With the onset of the Coronavirus, the design parameters for buildings immediately changed. Businesses, schools, and municipalities have been scrambling to make quick modifications like adding plexiglass partitions and creating single-direction circulation through their spaces. Projects that were already underway needed to be reviewed to see what modifications could be made before construction completion. Flexible spaces have become even more important, and the need for smaller breakout spaces has increased as well. Larger gathering areas are being converted into additional meeting rooms and learning environments as we spread out and social distance. While all these changes may be temporary, other needs are likely to continue long after a vaccine is found.
Today more than ever, people are paying attention to the cleanliness of a space and thinking about the quality of the air they are breathing. This is a significant part of what we as architects know as sustainable design. As the world emerges from our current pandemic, people will continue to have heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and may be left wondering how their welfare is impacted by the buildings they choose to enter. We believe those structures that communicate a healthy environment will be seen as industry leaders and could see people frequenting their spaces more often. They will also have better opportunities for positive social marketing.
How exactly can this be achieved? The challenge is two-fold. To make sustainable elements easily discernable to the occupants, they must exist in the first place. For a good reference place to start, mimic what professional do. When architects incorporate features or systems aimed at health and wellness into their buildings, they often look to established sustainable platforms for guidance, such as LEED or the WELL Building Standard. While LEED has been around for years and is the most well-known sustainable building rating system, alternative programs like the WELL Building Standard are gaining in popularity because of their focus on the health of the occupants within the building rather than the building itself. From knowledge of these established systems and strategies, we can not only borrow ideas for sustainability in general, we can implement them in new ways that are applicable to the current needs of society.
LEED v4.1 has a Materials and Resources credit for Material Ingredients that promotes minimizing the use and generation of harmful substances, and another credit for Low Emitting Materials (low VOC content). Moving forward, we would encourage thinking about the utilization of anti-microbial finishes where possible as well. Goals could be set and measured to have a certain number of materials be anti-microbial, or a certain percentage of finished surfaces be covered with these materials (examples include epoxy flooring with additives, or specialty paints and wall coatings).
Several other applicable credits from LEED come from the Indoor Environmental Quality category and include strategies for achieving high-quality air. This can be accomplished by bringing in higher quantities of fresh outdoor air, exchanging the air in a space more frequently, filtering the air, or even sanitizing it with the use of UV lights (the last item could be implemented in any existing ductwork system or with specialty ceiling fans at a relatively low cost).
For the average building owner, investing in the above improvements is more important now than ever, but to maximize the return on that investment communicating these features is becoming imperative. To make an impact, more is needed than highly visible hand sanitizing stations. For a complete solution, we look again at the LEED rating system as an example. In LEED v4.1 BD+C: Schools there is a credit within the Innovation Catalog for using the school as a teaching tool. This involves a collaboration between the design of the building and the teaching curriculum. While no curriculum exists in a general public setting, there is still ample opportunity to make users aware of how a facility is contributing to a healthy lifestyle. Signage is probably the simplest way to achieve this. Permanent informational signs will work (bathrooms are actually a great place to locate these kinds of signs – especially about cleaning practices). However, creating some catchy infographics and incorporating them into electronic message boards is more flexible and fun. These can help you stay up with current design trends and allow you to change messaging depending upon the season or different users coming into a space.
While signs can do a good job of telling people some interesting facts about the space they are in, authenticity comes from showing the inner workings of the building itself (show me, don’t tell me). Transparency within the building walls and structure has been utilized as a teaching tool with LEED and can help provide occupants with a better understanding of all that goes into keeping them healthy. Consider adding windows to a mechanical room wall or door and providing informational signage inside the room about the units and what they are doing. By now most people have seen the drinking fountains that tell you how many plastic water-bottles their fillers have saved. Use facts and figures like this to tell people how many times the air they are breathing has been changed over, or what percentage of germs have been killed by the UV lights inside the ductwork or water supply.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the ability of your online presence to communicate how you care about the health and well-being of your clientele and that you are going a step further to do something about it. This relates not just to COVID-19, but to the flu, colds, and other future sicknesses as well. Using your building to promote your brand is something not everyone does, yet it offers another reason to be out in front of your target audience. No matter what strategy you use, borrowing these practices can be a smart step toward staying ahead of the curve in a post-pandemic world by putting people at ease as they emerge from their homes and keeping everyone a little healthier in the long run.
FMD Architects is an Ohio-based design firm with national reach, currently licensed in 25 states. For more information on this topic or other sustainable design ideas, please give us a call at 330.836.2343.