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A New Normal: How Pandemic Disruptions Spurred Positive Innovations in the Built Environment

August 24, 2021
Touchless entry

Earn CEU Credits:

i+s’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through an article.

Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this article. To receive one health, safety and wellness hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC or 1 Learning Unit as approved by AIA, read the article, then log on to take the associated exam

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • To gain an understanding of how previous pandemics have shaped the built environment
  • To gain an understanding of similarities between the Spanish flu and the Coronavirus pandemic 
  • To describe how disease prevention inspired Modernism
  • To explain the relationship between COVID-19 and Legionnaires disease
  • To gain an understanding of touchless and voice control technology in the post-COVID smart building
  • To gain an understanding of how the modular industry responded to the pandemic
  • To explain enhancements made to LEED and WELL in response to COVID
  • To gain an understanding of how hotels will use tech to customize the post-COVID guest experience

*This CEU opportunity is sponsored by The Chicago Faucets Company.

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Adversity Leads to Innovation

Every pandemic throughout history has left its mark, changing how we design and inhabit the built environment. The Coronavirus pandemic is no different. Coming back from the brink of disaster is pushing us to be better. Our take-aways from COVID-19 have accelerated positive emerging trends like the outdoor office, touchless technology and modular construction. The result will be healthier spaces and indoor environments that place a priority on wellness.

Communicable diseases among humans have existed as far back as the hunter-gatherer days, but when we adopted an agrarian lifestyle 10,000 years ago the practice of living in communities made epidemics more possible. Malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza and smallpox all appeared during this period. 

Pandemics became more likely to occur as humans built cities, created trade routes and engaged in wars. In the 14th century, the bubonic plague wiped out approximately one-third of Europe’s population. Today’s best practices of social distancing and disinfecting surfaces can actually be traced back to the ancient cities of Venice and Milan. Realizing that the disease could be spread on objects and surfaces that were being traded, city officials put public health measures in place to deal with the emergency. The Adriatic port city of Ragusa (known today as Dubrovnik) was the first to pass legislation requiring the mandatory quarantine of all incoming ships and trade caravans in order to screen for infection.

The 30-day period in the 1377 quarantine order was known as a “trentino" but officials had the authority to impose shorter or longer restrictions. The English word “quarantine” is a direct descendent of “quarantino”, the Italian word for a 40-day period. Europe’s ongoing battle with the plague continued into the 17th century.

Subsequent public health crises led to a gradual and widespread evolution of architecture and city planning. Yellow fever in the 18th century and cholera and smallpox in the 19th century prompted improved water systems in London, disease mapping and the creation of the early suburbs. After a cholera epidemic in 1832 that killed 20,000 people in Paris—out of a total population of 650,000—French leaders embraced new developments in medicine born from the realization that fresh air and sanitation were necessary for health.

Georges-Eugène Haussmann replanned Paris with wide boulevards to bring air and light to the center of Paris while ridding the city of disease. In the 20th century, tuberculosis, typhoid, polio and Spanish flu furthered the need for more urban planning, slum clearance, tenement reform and waste management. More windows and balconies were introduced as a way to improve ventilation within interior spaces

Design Legacy: Spanish Flu and Tuberculosis Spur Lasting Changes

The COVID-19 pandemic is most often compared to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918 also known as the Spanish flu. Even though it did not actually originate in Spain, the 1918 pandemic was known as the Spanish flu because in March 1918 Spain was the first country to report on its existence. The flu had actually already surfaced previously in both the United States and France where it was known by the code name “disease XI”. Both countries were fighting in World War I, and they kept it quiet. Spain was a neutral country in the war. It had a free press that shared the news with the populace.

Around one-third of the world’s population—500 million people—were estimated to have been infected by the 1918 flu virus. Like COVID-19, the 1918 virus was “novel,” meaning it was a new virus that hadn’t been seen before. No one had immunity to either, and both have proven to be highly infectious with very similar transmission. They are spread primarily through respiratory droplets and aerosols (a suspension of liquid droplets in the air). In both cases, close and face-to-face contact enabled the spread.

