and things like that that you would experience in high humidity areas, in HVAC systems, on coils and in, you know, air ducts and stuff like that, in environments where you don’t deal with that, it really doesn’t serve that good of a purpose because the downside to a lot of UV lights is the degradation of other materials.
Point taken is most of your air filters that have any type of cardboard or filament that is can easily be attacked by and degrade at a much faster rate under UV lights. Also, UV lights aren’t good for people, so you can’t be in the area while the UV lights are on as far as trying to do anything. So yeah, with the the UV lights, there’s definitely a place for them. But we’re not seeing the, at least, me personally, the need for a lot of application of that and then the bipolar ionization that’s been around for a little while too.
But now it’s just really being pushed. I’m not as well versed on bipolar ionization. I’ve only met with maybe three or four companies that are pushing that right now. And I have not done the intensive research like I’ve done with the UV lighting systems. So I’m still kind of taking a just say a arm’s length approach to that right now.
[00:26:27.490] – Scott Holstein
So moving on from from air quality and talking about surfaces, now everyone is hyper aware of the things they touch. Now, what kind of technology are you seeing out there to clean surfaces or make a touch make for a touchless experience?
[00:26:45.760] – Doug Palmer
Yeah. So we are definitely seeing I mean, these are these spray guns that everyone’s seen everywhere that that provides this kind of like the ionization mist that has the ability to kill basically all bacteria and viruses on contact. It’s it’s it’s as if you were taking a can of Lysol and spraying it over everything and wiping it down. You know, we, we’ve utilized our relationships with our cleaning services, our janitorial services, they’re the ones that have really taken this product and this service to another level.
So what we have done is we’ve contracted with these services where if there is a known case in a particular tenant’s office, then the janitorial team will come in and utilize either the use of these guns or just the known chemicals that they can purchase and spray and wipe things down. All high contact areas, elevators, handles, if people want their computer systems, you know, there’s there’s keyboards and chairs and yeah, that’s that’s what we have done as a as a firm.
Some of the buildings throughout the Hines portfolio, they’ve purchased these guns and they’ve keeping them on site. And when there’s known cases, then they go in and they attack these areas with these things. But yeah, that’s the that’s what I’m seeing.
[00:28:54.900] – Scott Holstein
OK, and have you seen anything in the line of trying to make for a touchless experience, so avoiding touching those handles and elevator buttons or anything like that?
Yeah. You know, we saw that early on. I would say like around summertime that was or even before summer this last summer that was there was a big push for that. What I’m seeing in the portfolio that I have a lot of contact with is it’s just the the hyper cleaning of these things versus the going touchless or no contact, I mean, a lot of the little hand-held custom devices that you can put on your key ring. I’ve seen a handful of people use those things and we’ve offered those to our tenants.
But I’m just not seeing that. And you know that it’s that big of a thing. I mean, people do use their elbows a lot more and their rear ends a lot more. But, yeah, there’s not a big push as far as trying to change the infrastructure again, it’s kind of going to those knee-jerk things where you’re seeing a lot of people price out automated doors, you know, to their lobbies, voice activated elevator controls and all.
You can really get crazy with the amount of money to spend on stuff that’s out there.
[00:30:44.690] – Scott Holstein
Yeah, I guess when you compare it to the cost of putting a few more hand sanitizing stations around it, it probably pales in comparison. Yeah, I was I was just curious. I had heard a lot of those technologies, too. And, you know, my question was always, how practical is this? And like you said, cost is always a factor. So when you’re looking at voice activated things, I think as we as we move on, like everything else, the technology will get better and will get less expensive.
But until we get there, it’s it’s hard to see that becoming commonplace.
[00:31:20.990] – Doug Palmer
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And like I said, you know, early on before summer, there was a kind of big push for contact because a lot of people really didn’t know what was going on with that. And I think as we’re starting to see more and more from the medical field and who and CDC is that, you know, constant cleaning with the right product is, you know, there’s not a long life span, from what I understand, that this thing can remain on surfaces.
So I think it’s more a matter of, you know, controlling the proximity of people, obviously, with the mask mandates that are going on and a lot of different places. You know, these things all kind of, I think, work themselves out.
[00:32:13.970] – Scott Holstein
Right. Right. So one of the other technologies that I’ve been hearing more about now than ever is people counting or occupancy sensor type technology for social distancing purposes or for making sure that a certain area doesn’t go beyond the particular capacity. Have you heard much about anyone actually leveraging that? And if so, can you tell us a little about it?
[00:32:39.440] – Doug Palmer
Yeah. So I’ve I’ve not heard of anything in the area that I have influence in and the counterparts that I converse with. What I have seen is the ability to kind of capture the occupancy through card swipes. So not that we’re going to limit that, but it gives us an idea based on the occupancy percentage of certain buildings and how many people were coming in prior to covid and how many people are coming in now. And in the other area where we are really monitoring this are getting our information from is just contact with the tenants themselves.
