Y2K has building industry playing it safe

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NEW YORK, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Managers of the commercial building systems that keep elevators running and offices warm have prepared for potential problems from the Y2K computer bug with steps that include setting up special Web sites and toll-free phone numbers.

Commercial building systems managers said they expect no major disruptions from the millennium bug but have taken precautions that include having computer-dependent systems checked.

Still, they say they are concerned about factors beyond their control -- such as the loss of electrical power.

``What we've been trying to do is anticipate as many downside risks as possible and take what I term a 'belt and suspenders' approach to this,'' said Mike Steele, chief operating officer of Equity Office Properties Trust. ``You don't overreact, but at the same time you're trying to make sure that you don't leave any stone unturned...''

Building managers want to prevent the experience of Nicholas White, a Business Week employee who was trapped for 40 hours in a New York City elevator earlier this month. White sued Rockefeller Centre Management Corp. for $25 million.

Still, with only 39 days left before the most talked-about New Years Eve ever, building owners and managers are relaxing a little.

``It really doesn't seem to be turning into quite the problem that many of us feared,'' said Stephanie Oppenheimer, director of communications at the Washington-based Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA), which has 17,000 members representing office, industrial and residential space. ``Everyone seems awfully confident that it will be business as usual.''

Addressing the issue earlier this month, President Bill Clinton said he expects ``no major national breakdowns'' from the year 2000, or Y2K, though he admitted more work needs to be done. In the world's poorer countries, however, experts say the rollover to 2000 could cause significant problems.

The Y2K bug mainly affects older computers. If not corrected, computers could misread the year 2000 as 1900, causing systems to experience problems or even stop working.

Oppenheimer said most BOMA members have each allocated $50,000 or less to their Y2K efforts, with about 15 percent of them spending between $100,000 and $500,000 apiece.

Chicago-based Equity Office Properties Trust -- the nation's largest office real estate investment trust (REIT), with 291 buildings throughout the United States representing more than 76 million square feet of space -- had originally planned to spend about $7.5 million on Y2K readiness.

However, as testing and contingency plans developed, that number fell to its current level of about $4.5 million, Steele said in a telephone interview. Equity Office used most of that money to test and replace internal data systems, Steele said.

Equity Office has a ``core team'' of seven people dedicated to Y2K which meets monthly,

Less than five percent of building systems, such as temperature controls, elevators and security systems, are even at risk from the Y2K computer glitch, BOMA's Oppenheimer said. She added that elevators, in particular, run on weekly clocks, not yearly ones, thus protecting them from computers' inability to read the new year correctly.

But with White's frightening experience serving as a reminder, building operators are not taking chances.

In addition to sending quarterly letters to tenants updating progress on Y2K and setting up a special ``800'' number for New Year's weekend to relay information among employees at properties in its portfolio, Equity Office will maintain staff at its buildings or have them on call on New Year's Eve.

``We certainly have recognised that the operation of the buildings over that weekend is going to be different from a typical weekend,'' Steele said.

Boston Properties, another large office REIT, estimates it will spend more than $1.2 million on Y2K preparations and it, too, has instituted a ``no-vacation policy'' among its staff.

``I don't know what's going to play out but we've reached a very high level of comfort,'' said James Whalen, Boston Properties' Y2K coordinator.

Both Steele and Whalen say a loss of electricity is their biggest concern because it is out of their control and, if cut off, would bring their operations to a halt.

Officials at the world's largest elevator company, Otis Elevator Co., agreed. They said that, out of their worldwide portfolio of 1.2 million elevators, they only needed to visit about one percent for Y2K-related servicing.

``There are not a lot of people asking for testing,'' said Isabel Hovey, Otis's manager of software engineering. Otis is a unit of Hartford, Conn.-based United Technologies Corp.

Otis, which established a formal Y2K committee in 1997, has set up a Web site for its staff and mechanics which functions as a clearing house for millennium-related information. The company will monitor the effects as the world's time zones roll into 2000, Hovey said.

``We will be collecting information from (offices in) New Zealand and Australia, all that information will be coming into headquarters, and then we will communicate out to the rest of the countries,'' Hovey said.

Otis's spokesman, Matthew Broder, said no one should have a problem riding an elevator at midnight on Dec. 31.

``It's probably the safest place for you to be, as long as the power doesn't go out,'' he said.

-- Steve (hartsman@ticon.net), November 25, 1999

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