July/August 2021 | Vol. 26 No. 4
by Fred Ashton, Senior Economist, NEMA
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global medical community hurried to secure medical equipment, improve therapies, and develop vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus. However, part of the long-term strategy to mitigate virus transmission could come from outside the medical community. Discussions among architects, city planners, original equipment manufacturers, and the medical community are fluid. Still, themes surrounding building design, construction, and technology are an integral part of the solution in limiting the adverse impact of future pandemics.
As businesses began to reopen following the initial economic lockdowns, offices and factory floor spaces were reconfigured to satisfy social distancing requirements. These measures often reduced productivity and were both resource-intensive and expensive to implement. Moreover, building managers, architects, and designers understood that these quick fixes were only stopgap measures likely ineffective against future virus spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that COVID-19 is transmitted directly by inhaling airborne droplets and indirectly by touching infected surfaces, leaving densely populated areas such as New York City vulnerable to high rates of infection.
To address the density problem, Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning Naglaa Megahed and Professor of Ophthalmology Ehab Ghoneim, both of Port Said University in Egypt, postulate that city planners and architects should consider expanding horizontally, rather than vertically, while emphasizing the need for more open spaces.
The authors believe that low-rise structures could become normalized to relieve density and “reduce contact with everything in multi-story buildings such as elevators, elevator buttons, door handles, and surfaces.”
The idea of horizontal design may be something to consider for future construction, but what can be done to mitigate virus spread in the existing building stock? Ventilation has become a major focus for building managers in the effort to retrofit buildings to help alleviate the health risks of COVID-19.
Bob Tita of The Wall Street Journal wrote:
The pandemic is challenging long-held conventions for offices to be cool, dry, shaded from direct sunlight and mostly sealed off from outside air. Researchers say those conditions can help spread and sustain the virus, prompting manufacturers of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning equipment to alter their products and strategies.
Currently, most HVAC systems are not designed to filter out viruses and generally recirculate air within the building. The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) suggests that “any ventilation or air conditioning system … should now be set up to run on full outside air where this is possible.”
HVAC Systems for Retrofits
Remotely connected HVAC control systems are receiving greater attention as building managers consider retrofitting existing systems. An article from Contracting Businesses explains how these systems give facility managers “operational visibility and control in order to adjust HVAC equipment performance based on occupancy or environmental conditions.” They also enable “database configuration and troubleshooting or root-cause analysis as needed, and visibility into performance dashboards to assess energy consumption … without the need to physically be on site.”
Additionally, the article states, the systems use machine learning and artificial intelligence to apply predictive maintenance, allowing “contractors and service technicians [to] resolve issues and make adjustments before building owners are even aware there is a problem.”
Lighting Systems to Fight Infection Spread
Lighting equipment manufacturers have also been quick to respond with lighting systems utilizing Ultraviolet C (UV-C) to combat the spread of COVID-19. According to a recent report published by consulting firm Guidehouse, lamps and drivers using UV-C “emit a wavelength within the 200-280 nm that has been proven to disinfect water, surfaces, and air by breaking down viruses.”
An article published in Environment International proposed another lighting strategy that was adopted during the tuberculosis outbreak in the 1980s known as the “upper-room” system. This system is one in which “lamps are placed in the upper part of the room, either on the walls or mounted on the ceiling, directing the UV light into the upper zone with louvers and limiting UV exposure in the occupied space.” This design helps alleviate the potential health risks associated with UV-C or germicidal ultraviolet (GUV) light while limiting the spread of viruses in poorly ventilated areas. The authors note that although no data are available on lighting. It relies on “a smart lock on a given room [that] can display warnings to tenants not to enter. If a door manages to open mid-cycle, a triggered door- contact sensor could deactivate the system.”
Utilizing Flexible Design
Infrastructure that is movable, multipurpose, and adaptable to a changing environment, known as flexible design, could become an integral part of building design.
According to an article in The Los Angeles Times, “Flexible components like movable walls can help buildings adapt to needs. A hospital, for instance, could shift or enlarge its spaces for treatment and quarantine, or open up new spaces to accommodate ICU beds.” Offices can make similar transformations by subdividing open office areas into individual workspaces.
Decades of urbanization and the free and rapid movement of people across the globe created conditions ideal for a pandemic. COVID-19 vaccines help lessen the virus’s impact, but additional investment will be required to avert or mitigate the next highly contagious viral outbreak.
This brief review of early post-pandemic literature, while by no means exhaustive, suggests that building designs are likely to address the need for viral containment by incorporating IoT technology, touchless interfaces, reimagined spatial configurations, flexible design, antiviral lighting, and upgraded HVAC systems. ei
Speaking of IoT ...
NEMA initiated a Strategic Initiative in 2020 to provide NEMA Members with a repository of
quantifiable, monetized value of IoT products/systems and perspectives
from end users that can be used in product design and marketing. To read
the resources that were developed from that initiative, please visit www.nema.org/si-reports.