Thursday, August 20, 2020

A Call to Action: Resilient Building Design for the Post-COVID Era

The optimal configuration and functional characteristics of buildings have changed forever. Even if the current Coronavirus pandemic can be safely and effectively mitigated with a vaccine and/or therapeutic drugs, there will be a “next time.”  Like the permanent security protocols for travel that were instituted following the tragedy of 9/11, we cannot ignore the lessons of the last few months, nor can we assume we’ll ever really be able to go back to the way things were before 2020. 

Facilities planning is in the midst of a paradigm shift.  We should embrace this change and steer capital resources to those projects and renovation solutions that provide the most flexible and functional facilities into the future.  Projects that address deferred maintenance problems will continue to be a priority.  New (especially replacement) facilities and renovation work will also continue.  A comprehensive change in the overall way we approach the design of these projects, however, is needed.  And that change will have to be universal.  After all, unlike most natural events that jeopardize only local or regional communities, the current pandemic has impacted the entire World.       

We have seismic codes that dictate the construction of buildings to withstand earthquakes.  We also have engineering design and site restrictions for construction in flood zones.  In the same way, it will be necessary to fundamentally change the way we design new and retrofit educational and work spaces with sufficient flexibility to preserve maximum operational effectiveness during times of “normal” health and during a pandemic. 

To this end, projects in design and those programmed in the budget pipeline should be reevaluated in light of what we now know about the potential spread of a serious communicable disease through human interaction in buildings. We don’t yet know everything about how best to address this problem through design, nor is it likely we’ll have a whole new set of proven standards in the near term.  But we can’t allow spending to continue toward construction of buildings that could be partially unusable upon completion.  Yet this is what will happen if we don’t consider the reality of the future. 

Taliesin-based architect Aaron Betsky penned an opinion piece in the AIA’s Architect Magazine (also source of photo above) earlier this summer saying:

Designers should mobilize, I believe, to respond to these issues. At the most immediate level, we need to figure out how to develop materials and forms that are safer for common use, that don’t require the endless application of disinfectant, and that aren’t manufactured using petroleum-based or metal products. If that’s impossible in practice, then we need to design objects, from operating buttons to tabletops, that can withstand social use with limited cross-infection. Gesture-based controls might be one high-tech solution, but if gas stations and fast food restaurants can kluge together plastic guards, can’t designers do something better?

We need a post-air conditioning world: well-ventilated and open spaces that replace the hermetically sealed environments in which so many of us work, live, and play. The spaces we occupy together need to be designed so we can do exactly that—be together—while minimizing disease transmission. We realize now more than ever that offices, restaurant, public spaces, and cultural and sport venues are, above all else, social spaces that define us through our collective actions, interactions, and affinities. We cannot redesign them to separate us but must shape them to bring us together as safely as possible. We now know that some us can work from home, but isolation is not the answer. We need more, not less, physical conference rooms and hang-out spaces, more places of interaction and density. The means of bringing us together need to be safer, cheaper, and more accessible.


Architects and space planners are beginning to discuss general guidelines by which we can begin to evaluate architectural programs and building plans.  For higher education, some of these may include:

·        Large lecture spaces and open meeting areas.  For existing buildings, this means the use of large facilities with fixed seating by a much smaller occupancy for social distancing.  For new facilities, the use of moveable chairs or desks (in lieu of fixed seating) could allow for larger student numbers in “normal” times that could be easily converted as needed.  Large auditoriums and theaters may have to be re-imagined to maintain the same type of flexibility.  Large scale lectures or other mass gatherings may have to be done remotely as a matter of practice.

·        General classrooms.  Moveable partitions could provide the use of moderate size classrooms for use as smaller class and conference rooms during “normal” times, while the same spaces (without partitions) could accommodate a more moderate, physically distant population.  Placement of barriers and shields would not impede normal operations.  Design could include the technology to incorporate remotely located students or recorded lectures.

