Canadian Underwriter

Returning to COVID-vacated offices comes with challenges

January 26, 2022   by Mark Cammisuli

Face mask hanging on computer screen in empty office

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Humans weren’t the only ones impacted by the pandemic.

The buildings in which we work and live have been subjected to some neglect and we are likely to start seeing the effects of this as we return to our pre-pandemic usage patterns.

Unlike our homes, which have undergone increased wear and tear with our constant presence, our workspaces have experienced the opposite. Significant reduction in occupancy came with its own potential for damage and neglect.

Many large commercial buildings did have the benefit of building management staff continuing to conduct regular preventive maintenance activities, despite the absence of tenants. However, without tenants to report smaller ongoing issues, even the most diligent operators of large commercial facilities failed to confront situations which have the potential to grown into more significant problems over time.

Here are some things that could present problems when people return.

The building envelope – Large building ventilation systems are designed with the assumption of a certain amount of internal heat gained from computers and people. In the absence of these loads, conditions may change. During winter, for example, this may increase demand on heating and humidification systems. However, in the cooling season, reduced cooling loads may lead to insufficient dehumidification, and therefore increased potential for condensation at the building envelope.

Over winter, potentially hazardous snow drifts may build up around exteriors in the absence of regular snow removal, which could result in various issues. Plus, larger snow accumulations may have occurred on the roofs of unoccupied and potentially unheated (or nominally heated) buildings. Roof drains may not operate as intended, resulting in excessive ponding, increased loads, roof leaks, and related issues.

Leaves and debris may collect on roofs and heavy rainfall will push gathered debris towards roof drains causing clogging problems. All these factors can increase the risk of water infiltration and the associated damage may have yet to be identified.

Domestic water systems – We’ve grown accustomed to safe drinking water from the nearest faucet, yet stagnant water can increase the uptake of heavy metals from pipes. In older buildings with legacy pipes containing lead, maintenance staff tend to start their days by running every faucet to clear them of potentially contaminated water.

Stagnant water also increases the potential for biological contamination from pathogens such as legionella pneumophila, which causes Legionnaire’s Disease. In gyms or salons, which may have been completely closed for months, washing in legionella-contaminated water could pose a serious health risk through the inhalation of aerosolized particles.

Unsanctioned tenants – When lockdowns were instituted, many places of work were effectively abandoned. Not surprisingly, this is when nature takes advantage and moves in.

Birds, rodents and other critters thrive in these quieter conditions and can take up residence in empty buildings. Without the regular presence of human workers to detect them, varmints may well have become firmly established.

Supply chains – Mechanical equipment is designed to run, not sit dormant for lengthy periods. Getting equipment back up and running may require parts and service. But supply chains are already stretched and service gaps are increasingly commonplace. There could well be delays in acquiring the necessary parts or maintenance work.

This includes access to key building components for HVAC equipment, automation systems, backup generators and elevators. Semiconductors are particularly hard hit and given how many modern devices rely on them, this is an especially vulnerable area.

To minimize the risk of downtime, mitigate property damage and ensure a safe working environment, insurers should urge building owners to conduct a thorough assessment of the condition of their facilities.


Mark Cammisuli, P.Eng., CEM, is Mechanical Practice Lead at Haag Forensic Engineering & Construction Consulting, Canada. This article is excerpted from one that appeared in the Aug.-Sept. 2021 issue of Canadian Underwriter.

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