We need buildings that breathe better.
If there’s one major long-term lesson we, as architects and designers, should take from this pandemic, it is the importance of ventilation systems and access to outdoor spaces—along with increased personal and social sanitary practices—to keep people healthy. This is best illustrated by the challenge facing our schools as they seek to re-open. Increasing ventilation capacity to bring significantly more outside air into the classrooms and building spaces, as well as investing in more resilient finishes and surfaces able to tolerate more stringent, aggressive cleaning protocols are among the key changes that need to be implemented immediately. Though they might mean higher operating and maintenance costs, these changes will make our schools far safer places to be for students and teachers, in both the short and long term.
Currently, educators, facilities executives and building professionals are debating whether HEPA air filters or advanced HVAC systems should be required in K-12 environments to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other contagions we have yet to discover. Investing in new air-handling systems to retrofit older school buildings certainly makes long-term sense. Likewise, investments in integrated audiovisual technology and data infrastructure to support distance learning seem both timely and wise to consider.
Keep in mind, a school is more than just classrooms. Dense and highly trafficked hallways are a prime area of concern, and major structural changes to widen hallways are an expensive and time-consuming solution. Alternatively, converting hallways to one-way traffic is a manageable approach for older school buildings with traditional double-loaded corridors, though it doesn’t address what will happen during emergency egress and fire drills. Ultimately many schools will investigate widening corridors where structurally possible and reasonably cost-effective. Many will also explore ways to provide direct access from classrooms and gathering spaces to the exterior of the building. Where a pandemic is concerned, outside is always going to be the safest place.
Inside the classroom, what’s most important to consider are the types of in-person interactions that take place. Prevention starts at the source: the use of masks is the first, best line of defense against spread and exponential growth, in tandem with social distancing protocols. These precautions plus other changes like separate desks and shields—and thorough nightly cleanings—are already shown to be effective. The basic modification of moving to all single-occupant desks protected from their surroundings with an acrylic shield, may be highly effective in preventing transmission inside the classroom environment. To protect teachers, many of whom are already hesitant to return to school (especially older teachers or those with respiratory and immune system issues), we will likely see an increase in the use of personal protective equipment, such as masks, face shields and gloves.
New school building projects will be designed with pandemic impact and response in mind, in much the same way that the issue of gun violence has changed design focus. Going forward into the post-COVID-19 future, new K-12 facilities will be built with more robust ventilation and air-exchange equipment, as well as more space per student, more handwashing and sanitation stations, and also a greater emphasis on natural daylight. (Sunlight, which contains UV rays, may not be the best disinfectant but every bit helps.)
But our challenge remains with older school buildings, to perform the necessary retrofits to existing conditions to make the facilities appropriate for mitigation of viral transmission. The consensus among stakeholders is leaning toward increasing square footage per student and enhanced air-quality measures as the best and most cost-effective approaches to making older schools pandemic-ready. It is reasonable to assume that we will never return to the relatively carefree pre-coronavirus days. There will continue to be the threat of this virus until a reliable vaccine is widely available, and there is always the concern that future pandemics will arise. As we learn more about coronaviruses and airborne contagions, we as designers will keep finding ways to adapt and make our schools safe places for teaching and learning.