Photo courtesy of the Irvine Company.
The Plaza office tower in UTC is among the Irvine Company’s holdings certified as healthy buildings by the UL testing lab.

Photo courtesy of the Irvine Company. The Plaza office tower in UTC is among the Irvine Company’s holdings certified as healthy buildings by the UL testing lab.

The Irvine Company, one of the largest commercial real estate owners in San Diego County, is the first in the nation to have its office property including its San Diego office holdings certified as healthy buildings by an international testing agency.

Based in Orange County, the Irvine Company stepped up efforts to provide a healthy work environment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UL, formerly Underwriter Laboratories, went through all of the Irvine Company’s property, testing to see where improvements could be made to improve the indoor environment.

“We’ve been focused on health and wellness for a very long time. Fortunately, that set us up very well,” said Mike Bennett, Irvine Company’s senior vice president of operations.

“We’ve been dealing with indoor quality, just not quite on the scale it shifted to in the pandemic,” Bennett said. “When this pandemic hit, we kind of went into overdrive with what is most important to our customers right now, what is most concerning to them.”

Clean Air

Checking air filtration systems topped the list.

“What we realized once the pandemic hit was this was an area that we needed to take another look at because it’s so important. In this case, we’re talking about air borne particles,” said Erron Williams, Irvine Company vice president of engineering.

“We did upgrade a lot of our filers across the board,” Williams said, replacing 50,000 filters and upgraded the efficiency of the filters.

The company also increased the air flow in restrooms and elevators, distributed more than 1,500 hand sanitizers, installed 3,000 touchless bathroom fixtures and 1,500 touchless paper towel dispensers and installed 1,500 taller urinal partitions.

Irvine Company also used a testing system that mimicked a cough or sneeze to trace how particles were dispersed.

“If you really do a good job or managing this stuff, you can have a much higher functioning building,” said Sean McCrady, UL national service line manager.

“Nothing’s fool proof. You can’t put a force field over a building. There’s always risk. What you can do is put your best foot forward to be healthier and safer,” McCrady said. “They’re (Irvine Company) controlling the things that they can, that we know is very impactful for the pandemic.”

Back to the Office

Bennett estimated that 25% to 30% of Irvine Company’s tenants have returned to work.

“The return in bigger numbers is really going to depend on the culmination of kind of getting past the holiday, getting past the spike with the vaccine,” Bennet said. “It’s hard to know what occupancy is down the road. What we’re starting to hear companies are severely missing their ability to collaborate and infuse their culture.”

His best guess is that people will start returning to the office in the spring and summer “once the vaccine has started to take hold and we’re coming out of the flu season.”

“We have active people there today and we need to have an impact on them, but for those companies that have taken a more conservative posture, we want to make sure they know we’re doing everything we can,” Bennett said.

By working with UL, “We’re taking the guesswork out of it.”

The company also has been consulting with the University of California Irvine Health System as information on how COVID spreads has changed from the early days of the pandemic, Bennett said.