AIA New Jersey Legal Counsel Lawrence P. Powers Advises on Office Design Standard of Care In the Covid-19 Era

May 4, 2020

AIA New Jersey Legal Counsel Advises on Office Design Standard of Care In the Covid-19 Era
by Lawrence P. Powers, Esq. 

Change is coming. Years of architectural experience in the design of commercial office space, restaurants and schools are going to be tested by the advent of Covid-19, and this test will not be the Final Exam. It will just be a pop quiz, as new biological challenges will continue to emerge to be dealt with by those professionals charged with designing our built environment.

Notwithstanding the stunning advances that medical science has made in the last two centuries, addressing newly emerging pathogens that cross into the human population due to mutating DNA and dangerous sanitary and eating practices will be a continuing challenge. A different war may need to be fought each time a pandemic causing virus emerges, and architects, not just doctors, will be at the forefront of that battle.

The open plan office design was only recently perceived to be a facilitator of intra-office communication and collaboration. Today, it is perceived as an impediment to returning to work. The sharing of virus-laden droplets of breath is viewed as anathema, and businesses all across the world will be struggling to find new solutions to this new problem.

Think about the myriad pathways for the transmission of pathogens that exist in an office, a restaurant or a school. Something as simple as using the bathroom presents multiple pathways for infection. Architects will have to devise ways to limit the exposure of building occupants to disease. That formerly unused sleeve of paper covers for the toilet seat is not looking as dusty anymore, is it? Something as simple as opening the bathroom door has turned into an act of bravery. Sure, you can bump it open with your elbow on the way in, but how do you get out without exposing yourself to germs when you have to pull the handle to exit after carefully washing your hands for twenty seconds. Do you wash your hands again after you push the knob to dispense your paper towel, or do you grab your paper towel before you wash your hands and use it to grab the handle on your way out, hoping that there is a nearby waste container to accept your three-point shot from the safety of the hallway? Or does the architect of the next decade address this simple process with a bathroom door that swings both ways and motion sensor-equipped paper towel dispensers or motion sensor-equipped air dryers. Somewhere, Sir James Dyson is smiling.

What about work stations? Unless they are separated by larger distances, they almost have to become self-contained “Sani-Pods” where people can work without worrying about being exposed to the unprotected hack or sneeze from the next station over. I am certain that office furniture vendors are already hawking their solutions to architects and interior designers. Temporary solutions, like the pillow fort of old, will surely abound until employers can offer their employees safe workspaces constructed of materials impregnated with the latest in antibacterial agents.

HVAC design will also certainly be affected. How many air changes per hour above the customary 4-12/hr will be considered to be “safe”, and who will decide? Can air changes of up to 30/hr be far off, and how do you retrofit an existing HVAC systems to deliver that capacity?

As of April 20, 2020, ASHRAE was already recommending lowering building populations (i.e. through working remotely), in order to increase the effective dilution ventilation per person. In addition, ASHRAE was recommending disabling demand-controlled ventilation, increased air filtration, fully opening outdoor air dampers in order to decrease recirculation during more temperate seasons and even using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation to protect people waiting in high-risk spaces, such as waiting rooms and lobbies, both of which may become things of the past. See ASHRAE’s most recent recommendations, HERE

Certain challenges will be difficult to meet with purely design-related considerations. The average hallway in an office does not permit two parties to pass and maintain proper social distancing. Elevators are simply not big enough to maintain proper social distancing for more than one or two people. I suspect that this will lead to an increased interest in getting one’s FitBit “steps” in by using the stairs. There really is no way to address this with design beyond designating some stairs “up only” and others “down only”. And the breakroom? Forget about it. Let’s face it, most break rooms (or their refrigerators, at least) were already hotbeds of disease. Swamping out the old abandoned lunch containers once a month will no longer suffice. Encouraging people to eat at their work stations or cubicles and getting their coffee outside the office will become de rigueur. Deeper and more regular cleaning will become standard operating procedure.

All of this will have an attendant cost. The temptation for the already financially distressed employer will be to cut corners. Knowingly cutting corners on worker health protection measures will probably deprive the employer of the workers’ compensation claim bar. Accordingly, these are corners that cannot be cut. Employers will increasingly turn to their architects and engineers to find cost-effective solutions to these problems. How much thought are you giving the advice that you will be giving your clients? Have you given much thought to what liability exposure that advice will create for you? Standards of care are not etched in stone. They are constantly evolving, especially in times of trouble. You need to evolve with them or be left behind. Think fast about how they have changed for you because that phone is going to start ringing again shortly.

Lawrence Powers is the co-partner in charge of Hoagland Longo’s Construction Industry Practice Group.
He is also General Counsel to AIA-NJ, NJSPE and NJ-ASLA. With 36 years of practice experience, he
stands ready to assist you during these challenging times

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