As with COVID, health authorities in 1918 urged people to wear masks. In 1918, masks were made of gauze and cheesecloth. As with the COVID-19 pandemic, not everyone wanted to wear a mask. During the Spanish flu, when people refused to wear a mask, they could face a fine in cities where masks were mandated. According to historians, standards of hygiene were lower 100 years ago. The guidelines for avoiding the Spanish flu were much the same as those currently in place for COVID-19: masking, isolation of sick people and hand washing.

Legionella cells

Some of the standard architectural and design features we take for granted today originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as strategies for preventing and slowing the spread of the 1918 flu, tuberculosis and dysentery. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, most clothing, linens and similar items were kept in armoires and other stand-alone furniture like cabinets and chests.

It was thought that germs could be passed along in dust. Closets and built-ins were introduced as a way to reduce the amount of furniture in a room, make it easier to clean and reduce the transmission of disease.
During that time administrators and architects of public buildings also focused on reducing the spread of infectious diseases. Hospitals installed white tiles so workers could easily see dirt and wipe it clean. One of the first American restaurant chains called Childs Restaurant used white subway tile for its interior design. Seeing the same material that was used in sterile hospital environments helped people feel safe and protected from foodborne diseases like typhoid and botulism. 

Easy-to-clean linoleum also became popular. It was seen as the sanitary choice, replacing hardwood floors in residential and commercial applications where cleanliness and reduction of germ spread were a priority.

Modernists are Influenced by Wellness and Disease Prevention

The tuberculosis epidemic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries also created lasting changes in the built environment which dovetailed with measures taken in response to the Spanish Flu and other deadly diseases. Before antibiotics, the only treatment for tuberculosis was sunlight and fresh air (the “open air treatment”). Porches had long been used as a place to sleep during hot weather, but they assumed an important new role in the treatment of tuberculosis. Saranac Lake, a mountain town in New York, attracted health-seekers from all over the country who came for the fresh air cure in the village’s cure cottages and sanatoria. Patients rested outdoors in cure porches. 

Many design features popularized during this sanatorium movement in the U.S. and Europe made their way from clinical environments to other settings as they inspired the new modernist architecture of the 1920s, 1930s and beyond. The modernist movement was defined by airy spaces, single-use zoning (to separate residential and industrial areas), clean and non-porous surfaces made of glass and steel, pure white walls and an emphasis on avoiding clutter where germs can congregate. 

Hygiene and plumbing were critical considerations. As bathrooms evolved they also increased in number especially in response to cholera and the Spanish flu. Early bathrooms had wood fixtures but then transitioned to enamel, porcelain and chrome which were considered more hygienic. The Spanish flu led to the addition of small half-bathrooms (“powder rooms”) near the entrance of homes and communal apartment blocks. These half baths near the front door ensured that visitors (who might have been in touch with a contagious person in another household) did not use the main family bathroom. At the same time, having an accessible sink on the ground floor of homes made it more convenient for everyone to wash their hands more frequently.

Just like today, health officials realized that fresh air could help limit the spread of airborne viruses. California modernist Richard Neutra, whose father died of influenza in 1920, was obsessed with making sunlight and natural ventilation available in every space. Similarly, in New York, steam heating and radiators were designed to keep apartments warm enough so that residents could keep their windows open even when it was very cold.

Architectural modernism rejected ornamentation for functional concerns as well as aesthetics. Le Corbusier believed people should remove clutter from their homes, eliminate carpets and heavy furniture and keep the floors and walls clear. His ultramodernist Villa Savoye was painted clinical white in accordance with this aesthetic.

Modern office lobby

By the dawn of the 20th century, it was known that dried tuberculosis-carrying droplets could survive and remain infectious in household dust. Minimalist furniture designs replaced carved wood and upholstery where bacilli-containing dust was thought to linger and become a carrier of disease. Furniture designs used lightweight, washable materials in streamlined forms. Michael Thonet used bentwood and cane, Aalto used bent plywood, and Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe used tubular steel. The result was furniture that was easily moved for thorough cleaning.

