Post-COVID Crystal Ball: How Might This Pandemic Influence Design?

A friend recently reminded me that modern French architect Le Corbusier designed his iconic Villa Savoye with a handwashing sink in the entryway. The home was completed in 1928, less than a decade after the 1918 flu pandemic subsided, which likely influenced the architect’s reported obsession with healthy building. Other modern architecture of that era shows a similar response to the flu pandemic and other pathogens (e.g., tuberculosis) with clean lines and smooth surfaces, free of dark, dusty corners.

By Alan Scott

Alan Scott New

While we are still in the throes of COVID-19, it is not too soon to consider how the 2020 pandemic might influence how we design our built environment. Cloth masks, plexiglass barriers and stick-on floor markings are an important part of our current reality. They will soon yield to more permanent and elegant design and technical solutions to reduce pathogen risks and enhance wellness in the built environment, as we resume normal activities. These include changes in the design of interior spaces, optimized building systems for healthier indoor environments, and adoption of smart building technologies.

Reimagining How We Use Space

Among knowledge workers who were able to adopt remote work during the pandemic, some have found they prefer it and want to continue, while others long for the vibrancy and personal interaction of the office. The answer is somewhere in between, with business practices and spaces that are malleable and resilient. The same holds true for other types of businesses and institutions, from restaurants to schools.

Prior to the pandemic, we were already seeing backlash against dense, open plan offices due to the constant distractions and lack of privacy (particularly stressful for introverts). Trends were emerging toward creating flexibility and choice in the work environment, with a variety of spaces for collaboration, focused concentration, and casual and formal work environments. While broader management and employee acceptance of remote work in response to COVID-19 could result in some companies downsizing their leased spaces, it seems more likely that we will see a de-densification of workspaces within the same footprint. The new office environment will accommodate employees who work both in the office and remote, giving them choice in work environments, and supporting preferences for temperature, light level, noise and interaction.

While some functions may require physical barriers while the pandemic persists, we will transition from plexiglass shields to more subtle design solutions that naturally create appropriate separation through structural forms and visual clues. We might also start seeing more dispersed services, like coffee stations and break rooms, rather than large central gathering spaces. Since we now know that enclosed, densely occupied spaces present the greatest pathogen transmission risk, we may see large and small meeting alcoves replace fully enclosed meeting rooms and huddle spaces, provided acoustic separation can be accomplished without walls and doors.

To entice people hesitant to brave the commute again, landlords may turn to new means like increased amenity spaces, to make office buildings more attractive. In a hybridization of traditional office space, co-working and remote work, we may also see a hub-and-spoke model for commercial real estate, with a combination of smaller centralized office spaces combined with co-work-like work pods close to residential areas, allowing employees the option of working close to, but not at home, a few days a week, avoiding the commute while offering improved connectivity over home offices.

Indoor Environmental Quality for Health

We are learning the risk of airborne SARS-CoV-2 transmission is greater than initially thought, and we already know other pathogens are readily spread through the air. We also know that code-minimum ventilation is not optimal for respiratory health or cognitive function. Additionally, traditional overhead ventilation systems that rely on mixing of room air to achieve thermal comfort conditions are also notorious for spreading pollutants through the space before they are removed with the return air. LEED, and more recently the WELL Building standard, have encouraged increased ventilation rates (30% better than ASHRAE 62.1), but so far, only a small sample of buildings have adopted this.

I think the pandemic will force greater consideration of both the rate and means of ventilation. Computation fluid dynamic modeling and testing of full-scale installations of displacement ventilation and under-floor air distribution have shown that they are superior to traditional overhead systems. This is because they rely on the natural buoyancy of air to deliver fresh, conditioned air to people in the breathing zone (3-6 feet above the floor) and to carry pollutants (including virus-laden aerosol particles) up to the ceiling and away as the air warms and rises.

More than a decade ago, some new casinos were designed with displacement ventilation, supplemented by air curtains between players and dealers, to protect employees and patrons alike from second-hand smoke. Building on this concept, a recent collaborative academic study (by institutions in the U.S., Switzerland and Russia) validated the potential efficacy of personal air shields in place of plastic face shields to block respiratory particles and droplet. Similarly, a private company is promoting an air curtain retrofit for airplanes to protect passengers. A similar approach could allow open offices, restaurants, manufacturing facilities and other densely occupied spaces to provide safe separation without cumbersome and unsightly physical barriers.

Smart and Safe Buildings

In recent years, building owners and facility managers have been increasingly adopting smart building technology (PropTech) that improves occupant experience and operational efficiency with everything from access control, to space usage, to thermal comfort and energy efficiency. The pandemic has prompted new features in existing PropTech platforms and spawned new applications to help control the virus and reduce infection risks. These range from simple smartphone applications allowing touchless elevator operation, to sophisticated facility-based contact tracing that flags heavily used spaces for more frequent cleaning (saving staff time) and helping to identify higher risk contacts (e.g., extended proximity and interaction) in the event an occupant has a confirmed infection.

Along with hand hygiene habits, face covering policies and increased cleaning, we must also consider the more enduring attributes we can change in our existing facilities and integrate in the design of new ones to reduce risks in the current health crisis and improve health and wellness moving forward. This will limit the health impacts from the common cold, seasonal flu, and the next inevitable pandemic that epidemiologists suggest is closer than we think (due to climate change and human encroachment in natural areas). Using thoughtful design, optimized systems and smart building, we can increase resilience and support continuity of operation in businesses, schools and other institutions. Pandemics are serious business, but a proactive approach will protect lives and livelihoods.

Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM, is an architect with over 30 years of experience in sustainable building design. He is a senior consultant with Intertek Building Science Solutions in Portland, Ore. To learn more, follow Scott on Twitter @alanscott_faia.