Protecting Residents: The Nexus of Health and Efficiency in Multifamily Housing

By Better Buildings Beat Team on Aug 26, 2021

Over the past year, the multifamily building sector has played a critical role in addressing the health challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. As most sectors saw a decrease in building operations, the multifamily sector faced the opposite: residents spending more time at home. Building operators were challenged as never before: ensuring adequate social distancing measures in common areas; maximizing indoor air quality with increased maintenance and upgrades to ventilation systems; and implementing new protocols for safe handling of in-unit repairs.

Two Massachusetts-based Better Buildings Challenge multifamily partners exemplify these efforts to protect the health and safety of residents: Cambridge Housing Authority and 2Life Communities. These Challenge partners provided a combination of energy efficiency upgrades, indoor air quality improvements, and resident support services to keep their residents safe.

Cambridge Housing Authority

To reduce the risk of COVID-19 for their elderly residents, Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) exceeded standard practice to improve indoor air quality in senior living properties. At Truman Apartments, CHA installed new high efficiency heat pumps with fan coils and an integrated energy recovery ventilator within each apartment. Following ASHRAE guidance, each heat pump unit was modified to install ultraviolet lighting at the point of the fan coil to clean the supply air, with the goal of deactivating airborne microorganisms including viruses, bacteria, and fungus. Staff also increased ventilation fan speeds to improve airflow rates by 30 to 50% and installed higher level Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) air filters in common areas and offices.

Across its senior housing portfolio, CHA installed 200 HEPA air filters in common areas and bolstered air sealing on the perimeter of individual apartments for both energy efficiency and ventilation purposes. The housing authority has set planning targets to meet the Healthy Living requirements of Better Buildings Financial Ally Enterprise Green Communities to address asthma and air quality standards for these buildings.          

CHA was able to maintain frontline staff on site throughout the pandemic, implementing safety plans and deep cleaning across sites, especially at senior living communities. CHA team members worked with quarantined residents to bring groceries, deliveries, and mail, and to dispose of trash and recycling.

2Life Communities

2Life Communities, an affordable housing provider for seniors in the greater Boston area, combined HVAC upgrades with a variety of resident support services to protect its 1,500 residents from COVID-19.

To improve HVAC systems, 2Life introduced several upgrades to ventilation and filtration during the pandemic. They increased filtration throughout their properties to MERV 13 filters.  In many spaces they ran fans continuously instead of on a timed cycle, providing a more even air exchange. They also installed bipolar ionization equipment in all their buildings’ HVAC makeup air units and some of the main air handlers, such as in auditoriums and dining rooms. The equipment generates positively and negatively charged particles that may help remove microorganisms from the air, according to the EPA and ASHRAE.

The housing provider also had 13,000 square feet of new office space built during the pandemic. Responding to ventilation concerns, they chose to double the building’s air exchange by increasing outside supply air and exhaust air, as well as redistributing ducting for an even airflow.

To help residents shelter in place during the pandemic, 2Life reached out to surrounding community groups, businesses, and academic institutions for help. 2Life received philanthropic grants to provide meals for all residents so they could avoid leaving their homes to go out for groceries. In May 2020 the regional grocery chain Stop & Shop provided an in-kind food donation valued at over $50,000 towards the effort. To assist with meal delivery as well as trash pick-up, cleaning, and to provide companionship to residents, 2Life hired 50 “Helping Hands” workers that had recently been laid off from hospitality and food service jobs in the community, using funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

2Life also partnered with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Broad Institute to test for COVID-19 across all residents and staff every two weeks. Residents’ voluntary participation in the study allowed researchers to further develop and review the effectiveness of their STOPCovid test. During the pandemic 2Life hired an on-staff epidemiologist to organize Covid-19 safety protocols and target specific interventions for residents. The organization also launched an intranet “TV station” to keep all residents up to date with Covid protocols and community news, doing broadcasts in English, Russian, Mandarin and Cantonese.

To read more about the nexus of health and efficiency, visit our Resource Center for Building Operations During COVID-19.