Designing Around COVID

Similarly, COVID-19 has inspired new changes to our interior spaces. Technology and the ability to work remotely has enabled many people to work, teach and learn from home during the pandemic. People have remodeled their space to include private Zoom rooms, enhanced laundry facilities and transition/decontamination zones where they can leave their bags, shoes, clothes or deliveries. The ritual of wiping down shopping and home deliveries has created domestic cleaning stations. New build residential projects and remodels are currently being constructed with antimicrobial materials including laminates, bronze, copper and brass. Quartz is the hardest non-precious stone on earth, making it the most sanitary countertop surface to use. Granite is too porous to be antimicrobial. Stainless steel, too, has fallen out of favor.

The risk from COVID-19 increases with indoor gatherings compared to outdoors. We discovered socializing outdoors in our “pods” is less risky than indoors because natural outdoor airflow rapidly dilutes viruses floating in the air. Also, sunlight kills viruses. Closed windows and doors decrease fresh airflow which can increase risk, especially when people gather inside. Dryer, less humid air from heating may also increase the risk. Terraces, balconies and indoor/outdoor spaces will continue to be desirable design features going forward. Consumers are also learning everything they can about HVAC systems and ventilation in their homes.

Apartment designers are now configuring space with working from home in mind. Amenity spaces frequently feature attractive co-working options. Bedrooms are being equipped with sliding glass doors to allow more natural light to penetrate the interior of apartment homes. Balconies and large windows allow for clean, fresh air to be brought into the living units.

Modern Day Waterborne Disease

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a mass exodus from cities to less densely populated areas where social distancing would be easier. Many of the buildings where we worked, lived and played have been largely empty during most of the pandemic. The shutdowns of hotels, schools, theaters and office buildings can lead to stagnant water in the plumbing system and a potential breeding ground for Legionella bacteria.

Social distancing sign

Widely available vaccines are alleviating our fears about the contagious nature of COVID-19; however, we need to be equally concerned about Legionnaires disease as we return to office buildings and other commercial spaces. Legionnaires disease is a life-threatening form of pneumonia that happens when the Legionella bacterium is inhaled. It can cause severe lung illness, pneumonia and sometimes death. The symptoms are shortness of breath, coughing, fever, headaches and muscle aches.

Building teams are encouraged to take aggressive measures to disinfect the water systems. When buildings sit empty, the chlorine disinfectant in the water gets consumed and bacteria flourishes and grows. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hotels and hospitals are at a high risk of having the Legionella bacterium in their water systems. Recently, an Ohio hospital had a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that resulted in eight illnesses and one death. One month later, an Atlanta Hotel had an outbreak that resulted in 11 guests diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. 

Showers are one of the top locations that breed Legionella bacteria. An effective preventative measure is installing an auto-drain shower system that can automatically drain standing water from the diverter pipe and hand-spray hose. This solution helps prevent the growth of harmful waterborne pathogens, like Legionella. An auto-drain shower system can automatically drain standing water in the column between the shower valve and showerhead, removing stagnant water that causes illness. 

A popular resource in the fight against Legionnaires’ disease is The Special Pathogens Laboratory, a nationally recognized analytical microbiology laboratory that
provides evidence-based solutions to detect, control and remediate Legionella and other waterborne pathogens.

Fueled by the belief that better outcomes will result when two disciplines—building science and health science—work together, Joseph Allen founded the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The program has synthesized 30 years of public health science into a report “The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building.” Allen also co-authored Healthy Buildings with John Macomber. The book explores the prevention of Legionnaires disease. One possible solution is UV-C radiation water disinfection.

Battling Bacteria in Healthcare Facilities

The CDC ranks hand washing as the number one method to prevent the spread of bacteria. Hand washing has been a major weapon in the fight against COVID-19. Even with total compliance, touching faucet handles can re-contaminate clean hands and contribute to the spread of infections in all settings including healthcare. A recent study found that the microbial diversity on the handles of traditional manual faucets throughout a hospital can be significant. 