·        General building configuration and operation.  New facilities could be designed with multiple entrances and exits, as well as wider corridors and other accommodations for safe and effective flow of students, faculty and staff.  Common areas that provide collaboration opportunities during “normal” times could double as expanded circulation space when needed (much like HOV lanes on the highway). HVAC standards will have to be reevaluated, in light of the need for better ventilation, filtration and airflow.  Facilities to accommodate improved sanitization, cleaning and PPE availability (as needed) will be important.

·        Campus spaces of other types, including teaching laboratories, research labs, and auxiliary or athletic functions, would require similar consideration for ongoing safety and flexibility. 

These are but a handful of the kinds of suggestions that could provide needed flexibility for university facilities of the future.  As guidelines and commendations related to the transmission of disease in buildings evolves, likewise plans for new buildings should be reevaluated and modified as necessary to preserve the best possible outcome.


1.     Begin with a broad conversation involving interested facilities planners and other campus stakeholders.

2.     Pursue a variety of potential changes and guidelines in more detail; and, as you identify specific recommendations that may affect approved space guidelines, involve your funding partners and oversight agencies.

3.     The topic should be added to facility programs for future projects and to the scope of facilities master plan updates.

4.      A parallel process would look carefully at the scope of construction projects (both those in design and those in the capital queue).

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

COVID Series: Beyond Cleaning and Distancing

Universities worldwide are either in the midst of welcoming students, faculty and staff back to campus or planning for their eventual return.  We’ve been scrambling ourselves to address the critically needed changes to facilities like signage, separation screens, strategic placement of sanitizing supplies and HVAC modifications.  Operational changes, personnel schedules, testing and illness evaluation regimens, and a host of restrictions and suggested behavioral changes are being made.  Even so, most classes are being held remotely.  Institutions are learning as they go, borrowing the best ideas (and discarding those that aren’t) from other campuses.  The “welcome back” documents I’ve seen published by schools and businesses are lengthy.  The impact of the COVID-19 reality is significant. 


Campus safety has always been paramount in every decision we’ve made. But this new era brings this priority to the next level.  So what does COVID mean in terms of existing buildings?  Forbes magazine recently published a list of ten college space and function adaptations that they expect to be the “new normal” for all of us moving forward.  They include:

1.      Large lecture halls and open spaces will become “mid-size” classrooms for lecture-style classes. Universities have found reductions of up to 80% are needed (i.e., a 100-person classroom now accommodates 20 students) to maintain the recommended 6-ft. social distancing.

2.      All classrooms, of all sizes, will be modified to provide (a) options for physical barriers between instructors and the class, (b) signage and/or floor markers indicating required spacing of student seats, and (c) technology needed to accommodate remotely located students (synchronous learning) and/or recording of lectures (asynchronous learning).

3.      Some conference rooms, teaching labs, and other shared spaces expected to see reduced usage will be converted into small classrooms or multimedia studios for class production.

4.      Buildings will have designated entrance and exit doors rather than allowing all doors to be used for both. Guidelines and signage will be used to direct personnel flow (direction of movement) in all buildings. Hand sanitizing stations (and PPE stations where appropriate) will be placed on all floors of all buildings.

5.      Dining halls will significantly reduce seating occupancies, relying instead on more take-away service. To accommodate variety in meals available, dining services may move to pre-ordering meals by a daily menu app. Self-serve food stations will be eliminated. Some cafeteria-style service may be possible but only with addition of barriers between food service workers and students. Indoor and outdoor spaces elsewhere on campus may need to be added for students to eat their take-away meals.

6.      Recreational spaces (gyms, courts, pools, workout spaces, playing fields) will be strictly controlled for access. Students will sign-up for times via an app.