We’re in weekly contact with occupancy plans that the tenants have to get an idea of. What is the occupancy level look like following the local and regional case counts? You know, they haven’t done a great deal of contact tracking. I know they’ve tried in certain states and I know certain countries are really doing this well. But I think it’s just especially out here in California, it’s very hard to get your head around that. And how do you utilize that?
So that’s what I’m seeing in this area of Southern California.
[00:34:37.040] – Scott Holstein
And you talked a little bit about your communication with your tenants right now on a weekly basis, seeing how many people are coming in and out of the building. Certainly as we’re all making efforts to make our buildings healthier and safer environments. How do you how do you communicate that with your tenants to make them feel safe when the time comes where they they can come back to the office? How do you how are you communicating with them to make sure they’re aware of, look, we’ve made these changes to make sure that you’re safe.
[00:35:10.490] – Doug Palmer
Yeah. So, I mean, we have our basic one on. It’s really is a living document are returned to office, communication with our tenants, obviously everything goes through our Hines corporate team to how we communicate and then also making sure that we’re adhering to the authorities, having jurisdiction and what their requirements are. So there’s been new requirements in California where the reporting of people who have tested positive and the process of doing that and and having the injury illness prevention plan.
In place at every property and the protocols that go along with that letting it really is, you know, reassuring the tenants that, you know, for one, Hines has always done things at a very high standard. And we will continue to do that. We are doing the utmost research that we can do all the stuff that is being presented to us now. And we are going to make sure that we implement the things that we believe need to be implemented.
But staying the course, you know, we didn’t get to where we are at right now as an organization and in the respect and integrity and just the the name recognition that we have by not doing things right. So we have communicated that with the tenants, but we’re not letting the tenants know too much information. we just want to…we’ll address questions that come up. The filter question was really big during the summertime. And so we address that question as they came up.
But we really just want to give an overall description and and in document out to the tenants that, hey, just rest assured, you’re in the hands of the Hines team and we are doing things very well and to the highest standard.
[00:38:00.980] – Scott Holstein
Yeah, too much information is dangerous in the wrong hands, I guess.
[00:38:04.980] – Doug Palmer
[00:38:07.050] – Scott Holstein
At times. At times. Yeah. I mean, certainly, like you mentioned, the filter conversation was such a big deal, but I like that approach of giving them some peace of mind of look, we’re addressing all of these areas. But at the very same time, if you dive into exactly what’s going on, you have the potential to be picked apart.
And I think that a dealing with those kinds of questions on a case by case basis is a really smart approach.
[00:38:39.710] – Doug Palmer
Yeah, yeah, I agree.
[00:38:42.800] – Scott Holstein
So, Doug, before we wrap up here, is there any other technology or anything else you’ve been hearing about for this effort to create more healthy buildings that we haven’t discussed today? There really isn’t. I mean, there’s a lot of variance of the the two main ones that we have talked about as far as the UV lighting and ionization and and then just all of the different chemical products that are being presented, you know, daily of, you know, what does want and, you know, I find that the the the quickest way to get to the bottom of is this a company that’s just trying to make money or is this something that’s real?
You know, they can say that’s going to kill covid, but when you ask for the reports from independent labs, they can’t produce it. So that to me is OK, thank you, bye. And then when they do produce those, then you might spend a little more time looking at it. And how is this applicable? But to answer your question, there’s I haven’t seen like the next greatest thing that’s out there yet that’s being pushed other than those that we have just talked about, the three things.
[00:40:19.410] – Scott Holstein
Right. And I’m glad you addressed how you approach these new technologies. Just because you haven’t necessarily tried it yourself doesn’t mean that it’s not viable. But looking for that independent study, I think is a good bar to set in terms of do we continue this conversation?
Really appreciate the time today, Doug, I think this is going to be really helpful for our audience. I think everybody out there is is in the same situation to some extent, where we’re just trying to do everything we can to make our buildings safe and healthy and at the same time remain somewhat energy efficient.
And then also making people, you know, helping people have that peace of mind as they start to come back into these buildings. But thank you again for your time today, Doug. We really appreciate having you.
[00:41:11.580] – Doug Palmer
Absolutely. And, Scott, thank you for putting this together. I appreciate your efforts in trying to make things better and to get information out there. This is key as we traverse the challenges that we have ahead of us and the challenges that are here right now. It’s stuff like this that actually gets us to the other side to better days.
Absolutely. And a big thank you again to Doug Palmer for joining us on the Building Technology podcast.
This is Scott Holstein with Computrols signing off.