Group of healthcare workers in a hospital.

This finding reinforces the importance of reducing touch-points wherever possible, particularly in areas with severely immunocompromised patients. Legionnaires’ disease continues to be a challenge for healthcare facilities. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expect Medicare and Medicare/Medicaid certified healthcare facilities to have water management policies and procedures to reduce the risk of growth and spread of Legionella and other pathogens in building water systems. 

Studies have shown that electronic faucets can elevate waterborne bacteria to a level higher than may be found in manual faucets. While most individuals in other settings are not at risk for infection by these bacteria, any increase is reason for concern in healthcare environments. Hospitals are always looking for ways to reduce exposure among individuals who might have a higher risk of contracting Legionnaires disease.

One solution is to specify touch-free faucets tested and validated by a nationally recognized testing laboratory. Special Pathogens Laboratory has monitored touch free products for both heterotrophic plate count (HPC) measurements (they provide a generalized indicator of microbial water quality) and also to determine whether the conditions are present to enable the growth of Legionella bacteria.

Touchless Technology: How it Works

An automatic faucet is outfitted with a proximity sensor and mechanism that opens its valve to allow water to flow in response to the presence of a user's hands when they are in close proximity. The faucet closes its valve again after a few seconds—or when it no longer detects the presence of a user's hands. Automatic faucets were first developed in the 1950s but they were not produced for commercial use until the late 1980s when they first appeared to the general public at airport lavatories.

Sensor-activated faucets were invented by the Australian Oliver N. Wareham. Awarded a patent in 1984, Wareham initiated electronic controls of water flow for domestic, commercial, medical and industrial uses. The system was activated by various electronic sensors to achieve no-touch flow control, helping to prevent bacteria transfer in hospital and food preparation settings.

Automatic faucet

Automatic faucets are commonly found in locations seeking to avoid bacteria transfer such as hospitals and surgery departments, in food preparation locations, in public washrooms and in industrial locations where hands are contaminated by chemicals or grease.

Wareham’s invention includes an electronic thermo-responsive control to prevent scalding. Automatic faucets have the advantage of shutting off automatically after hand washing, so they reduce water waste. When installed in a home, sensor faucets alleviate the need for parents to ensure that children have turned off the faucet. Their automatic shutoff mechanism also greatly reduces the risk of sink overflow. They are often found at assisted living establishments.

COVID Inspires Modular Construction Innovation

Innovation has been a hallmark of the Coronavirus pandemic since the earliest days when designers and hobbyists mobilized to help make personal protective equipment. They used 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines and textiles. Architects and construction workers converted buildings into hospitals and emergency shelters. 

The modular construction industry has also responded to the pandemic. BMarko Structures built patient rooms from shipping containers to deliver hospital modules which they named “Liberty Boxes.” They demonstrated the ability to build 48 patient rooms from 42 containers in under three weeks. Other modular companies have also quickly built, mobilized or developed space for health and hygiene purposes.

Xtreme Cubes in Nevada has manufactured handwashing stations with hands-free faucets, soap dispensers and hand dryers. Each unit has four sinks spaced approximately six feet apart, a fresh water tank and a waste water tank. They also supplied two buildings to the Southern Nevada Health District. One was 5,000 sq. ft, the other 2,000 sq. ft. The larger building includes 29 private patient rooms, exam rooms, showers, a kitchen area, a nurses’ station and a pharmacy. The smaller building includes exam rooms and biocontainment units for isolating COVID-positive patients. These units have HEPA filters and negative pressure to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. 

