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).

No comments:

Post a Comment