7.      Residence hall density will be significantly reduced. All rooms will be transformed to single occupancy. Common areas either be converted to additional single rooms or restricted for use. Common bathrooms will have restrictions on occupancy. In essence cutting the on-campus housing by half, colleges will be forced to explore off-campus options (hotels, apartments) or consider the use of temporary housing units. Those institutions that typically offer housing for students in their first two years will only guarantee housing for first-year students. Off-campus housing apartments will be marketed at a premium and the available housing stock will quickly be tapped out.

8.      Greek houses and other social houses under the university’s jurisdiction will either be forced to close or have severe restrictions for occupancy/use be placed upon them. Off-campus or unofficial Greek or social houses may continue to exist with limited or no restrictions, providing a nexus of unsanctioned activities that attract large numbers on weekend evenings.

9.      Student centers will see dramatic restructuring of their programming, usage, and spaces. Maintained will be open areas for studying (with social distancing), coffee and light food services (take-away), and student services offices. Eliminated will be large dining or event spaces, dense retail (e.g., bookstores), restaurants and pubs, theaters, etc. Some spaces may be able to be repurposed as classrooms or even student housing. Major student gatherings and events will be held virtually or not at all.

10.   Varsity athletics facilities will remain in use subject to decisions by the NCAA and individual athletic conferences. However games will be played with very limited (or no) spectators in attendance. Teams (athletes, coaches, staff, medical, and supporting personnel) event/facility management personnel, and media personnel will be subject to strict testing protocols. Indoor sports will be particularly impacted by attendance restrictions. Virtual fan experiences will be created for online audiences."

 Students at Duke University (from Duke's Instagram Page)


While it’s almost impossible to imagine right now, what of the “post-COVID” era?  What do we expect well into the future? How do we plan for what comes next?  Physical distancing for safety fills available space quickly; and will impact what kinds of space we can best utilize (e.g., open concept, efficient HVAC, enhanced flexibility). 

One thing we know for sure is that the physical assets of our institutions will continue to require ongoing modification, protection, and repair.  Reduced campus occupancies in the near term may actually facilitate renovation in occupied buildings.  And yet the need for new facilities to support critical facilities like health care and research will continue.  These critical functions have a direct positive impact on the populace.  Investment in construction itself also helps sustain economic recovery.

A series of blog posts produced by Gensler outlines a variety of impacts the pandemic will have on the future of the built environment.  A post related to highereducation asks the question:  “In the long-term, what can we learn from this experience that we can carry forward to future-proof our campuses?” They suggest a paradigm shift, arguing that “this crisis (is) a catalyst for change.”  They cite an observation that seems to becoming mainstream:  “Schools won’t return to the status quo. Everything — from building design and curriculum to operations and maintenance — may need to adapt to a new normal.”  Some suggest it could be that way forever.  We can’t assume the next pandemic (or similarly dire circumstance) will wait another 100 years.

The office furniture giant Steelcase shared a research piece titled “Designing Post-COVID Learning Spaces.”  Never before has the value of physical interaction in business and education meant more, now that such interaction is not possible.  The Steelcase article notes:

As we look toward the future, learning spaces will be reinvented to enhance the benefits that face-to-face educational experiences can offer. Pedagogies and calendars will consider which activities are best online and in person, and our spaces will need to reflect those new priorities. There will be greater emphasis on safely supporting social and spontaneous learning in addition to finding new ways to enhance a scholarly atmosphere and energy in the physical environment that can’t be replicated online….

This means educational space planning paradigms of the past, driven by density and cost, need to shift. Flexible and fluid spaces will better support the adaptability expected of educators and students. And enhanced blended learning connections will bring online and physical experiences together to create an elevated sense of community.

Many parents and student supporters have come to realize the tremendous value of great educators and educational systems during the pandemic. Learning institutions that have been most successful have had a robust blended learning platform, student-led educational experiences and have created a community of support for all students. 

Those who try to hold too tightly to the past may fail to excel as they try to navigate what’s next. In the future, schools and campuses will be more important than ever.

Exactly how that new campus looks and what we will need to do in order to build it and operate it safely will be the subject of future entries.