Hotel room

Xtreme Cubes also developed the Xtreme Opti-Clean Cube in response to the pandemic. These disinfecting units were designed to reduce the spread of infection. As a person walks through, they’re sprayed with a dry mist that kills the Coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 on clothing and exposed skin. The mist is a nontoxic disinfectant that occurs naturally in the body. It’s produced by white blood cells to fight infections. It’s the same hypochlorous solution used in eyedrops that has been used for decades in hospitals for disinfecting surfaces, and by the military for treating wounds. Owners and operators of sports arenas, hospitals, supermarkets, construction sites, banks, amusement parks, hotels and casinos have expressed interest in adopting this technology. 

Voice Control Reduces the Spread

During the pandemic, voice control has moved from a convenience feature to a must-have. Many people experienced voice control for the first time in 2011 when Apple introduced its voice assistant, Siri. The technology gained additional users in 2014 when Amazon introduced Alexa, and further fans were gained in 2016 when Google Assistant was unveiled. 

Automatic door lock

COVID-19 is accelerating the implementation of automated touchless technologies—such as voice-activated elevators, hands-free light switches, cellphone-controlled hotel room entry and hands-free faucets—in public spaces to help prevent contagion. 

More advances are on the way. Google’s radar-based Project Soli has been developing a means of reading tiny human gestures that could make the use of public devices such as ATMs or vending machines totally contactless.

For its airport terminal operations, hospitality group OTG has been using Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology, a cashierless and cardless shopping experience.

The New Normal: Touchfree Market Grows

The touchless sensing market is growing at the rate of 17.4 percent and is expected to reach $15.3 billion in 2025, up from $6.8 billion in 2020. Touchless technology uses sensors to recognize gestures, facial features or voice to complete a task. Two widely used voice assistants, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, use automated speech recognition (ASR) to interpret human speech and help humans interact with computer systems using voice alone.

The same goes for facial recognition or gestures. You use gestures to control and interact without actually touching the device. This technology uses computer vision algorithms to interpret the sign language for the action to be completed.

Airlines are testing and implementing new technologies aimed at reducing contact both with surfaces and with people. For American Airlines international flights, instead of scanning a boarding pass, the traveler can scan their face at a kiosk that verifies their identity with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the gate. This technology will be rolled out to domestic flights within the next few months in addition to using it at other points along the journey like baggage drop.

Woman using touchless payment

In March, Delta will allow customers to use “tap-to-pay” technology that the airline says will enable contactless payment for onboard purchases. Passengers can use Delta’s tap-to-pay technology without swiping or handing a flight attendant a credit card. United fliers can now scan QR codes that connect them virtually with an agent, rather than speaking to one in person at the airport.

Hotels Embrace Touch-less

The pandemic offered hotels, who suddenly had no guests to take care of, a break to assess their strengths and weaknesses and make necessary changes to upgrade their sustainability initiatives. In February 2021, the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration held the 11th Sustainability Roundtable, which looks into sustainability in the hospitality industry over the past year. In reviewing 2020, their primary focus was how COVID-19 had impacted sustainability in hospitality. 

Among their findings, they discovered that despite the pandemic, some strides in sustainability were made over the past year, such as increases in touchless technology. Innovations in this field were already in motion before the pandemic, like the Hilton Honors app that allows for keycard-less digital entry into the guest room. But the pandemic boosted the necessity of being able to do things while having limited contact with other people, and many hotels implemented remote, contactless check-in, room entry, and even food or amenities access. A cell phone could suddenly replace the front desk clerk. Among its benefits, touchless tech is more energy-efficient and can eliminate the need for paper or the increased usage of non-ecofriendly cleaners. 

Zaha Hadid Architects’ new headquarters for the Bee’ah waste management company in Sharjah, UAE offers a glimpse of the future. It is packed with “contactless pathways” meaning employees rarely need to touch the building with their hands. Office doors open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition, while elevators and coffee can be ordered from a smartphone.

Technology could also be used to remind employees of social distancing. Cushman & Wakefield has installed beacons into its office to track employees’ movements via their mobile phones, potentially sending alerts when six-feet rules are breached.

Reopening Safely with Vaccines

The COVID-19 vaccines have launched us into a new normal we’ve all been patiently waiting for. But, even as we venture outdoors without masks, there continue to be questions about how to safely reopen the workplace. 

