When presenting during a Webinar this week, I was asked how the Active Building concept considers the challenges of pandemics, given that the occurrence of pandemics is becoming a recurring issue. This is not something I had considered to date, but something clearly all building designers must consider going forward.
Designing for a post-pandemic world is not a new phenomenon, as an article written for The Guardian in April explains – since the 19th century, diseases such as cholera, the bubonic plague and tuberculosis have all helped shape the built environment we know and live in today. Design responses to these diseases included changes to door thresholds, building foundations, sewage systems, street grids and materials within buildings such as tiling and brass doorknobs. The article suggests that in post-Covid buildings we may expect to see wider corridors, wider doorways and more staircases, as some of the measures against diseases.
The main way Active Buildings can respond to pandemics is through ensuring buildings are well-ventilated and maintain good indoor air quality (IAQ). Active Buildings promote provision of good IAQ through high levels of controlled ventilation and monitoring of HVAC equipment, to ensure air handling systems are always operating efficiently and effectively. In an Active Building natural ventilation, mechanical ventilation, or mixed-mode ventilation strategies can be adopted, depending on factors such as building type, location, activities within a building, or storey height. Mechanical ventilation systems can be highly effective in forcing large amounts of air through a building, but it is critical that such systems are maintained properly, and filters changed regularly, to minimise pollutants and spread of germs. This can be factored into planned maintenance strategies, and assisted by robust data monitoring, which will flag up any issues with ventilation levels and provide reminders for changing filters or servicing equipment.
Careful consideration of the places formed in the spaces between buildings also has a critical role in designing a resilient built environment. External spaces on or around buildings should incorporate as much green or blue spaces as possible – grass, trees and other vegetation; and water features – to benefit physical and psychological wellbeing, improve air quality, and ensure the built environment is resilient to climate change and associated extreme weather events. Links between communities of buildings should be pedestrian and cyclist friendly, providing ample opportunities for local exercise and access to local facilities.
There are plenty of other ways that the design of buildings and the wider built environment can help shape a post-pandemic recovery. Here are just some ideas:
- Doors and windows:
- Minimise the number of doors (doors to publicly accessed toilets have already been eliminated in many places like train stations and shopping centres); provide wider door openings; change door opening mechanisms to minimise physical touch; specify door handles that can be operated without hands
- Always provide openable windows, even if mechanical ventilation system in place
- Provide plenty of links to outdoor spaces – both visual links and physical where possible
- Sanitary accommodation:
- Provide lever taps, that can be operated with arms instead of hands; sensor-controlled taps and toilet flushes; knee or foot-operated taps (particularly in public buildings).
- Provide more sensor-controlled hand sanitizing stations in public buildings
- Intuitive building layouts that avoid the need to open more doors than necessary
- In some hospitals, waiting rooms (spaces subject to high numbers of potentially infectious people) have been replaced with “waiting nooks” scattered around the building, using RFID technology to track and alert patients. This has the added advantage of reducing stress levels in patients – instead of waiting alongside other sick patients, with nothing to do, they could perhaps wait in a therapeutic garden, library, or other quiet space until they are called up
- Design flexible spaces that can be adapted to accommodate a change of use with minimal interventions
- Smart technology:
- Use of touch-less technology such as automatic doors; voice-activated or mobile phone-controlled lifts, hotel room entry, lights, ventilation, blinds, temperature control; use of facial recognition for entry.
- Interior design:
- Specify anti-bacterial, or easy-to-clean, materials, fittings, surfaces
- Minimise the number of flat surfaces where germs can sit, e.g. high-level ledges or window cills that are not easily reached for regular cleaning
- Flush fitting electrical and data sockets where possible
- Provide greenery indoors – species that are known to absorb pollutants – for improved IAQ, as well as the health and wellbeing benefits
- Consider indoor water features – calming effect, cooling, improved IAQ
- External spaces:
- Provide better public realm spaces in and around buildings, which will encourage people to spread out; provide pleasant environments that enable social distancing; consider placement of street furniture to assist social distancing, while encouraging use of outdoor spaces
- Provide local food production spaces
Designing pandemic-ready places in this way will also ensure a sustainable and accessible built environment, that responds to social, economic and environmental issues. Added advantages of simplifying designs and adding a level of automation include reducing the amount of materials used and helping reduce energy consumption, thereby resulting in lower carbon emissions from buildings – helping progress towards a Net Zero Carbon built environment.
At a time when we’ve all had the opportunity to stand back and re-think the way we live and the decisions we make, designing a sustainable built environment for all and balancing socio-economic inequalities exposed during this crisis, I think will be a priority for all designers as we strive to build back better.