Architecture COVID-19 Response: Re-Entry + Re-Imagination

August 25, 2020

Architecture COVID-19 Response: Re-Entry + Re-Imagination

Written by:       Ronald C. Weston, AIA, LEED AP

 

At the time of this writing, we are more than five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the entire world has had to adapt to the massive health and economic impacts caused by the novel coronavirus. While essential buildings remained occupied with restrictions from day one, during the spring and summer of 2020, most schools and workplaces were either closed or operating on a limited basis as the population pivoted to remote learning and working from home.

 

For architects and designers, I would categorize our response as falling into two broad categories. The “Re-Entry Stage”, which is actively underway involves immediate and short-term solutions to help clients create safer building environments that help limit the spread of the coronavirus.

 

What I call the “Re-Imagination Stage” involves more forward-looking creative thinking about long-term design solutions for the built environment. Architects are uniquely qualified to synthesize the many evolving health, cultural, and market shifts resulting from the pandemic that may have a lasting impact on how buildings are designed and used for decades to come.

 

ARCHITECTURE RE-ENTRY

Architects can reference a wealth of available COVID-19 guidelines and best practices published by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) to understand common mitigation measures that can be applied to support “re-entry” of their clients’ buildings.

 

To develop mitigation strategies, you first need to understand how the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 is transmitted. I organize my thinking around the following three broad virus transmission modes, and how they impact buildings:

 

  • Person-to-Person Transmission > Social Distancing = Space Planning + Furnishing + Signage
  • Surface Transmission > Touch Points = Hygiene + Materials + Touchless Controls
  • Aerosol Transmission > Indoor Air Quality = Natural Ventilation + HVAC Systems

 

A range of COVID-19 virus transmission mitigation strategies will apply to each building component and space type. Examples of key space types include the following:

 

  • Public Spaces = Entrances, Corridors, Stairwells & Elevators, and Public Restrooms
  • Learning & Workspaces = Classrooms, Conference Rooms, Open Offices, and Private Offices
  • Amenity Support Spaces = Cafeterias, Dining Rooms, Pantries, Gymnasiums & Fitness Rooms

 

At my architecture and engineering firm, PS&S, we have been offering re-entry guidance and support to clients, mainly “back to school” and “back to work” initiatives in the education and real estate workplace sectors. Architects can start by offering facility assessments for buildings and sites to determine current conditions and inform the development of the client re-entry plans. Once the current facility conditions are assessed, then architects can help prepare building re-entry facility plan reports for each building and site to outline strategies to mitigate COVID-19 viral spread and inform improvements that need to be made. From space planning and furniture alterations to wayfinding and signage, architects are well-positioned to assist.

 

From a risk management standpoint, architects must clearly advise clients in writing that they DO NOT guarantee or warrant their re-entry facilities planning work will prevent occupants from contracting the coronavirus. Your advisory services must be limited to facilities planning support only, and not guarantee the health or hygiene of occupants within buildings. State and federal legislation to limit the liability exposure of businesses and professionals against COVID-19 claims is in the works; however, as far as I am aware such laws are not yet in place so consultation with your legal and insurance providers is especially important before you offer to work with clients in this area.

 

The initial waves of building re-entry and adaptation have already happened, yet this stage is likely to continue for some time as temporary measures (e.g. paper signs, floor tape markings, and cheap plastic sneeze guards) are upgraded to more durable building improvements that can remain in place for a couple of years, before a COVID-19 vaccine has been widely distributed and/or herd immunity is achieved.

 

ARCHITECTURE RE-IMAGINATION

The re-entry stage noted above primarily entails the development of quick tactical responses. By contrast, the re-imagination stage, as the name implies, involves more creative and strategic long-term design thinking. Architects love a design challenge, so the current pandemic and related economic gyrations are likely to cause lasting changes to our built environment long after COVID-19 is out of the headlines. Below are a few examples of potential major building design shifts we might expect to see.

 

Remote Learning & Work from Home – During the pandemic virtually all learning and most office work shifted abruptly to virtual at-home settings. While people will return to schools and offices, it is likely that more learning and work will remain remote than was the norm before COVID-19. With families or roommates spending more time in close quarters, it is likely new residential design trends will take hold to accommodate flexible living, learning, and working from home.  

 

Health and Wellness Centered Architecture – Health and safety have always been a paramount concern for architects; however, the pandemic has elevated issues with indoor environmental quality. Over past decades energy savings and tightly sealed enclosures were emphasized, even as indoor air quality became a part of US Green Building Council’s LEED® rating system, and similar green certification programs. It is likely that emerging WELL® and Fitwel® building standards will now gain in popularity, and architects will be challenged to come up with new design paradigms that make health and wellness as important as form and function.

 

New and Adaptive Building Typologies – The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered “brick and mortar” building occupancies in the short-term. Retail stores in malls and downtowns were already in decline before the health and economic fallout from coronavirus shuttered many retailers for good. With Amazon and online retail exploding, vacant retail space is ripe for adaptive re-imagination and re-use. If the short-term trend of indoor space functions extending out of doors continues (e.g. outdoor dining, pop-up health clinics, sidewalk retail), then architects have an opportunity to totally re-imagine a range of building typologies.

 

Opportunities often emerge on the heels of crisis such as the current pandemic we are living through. I encourage AIA member architects to take the time to listen, learn and then lead their clients and communities through these challenging times.

 

About the author:  Ronald C. Weston, AIA, LEED AP is a Senior Director of Architecture at the New Jersey-based A/E firm PS&S. He is a Past-President and current Board Trustee of AIA Newark & Suburban Architects, a section of the AIA New Jersey Chapter.

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