More than 146 million people in the U.S. have now received at least one dose of vaccine, and more than 103 million people have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Nearly 40% of adults have been inoculated, but we need 70-85% of the U.S. population to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

CDC guidance states that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most indoor settings. But how do we know who’s vaccinated… and how should we design the hybrid workplace while we wait to reach herd immunity? Adding to the confusion, a recent study by MIT counters CDC original guidance. It advises that exposure to COVID-19 indoors is the same at 60 feet as it is at 6 feet. Until herd immunity is reached, the MIT study suggests that managing air circulation is the best way to protect against COVID-19 indoors. 

In the workplace, your dual approach should include an effective HVAC system that filters and adds fresh air—and acrylic desk shields. When possible, offer employees a hybrid office that includes optional work from home days. Outdoor office space is also an attractive amenity that will help retain top talent and keep everyone feeling safe while we acclimate to a shared workplace.

Changing Expectations

Wellness was already a trend before COVID, and now it’s going mainstream as people return to offices, hotels and all those spaces where we used to gather. The pandemic has caused a shift in the public's expectations on what constitutes acceptable design solutions for health and well-being in both private and commercial spaces. A healthy building has the power to enhance mental concentration, lower the rate of microbial transmission and boost general wellbeing.

For landlords, a healthy building will attract long term tenants and create higher rental values. A healthy building can also reduce operational overheads and energy costs. Healthy building proponents predict a growing public focus on health measures driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Savvy business leaders and landlords will start to use healthier workspaces competitively as recruitment and staff retention tools and competitive advantage sources.

Already, the Fitwel Standard provides a scorecard system for existing and new buildings to use as a benchmark when optimizing building health. Fitwel certification is a signal to stakeholders that wellness is a priority within the design, development and operations planning of buildings and communities.

Helping the public acclimate to being indoors together again, the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) has enlisted a star-studded roster of influencers for a public awareness campaign about safe buildings.

IWBI’s television commercials, which started airing in January 2021, were directed by Spike Lee and feature such celebrities as Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Michael B. Jordan, Robert DeNiro, Venus Williams, Wolfgang Puck, Deepak Chopra, and the 17th U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.

Their timely message is: “Look for the WELL Health-Safety Seal. Seeing the Seal outside means you can feel safer going inside.”

The WELL Health-Safety Rating for buildings examines 22 features across five core areas: Cleaning and Sanitization Procedures, Emergency Preparedness Programs, Health Service Resources, Air and Water Quality Management, and Stakeholder Engagement and Communication. A minimum of 15 criteria must be met to achieve the rating and be awarded the WELL Health-Safety seal.

IWBI has identified and grouped select, applicable strategies from the WELL
Building Standard v2 pilot (WELL v2) around key themes that reflect how organizations can approach prevention and preparedness, resilience and recovery in relation to
COVID-19 and other respiratory infections—from enhancing air quality to supporting
mental health.

According to IWBI, air stagnation may concentrate airborne viruses or dust, so it is critical to refresh indoor air as frequently as possible. Research has shown that increased ventilation in a building can reduce the chance of influenza; a study published in 2019 found that ensuring even
minimum levels of outdoor air ventilation reduced influenza transmission as much as
having 50-60% of the people in a building vaccinated.

Without proper maintenance and filtration, a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems can build up mold and particulates that can propagate respiratory diseases, especially after periods of inactivity. There is also evidence that humidity can play a role in the survival of viruses such as COVID-19. IWBI suggests maintaining relative humidity between 40% and 60% to help limit the spread and survival of COVID-19. Organizations should weigh the effectiveness and complexity of humidification systems against other air purification strategies.

Exposure to a range of contaminants in water can result in negative health impacts
including the spread of infectious disease. Water is typically treated with chlorine to keep
it free of pathogens. However, if left stagnant after a period of vacancy, chlorine is likely to
lose its disinfection power, creating opportunity for pathogens such as Legionella to contaminate
the water.

