Architects and Designers Will Need to Adapt Buildings and Interior Spaces for a COVID-19 World

Cleaning: No matter how many people occupy a space, the shadow of COVID has crystalized the importance of having an effective cleaning and disinfecting strategy.

“To instill confidence in users, landlords and tenants are going to have to implement cleaning protocols and track those protocols,” Heinly says. “After every meeting in a conference room, they’ll need to wipe all the surfaces down. If you have a shared workstation that you use a few times a week and someone else may use it, that will need to be cleaned and shown as being clean. Every shared space—whether that’s lobbies, offices or restrooms—will need a cleaning protocol.”

Air quality and filtration are important considerations for keeping buildings safer for occupants. Natural ventilation is a great strategy to bring fresh air into a building, coupled with a high-end filtration system.

Because the virus can collect on surfaces, creating confidence in shared space means assuring workers, diners and shoppers that everything they may have cause to touch has been properly sanitized. Long an important issue in hospital design, the ability for interior elements to be cleaned and to resist disease-causing agents will be seen more in other building types.

“Material selection becomes even more important. The conversation around healthy materials has been around for a while, including its chemical makeup, its properties, applications and maintenance,” Chung says. “This isn’t just about the original state of the material but also the holistic application and life cycle of it. The industry has the framework and knowledge to develop products, and this is a great opportunity to push manufacturers or product developers to examine this issue further and innovate.”

Touchless Entry: With touch as a major method of transmission, touchless entry is another trend we can expect to see increase exponentially as buildings learn to adapt to life with and after COVID-19. This technology was gaining traction before the outbreak, but now it takes on all new importance.

“There’s no reason that any office building can’t have a power-operated entry door so you don’t have to touch a door handle,” Heinly asserts. “It can be connected to an access control system that recognizes you from encryption and security protocols on your mobile device and lets you in the building. The technology is there to tie that into building automation, which knows the floor you work on and groups you into an elevator with others going to that floor. Something we already see in China is limits on the number of people in elevators. As a short-term strategy, there are dots in each corner and people stand on those, facing the corners so they don’t breathe on each other.” Longer-term strategies may include adding air filtration in elevator cabs.

“There is definitely a psychological component in creating trust and assuring someone that a building is healthy,” Chung says. “There needs to be feedback or response from the space to show it is healthy. On the first level, it may be having automated entry instead of having to touch the door and hand sanitizers installed at the entrance. Coming into the space, I know I don’t have to touch anything and I can sanitize my hands in multiple places.”

In addition to automated doors, there are also design strategies to address touchless entries for common areas, like restrooms. Zigzag entrances to restrooms in airports and stadiums are already the norm. That provides privacy while allowing a touchless entry.

An Evolving Situation

The elements discussed here are just part of the equation. In the short term, it is likely that addressing density and cleaning will be most accessible, affordable and important. Touchless entry may pick up momentum in the medium term and an increased emphasis on building wellness may be with us in the long term. (Learn more about another important strategy to minimize spread of infection—ventilation—in “The ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force Prepares Facilities for Future Epidemics”.)

“One solution may not fit everyone. Although this is a pandemic and everyone is affected by it, that doesn’t mean everyone is impacted the same way,” Chung says. “I think this situation has helped determine what people’s work preferences are and what the task at hand allows. Some are anxious to return to the office, and others may discover they don’t need to be there every day. Organizations will need to examine what works for their vision, values and culture.”

“You can look back to 9/11 and see that for two or three years, we became accustomed to armed security, bomb-sniffing dogs and trunk searches,” Heinly recalls. “If anything, humans have proven that we are adaptable. Just like after 9/11, eventually some of these measures disappeared and we don’t think about the security precautions that are part of daily life now. It could eventually be the same with COVID-19; we just don’t know yet what impacts on our built environment will remain as long- term design features.”


Because transmission of COVID-19 is primarily airborne, air quality and filtration are important considerations for keeping buildings safe for occupants. Learn more about ventilation strategies in “The ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force Prepares Facilities for Future Epidemics”. The article was written by Wade H. Conlan, P.E., CxA, BCxP, LEED AP, a member of ASHRAE’s Epidemic Task Force and the leader of the task force’s Building Readiness Team.


Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility, Centers
for Disease Control

High-Level Disinfectants, CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety Health

Getting Back to Work: Preparing Buildings for Re-Entry Amid COVID-19, BOMA

Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019, CDC

Safe and Efficient Flushing of Plumbing Systems in Buildings, International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials

IMAGES: (c) Gensler

About the Author

Allan Barry
Allan Barry writes about architecture and sustainability from Chicago.

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