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Meeting the demands of change

A firsthand member perspective of South Korea in the era of COVID-19

By Seon Hwa (Jane) Youn, Ph.D., CPM, CIPS®
Roof Garden In Central, Hong Kong

The world is changing rapidly. At the start of this year, we felt comfortable asking economists to forecast the world economy, but now we have to consult with scientists and health authorities for any reliable prediction. These authorities are currently saying that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely not come to an end until late 2021 at the earliest, suggesting that the novel coronavirus will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

Countries around the world have had various approaches to the pandemic, but everywhere it has accelerated what some call “the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” a further digitization of technology and the economy.

Here in South Korea we have had success from a public health point of view, which has been reflected in our real estate management industry. The key is for property managers to adapt and take advantage of these new conditions.

Current situation in South Korea

As of July 28, the Ministry of Health & Welfare website stated that South Korea has had 14,203 confirmed cases, of which 13,007 have fully recovered, 896 are in treatment and isolation, and 300 have died. Over 1.5 million people have been tested since the outbreak began.

In early May, the number of newly confirmed cases decreased to zero, and it appeared as though the country had the outbreak under control. Then, the number of cases slightly bounced back after a long weekend, with a cluster that originated at a night club. The movement of people that began in early May is still having effects in Seoul.

Despite this setback, our daily lives are operating normally, for the most part, including schools, companies and shops, all with appropriate social distancing.

The opening of schools here has drawn attention internationally. School and health authorities here are taking great care to prevent the spread of the virus as students spend most of their weekdays with classmates.

In addition to placing desks a certain distance apart from each other, partitions have been installed. Students and teachers are also required to wear masks and maintain social distance. The government is continuously developing and applying advanced quarantining technologies such as a contact tracing app, thermal imaging cameras, drive-through clinics and disinfecting robots.

Real estate management

From the perspective of a CPM, the management of buildings is changing distinctly and rapidly. Property managers are constantly seeking to differentiate themselves from the market, and approaches to COVID-19 are no different.

Many large construction companies are marketing and branding their strategies, and things like sterilization, disinfection and air purification are becoming basic services, especially in residential buildings but also in offices and commercial facilities. Hand sanitizer is everywhere, and maintenance staff disinfect and ventilate properties a few times a day. The number of requests for disinfection services has also increased.

People have become more comfortable with sharing the information required to combat this virus. Most buildings check temperatures and share personal contact information. They’re also establishing a system to track the routes of confirmed patients to prevent the spread. At some underground parking lots, drivers and passengers can enter only after having their temperature checked. Some large buildings automatically photograph those who enter, and some even have a system to verify identities through mobile authentication.

Most buildings require masks at all times, and the same is true of public transportation. People without masks are not allowed to enter buildings or board subways and buses.

Terraces with access to fresh air and larger homes that will accommodate work and study space will likely become more popular.
New technology is providing some solutions. Hospitals have started using quarantine robots. They not only transport dangerous substances, but can also measure body temperature, clean and disinfect floors, recognize those who aren’t wearing masks, tell these people to wear masks and guide social distancing.

Artificial intelligence (AI) robots with these functions are starting to be introduced outside hospitals as well. Samsung C&T Construction is taking advantage of them for facility guidance, handling reservations and carrying luggage. The company sees this as a way to create a competitive advantage and strengthen their brand in this new era.

Companies are also using new technology to create safer spaces. The developer and infrastructure builder SK Engineering and Construction has developed the first antibacterial ventilation system in Korea. The system filters 99.95% of ultra-fine dust and its antibacterial system has been shown to eliminate 99.99% of bacteria. The National Air Filtration Association has noted that there is no direct scientific evidence of benefit from filtration in terms of protecting workers from COVID-19 but that filtration is likely to remove particles that contain the virus and can be part of risk mitigation more broadly.

Urban development

While our current practices have been affected in the short term, the pandemic has affected our planning for the future as well: Real estate development will have very different priorities moving forward.

In June 2020, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced a complete revision of its urban development planning, which had been introduced in the era of quantitative growth. The main change was the introduction of “indoor open space.” This change comes in response to heat waves and fine dust, but it can also be viewed as a change in paradigm for the post-COVID-19 era.

Traditionally, open spaces within buildings larger than a certain size are considered public spaces and must be exposed to the outside. With these new revisions, the government has introduced a new type of indoor but enclosed open space, which may be built inside the building or built within the form of a building as a space where people can rest. Previously these spaces were not allowed, and the revision in law was influenced by the outbreak. As the space is enclosed, it has the benefit of avoiding heat waves, fine dust and other environmental effects.

As outdoor and face-to-face activities are being limited, comfortable and clean indoor spaces are becoming more prominent and are expected to become a major trend in the near future. Experts expect the architectural design of buildings to change. Terraces with access to fresh air and larger homes that will accommodate work and study space will likely become more popular. Window access for better lighting will also become a priority. Home saunas are also expected to grow more popular here.

It is no exaggeration to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed our daily lives and that these changes will only continue in ways that are difficult to predict. The property management industry will have to follow new trends and at the same time set new values and strategies, applying and introducing technologies related to health.

Maggie Callahan

Seon Hwa (Jane) Youn, Ph.D., CPM, CIPS®, is CEO of Global Seoul Real Estate Co., Ltd., and a professor of real estate at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea. A past president of the IREM Korea Chapter, she established the Global Real Estate Association of Seoul (GRAS) in 2018 to create a channel for Korean investors to collaborate with overseas real estate.

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