LEED Responds to COVID

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has also rolled out new guidelines for managing commercial buildings during and after COVID-19. As part of its Healthy Economy strategy, USGBC offers seven LEED pilot credits to help building teams provide healthy spaces for employees’ re-entry. The pilot credits outline sustainable best practices that align with public health and industry guidelines related to cleaning and disinfecting, workplace re-occupancy, HVAC and plumbing operations. The credits can be used by LEED projects that are certified or are undergoing certification.
LEED’s Safety First: Building Water System Recommissioning credit helps building teams reduce the risk that occupants are exposed to degraded water quality. Building and business closures over weeks or months reduce water usage, which can potentially lead to stagnant water or water that is unsafe to drink or use. The credit integrates recommendations from the U.S. EPA and the CDC. It requires buildings to develop and implement a water management plan, coordinate with local water and public health authorities, communicate water system activities and risks to building occupants and take steps to address water quality from the community supply, as well as the building.

The Safety First: Design for Indoor Air Quality and Infection Control credit promotes consideration of the prevention of airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus) through the air and/or other airborne diseases during the HVAC system design. Specific attention is given to ventilation and filtration. When the building is occupied (including cleaning and facility personnel), the ventilation systems will provide required minimum amounts of outdoor air for ventilation per ASHRAE Standard 62.1-2016 or later. The HVAC systems must use filters for recirculated air that perform at MERV 13 or above. 

Alternately, if neither of these conditions can be achieved, then occupied spaces must be designed to achieve at least five total air changes per hour. Any combination of outside air, filtration and air cleaning HEPA filtration can be used to achieve the air change rate.

Tracking IAQ and Visitors in Smart Buildings

According to the WHO, air quality is one of the most serious threats facing global public health today. Addressing it starts with good data and better monitoring. Office buildings post-COVID will require transparent two-way dialogue and information exchanges between owners and occupants. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will help managers collect current use data from tenants. Cloud-based platforms now exist that use internet-connected sensors fitted around a building to collate valuable data about the indoor air quality, including the presence of irritant gases, VOCs, particulates and temperature and relative humidity.

Many new buildings will have advanced monitoring and measurement systems built in. But upgrading an existing and occupied building is more difficult. The evolution in building management technology could widen the gap between new buildings that have it and old ones that don’t. COVID offered the opportunity to install the required AI wiring and sensors in existing buildings while occupancy and usage were low.

Automatic door and operations

With COVID, the primary focus of smart building innovation has been infection containment and social distancing. Work hours have also become more staggered; this requires heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to run for longer hours. Productivity apps originally rolled out for infection containment can also be applied to enhance the visitor experience in the COVID-free smart building of the future.
Consider the following hypothetical scenario: A visitor’s journey begins when he downloads a mobile app, provides his facial information and national identification, along with his car license plate information. He enters the building through a touchless access control which recognizes him via his facial information. The visitor app communicates with the smart elevator, relaying the floor on which a meeting will be held. He reaches the floor without touching any buttons. He then uses the wayfinding feature in the app to locate the meeting room.

The meeting lights have been brightened and the air-con temperature has been set to a comfortable level before the visitor enters the meeting room. Inside the room, data from video-based solutions is fused with information from occupancy sensors to ensure social distancing and occupancy compliance with regulations.

When the meeting is over, the lights are dimmed and the AC shut off by the smart building system. The visitor, who will work in the building for the rest of the day, uses the visitor app to have a seat assigned for the requested duration. He uses the wayfinding app to walk to the assigned mobile seat. Later, when he finishes his work, he passes through the contactless exit where his facial data is captured and temperature is logged. The host is notified that his guest has left the building.

Crystal Ball: What’s Next

Much has changed since March 11, 2020 when the WHO declared the novel Coronavirus a pandemic. The social justice movement has led to a new and improved commitment to inclusion and diversity within the A&D profession and new ways of looking at the built environment. One way to create more equitable spaces is by incorporating Universal Design—the philosophy that emerged in the 1960s to champion the design of inclusive products and environments for all ages, abilities, sizes and backgrounds.

