Saturday, 5 Dec 2020

It Might Become the Scariest Part of Your Commute: The Elevator

Buttons that you can press by just pointing at them. Others that appear to float in the air, holograms seen more in sci-fi films than office buildings. Staggered employee arrivals and departures, and the rethinking, or even elimination, of the outside lunch break.

New Yorkers who fled their office buildings in Manhattan six months ago at the start of the pandemic will eventually return to find sweeping changes to the entire day to accommodate what was once a minute that required no thought or preparation: the elevator ride.

More than 150 years since the first elevator was installed in Manhattan, its roughly 65,000 descendants in the city today will largely determine whether workers can get back to their desks. The vertical transportation industry, as it is known, has spent months engineering new ways to essentially circumvent the limitations of a box designed to move as many people up and down as possible throughout the day. The degree to which it succeeds will be closely watched around the country and the world.

New York has long been the skyscraper capital of the world, where elevators are not a convenience, but a necessity, a prerequisite. Those skyscrapers have been practically empty since March, but that will someday change, with Covid-19 protocols transforming office life.

“You can redistribute office space, but they still have to get in and out of the building,” said Mark Gregorio, president of TEI Group, an elevator installation and repair company. “They still have to get from the street to their office. If you’re only running two or three people an elevator, it could be impossible to load a building. Rush hour could start at 5 a.m. and never end.”

The ride up and down has essentially gone unchanged for generations; sometimes crowded, sometimes awkward, sometimes serendipitous, a little face time with the boss — all among the countless and obligatory elevator scenes that could appear in any New York City movie. It’s a character unto itself, a vessel for the moments that played out within.

Social distancing rules in elevators will reshape their identity and the work day, dictating when employees must arrive and when they can leave, and how long those journeys will take. An elevator ride will, at least in the short term, factor in a worker’s commute, like traffic or subway delays.

And as buildings are planning around logjams, elevator companies have developed a variety of gadgets so that riders don’t have to touch anything with their hands.

A firm in Queens has developed the button that can be pressed when a rider points at it. Another offers Toe-to-Go, with pedals on the ground instead of buttons. There are gesture-controlled systems that are triggered with a wave of the hand, voice-activated systems and, by way of a Sacramento-based company, the hologram of buttons.

“It was like a feeding frenzy,” said Rob Cuzzi, an elevator consultant. “All these companies started coming up with these products.”

Taken one by one, the devices can seem cosmetic, as science has shown the virus is generally spread through droplets in the air. But a passing glance at the sheer amount of hand sanitizer offered at every storefront in the city suggests a lingering wariness for touching the same surface as thousands of strangers.

The products seem less designed to fend off the virus than to fend off fear, to make offices appear as safe as possible. “Everybody thought the elevator would be the biggest restriction coming back to work,” said Mark Freeman, vice president for modernization at the Schindler Elevator Corporation. “I think we’re alleviating that anxiety. They’re going to be more comfortable with that ride in the elevators, and that will speed the process of people coming back to work.”

Building managers are studying a variety of innovations. “We’ve seen a lot of things come our way,” said Callie Haines, executive vice president at Brookfield Properties, where every tenant was handed a stylus for pushing elevator buttons until a smartphone-based system was installed in some of its skyscrapers, including the Grace Building facing Bryant Park.

In that building and others, employees use a smartphone app, myPORT, developed by Schindler, to swipe through a turnstile in the lobby. The turnstile recognizes the employee’s destination floor, and assigns an elevator car, keeping the number of passengers per ride at no more than four.

“Everything you do now is on your smartphone,” Mr. Freeman said. “We’re in that same evolution.”

Otis Elevator Company offers a similar app, eCall, that will summon a ride upstairs, and is running traffic analysis programs in buildings it services that look for ways to speed up everything from the length of time between floors to how quickly the doors slide open.

Perhaps more urgently than new buttons, companies are also developing new ways to clean and circulate the air in an elevator, including powerful fans and blasts of ultraviolet light when no one is inside. In the meantime, new rules will bring about the death of the elevator pitch: “Wear a mask,” said Mr. Gregorio of TEI Group, “and don’t speak.”

The drive for new technology recalls the invention’s earliest days — the first passenger elevator in the country was installed in Manhattan in 1857 by a department store owner who wanted to lure curious potential customers to his five-story building.

In Long Island City in Queens, workers at the Nouveau National elevator company have been busy since March. “We never closed,” said Dean W. Speranza, an owner. The company is marketing its “Hover Solution Option,” a sensor placed near existing elevator buttons that detects a user’s finger before it makes contact.

“No touching anything physical,” the company states in promotion materials. “Just air.”

The idea is taken to its extreme by Holo Industries, the California company pitching a hologram panel. “It’s midair,” said Glenn ImObersteg, an executive at the company. “Nobody wants to touch an elevator button. And to be honest, this is really sexy.”

Production on the panel could begin in about 60 days. “You can expect a holographic elevator ride sometime around Christmas,” Mr. ImObersteg said. “Especially in New York.”

Some of the same companies are exploring air-purification devices. Mr. Speranza at Nouveau described one that detects when the elevator is empty, and then stops the car for two or three minutes and bathes it with ultraviolet light. He considered the obvious what-if question.

“God forbid, somebody’s in there,” he said, “the most exposure you would have is the equivalent of having lunch in the sun.”

Mr. Cuzzi, the consultant, said he has seen more conservative ideas, like powerful fans that can replace an elevator’s air a couple of times over per minute, which might have longer-lasting appeal to landlords after a coronavirus vaccine arrives.

“My advice was, ‘Take a deep breath, step back, don’t throw a lot of money at something that may not work or could be unnecessary in a couple years,’” he said.

Reconstructing schedules around elevators is seen as an immediate given. Lerch Bates, an elevator consulting firm, wrote a report in April, “Vertical Transportation Back to Work Challenges,” that urged “flattening the tenant arrival rate curve” in light of less crowded cars.

“A lot of clients are asking us to assign only three or four people to an elevator,” said Mr. Freeman at Schindler. “That’ll create queuing up in the lobby.”

Ms. Haines at Brookfield said her managers have met regularly with tenants throughout the summer to talk about minimizing the wait for an elevator.

“People don’t want to wait more than 25 seconds, give or take, for an elevator,” she said. “The only way around it is a staggered schedule.”

Beyond arrival times, the other rush hour for elevators occurs at lunchtime. The Lerch Bates report suggested increasing the food service options inside buildings, such as pop-up stalls every three or four floors that employees can get to using the stairs. Employers should also encourage “bring your own lunch” campaigns, the report states.

Ms. Haines said Brookfield has suggested that employers bring in catered lunches. She said her buildings are also using “virtual food halls,” a system for restaurant deliveries in which all orders for a given floor are picked up in a designated section of the lobby by a single runner, instead of by each individual customer.

The array of proposed changes could mean that a person visiting multiple buildings finds no two elevators that operate the same way. “The elevator had one way to use it for 140 years,” said Christopher Smith, a vice president of Otis. “Now, introducing all these new technologies, it’s going to take another adjustment period.”

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