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We know how to build healthier buildings that can limit the corona virus for decades

People in the United States spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors – in homes, apartment buildings, schools, and offices. Because COVID-19 threatens every interaction, these interiors (where the virus spreads more easily) can appear loaded with hidden threats.

Fortunately, scientists already have the tools to make buildings better for people and less hospitable to pathogens like the coronavirus. “Science is decades old in terms of all the benefits of healthy buildings, including reducing infectious diseases,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But these strategies have not been fully implemented in buildings.”


The COVID-19 pandemic can be the stressor that pushes many buildings to adopt healthy practices, and these benefits could persist long after the outbreak has ended. “As soon as we get used to using our buildings as tools, we can definitely help in the short term, but also in the long term,” says Anja Jamrozik, a cognitive scientist who studies physical environments. “I hope it inspires people to act.”

Reduce risk

Much of the information we have about making buildings less virus-friendly for hospitals comes from studies of the ubiquitous flu. All efforts to create healthy buildings begin with the basics: the people who occupy the building and carry the virus. With active outbreaks, minimizing the risk of disease spreading in office buildings begins with keeping people away from them and as many people as possible working from home. The next step is to determine the minimum number of people who must be physically present in the building and to bring them back in.

Once they deal with people, designers can try to make the interiors of buildings as safe as possible. One of the key solutions is to improve indoor ventilation and filtration, says Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, co-director of the Center for Biology and Built Environment at the University of Oregon. “The idea is to dilute the viral contamination indoors,” he says. Designers should increase the rate at which indoor air is replaced by windows or other systems with outside air, and find ways to filter the inside air to remove dangerous particles. “There are two main parts,” says Van Den Wymelenberg.

HVAC pipes

Changing the filter in HVAC systems can improve air quality.
Photo by Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

Most buildings today don’t even meet the minimum ventilation standards, Allen says, although research shows that meeting or exceeding these standards offers significant benefits. A study that modeled the transmission of influenza in a school found that it met the most basic one Ventilation recommendations, the flu rates would drop as much as if the vaccination of half of the people who use the building, even if they were not.

According to Van Den Wymelenberg, indoor air humidity can also be used to combat disease transmission. Viruses do not survive as well if the humidity in a building is between 50 and 60 percent. For example, if the humidity is too low or too high, the influenza virus can spread more easily. In schools and offices, people report fewer respiratory infections and fewer sick days if the mid-range humidity is kept. But only a few buildings monitor humidity today, says Jamrozik. “Our buildings are often far outside this area, and the air can become very dry with heating or air conditioning.”

It all has to do with the air you breathe, but another problem is where you sit. People who work in open offices where desks are close together without obstacles take more days off because they say they are sick than people who have their own office space. People who work in rooms with four walls and one door report less sick. They don’t just sit a few meters away from other people and only breathe their own air.

No single approach can reduce disease transmission alone, says Van Den Wymelenberg. “It will be a complex approach. You want to implement several measures,” he says.

Arm a building

It is still not clear how well all of this research into influenza and other known viruses in buildings can be applied to the new corona virus. There is great pressure to adopt strategies that can stop the spread, especially given the increasing economic pressure that people are returning to work. However, corona virus is an unprecedented threat. As companies quickly build plexiglass barriers or install moisture sensors, it is important to carefully examine how good the strategy experts are superior could actually help to do Help. “The challenge is that it takes time and nobody wants to wait now,” says Van Den Wymelenberg.

Most buildings are in such a hurry because they essentially start over. “It’s a real problem with our current approach to how we design and operate buildings,” says Allen. Fortunately, it’s still possible to take over an existing building and add systems that keep people inside healthier.

“When you open a new building, you have more leeway, but I think there are a few things we can do – for example adding air purifiers or making sure the filters are changed in HVAC systems,” said Jamrozik. Sensors can also be installed in buildings to monitor temperature, humidity and air quality. It is difficult for people to say for themselves how the environment actually feels (if it is damp or just hot). Therefore, objective measures are the best way to make adjustments.

The corona virus pandemic will completely change the design of buildings, says Van Den Wymelenberg. But he believes it is too early to say which design will come out on top. “I think there is still a lot of speculation about what it will look like,” he says. People quickly explained the death of the open office, but Van Den Wymelenberg says that this setup has some advantages that need to be weighed against the risk: they improve social interaction and provide better access to daylight.

CBRE real estate

Photo by Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star via Getty Images

In general, speculation about what healthier buildings might look like in the future is only a guess. For example, there may be ways to adjust the airflow to minimize the risk of shared air in an open plan office, so that an office can look the same and still work differently. If buildings become healthier by adjusting ventilation, most of the updates may be invisible.

Once office designers have figured out what really works, these changes must take place in all buildings – not just those where the rich live and work. Until then, interest in healthy buildings was primarily limited to groups with more resources, says Jamrozik. However, there is no reason to limit these solutions to the select few. Systems that improve air quality are not prohibitively expensive and would make a difference for people who are already at risk in low-income homes or retirement homes. It can be even more important to improve ventilation in a call center or meat packing plant where people cannot work from home than in an office building that is already wired for remote work.

“I really hope that many of these solutions will become more democratic because they are not that expensive. It only takes care and thoughtfulness to add them to the building,” said Jamrozik.

In the United States, it’s usually difficult to get people to do things that are designed to do it prevent Problems why healthy buildings struggled to gain traction. The benefits are not easily visible or immediately recognizable, although there is evidence that they can improve people’s health and productivity.

This is one of the reasons why these designs may have been considered optional before the pandemic. But now the immediate benefits are clear to anyone who is worried about getting COVID-19 in the halls of an office building. Disease-blocking designs are in demand for anyone who has to spend time in a building. And if the changes you make now are long-term, they can help people feel better indoors, even without the pervasive fear of an unknown virus.

“There may be a glimmer of light in a pandemic without a silver lining,” says Allen.

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