15-minute city

Another trend gaining speed is the 15-minute city, an idea imported from Paris where Mayor Anne Hidalgo has said no Parisian should need to travel more than a quarter of an hour, on foot or by bike, to work, shop or deal with a government agency.

The 15-minute city concept was developed by Carlos Moreno, a Colombian-born urbanist and professor based in Paris. After living through the Coronavirus pandemic, proponents agree it’s the ideal scenario in good times and would also be much preferable during future public health emergencies.

The pandemic hit the hospitality industry especially hard. Lingering safety fears may keep some travelers home even after they are vaccinated. Thought leaders in Gensler’s hospitality practice suggest that hotels can deliver an exceptional guest experience in a post-COVID era by using contactless technologies like self-service check-in, mobile room keys and touchless faucets for a higher standard of cleanliness.

According to Gensler, guests will also feel most comfortable when hotels customize their experience from preset arrival lighting, music and room configuration to content based on past behaviors or preferences. Digital experiences allow guests to monitor and adjust their own sound, temperature and ventilation levels, and communicate with hotel operators for room service and other amenities.

The Future Workplace

COVID-19 has caused the world to ask fundamental questions about the future of work. “We have the opportunity not only to address the issues of yesterday and today, but to look at what lies ahead so we can be future ready. After all, we don’t get the opportunity to rethink everything often,” said Kay Sargent ASID, IIDA, CID, LEED® AP, MCR.w, WELL AP, Senior Principal and Director of WorkPlace at HOK.

According to Sargent, in the immediate future we will see a continuation of caution regarding the return to shared workplaces. Physical distancing, masking, enhanced cleaning and reducing touchpoints will all be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

HOK thought leaders envision the following changes:

  • Increased remote work programs driving an ecosystem of space
  • More choice, options and spacing with unassigned work points
  • Enhanced lobbies that serve as transition spaces and workplaces
  • Increased shielding and dividers to create boundaries
  • More storage space for personal items and supplies
  • Enhanced HVAC, air filtration and air exchange
  • Increased use of technology to reduce touch-points
  • Reworked restrooms to increase sanitation and handwashing capacity
  • Greater variation of meeting/gathering spaces
  • More outside space for working and refreshing
  • Tighter visitor controls and restrictions
  • A new minimalism as items are put away to reduce and enable enhanced cleaning

The notion of returning to the office is flawed, according to Sargent. “We need to acknowledge the things that weren’t working before COVID-19 and instead of returning to them, address what is broken as we move forward,” said Sargent. “We need to innovate and evolve.” 

Now that COVID is finally in retreat, it’s time to pursue these compelling objectives for all the spaces where people live, work and play.


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1-Spanish Flu.

2-How Legionnaires' Disease Resembles COVID-19 And How The Pandemic May Result In More Outbreaks. Gavi the Vaccine Alliance

3-World Health Organization

4-Social Distancing and Quarantine Were Used in Medieval Times to Fight the Black Death.

5-The Post Pandemic Style. Metropolis

6-COVID 19: The Modular Industry’s Response. Modular Building Institute

7-Building Re-entry Resources. U.S. Green Building Council

8-Strategies from the Well Building Standard to Support in the Fight Against COVID-19

9-The Man Behind the City of Lights. The Culture Trip

10-Preventing Legionella from Spoiling Your Reopening. Special Pathogens Lab

11-Workspace Technology and The Value of Healthy Buildings. Smart-spaces

12-The COVID-free Smart Building: Sustainably Transforming Beyond COVID. International Society of Automation

13-COVID-19: Is this what the office of the future will look like? World Economic Forum

14-Inside Innovation: Tomorrow’s ‘smart buildings’ need two-way owner-tenant dialogue. Daily Commercial News by ConstructConnect

15-Returning to The Office. Environmental Protection Agency

16-The 15-Minute City: Can New York be More Like Paris? Intelligencer