The COVID-19 pandemic, which is still raging on in the world, has altered our lives in many ways. Some of these changes are temporal and would likely expire with the virus. Others, however, are likely to remain. The built environment is not exempt from the various alterations taking place. Health safety has come to the forefront of considerations for architecture, MEP, and structural designs of buildings. Concerns such as maintaining social distancing, adequate ventilation system, minimal contact with surfaces, and potential multipurpose use of buildings have all come to bear in modifying schools, offices, and residential buildings. These modifications are necessary to achieve any semblance of life before lockdown while maintaining a moderate degree of health safety.
Thus, the current situation has occasioned fundamental tweaks to the designs of buildings for both short-term adaptabilities to health concerns and long-term considerations as to how social interaction might be permanently altered. In this article, we consider some of the ways structural and MEP designs are being adapted to fit the present global health reality.
Entry-Point Screening Modules
High traffic buildings like schools, venues, and airports are more of a danger zone in light of infectious diseases. Therefore, it is imperative, for such structures, that measures be put in place to ensure, at least to a degree, the health wellness of entrants. This gives rise to the need for entry-point screening. This is precisely what the WorkWell Design-build concept is designed to achieve.
WorkWell is a modular point of entry designed for safe and convenient health screening. When installed at a controlled checkpoint, WorkWell enables people to rapidly get checked for fever and other health risk factors while also providing for touchless operation and air handling systems that can control the transfer of airborne pathogens. Being an entry-point facility, WorkWell introduces minimal changes to the building’s overall structural design. One other notable feature of the WorkWell module is that it has prefabricated components, which translates to a rapid installation process and fewer on-site construction workers.
Contaminated surfaces easily transmit many infectious diseases we battle. At the moment, most of the buildings we find ourselves in still require us to touch things like doorknobs, restroom apparatuses, and elevator buttons. However, several MEP designs companies, through technology, are proceeding to minimal contact with surfaces and appliances.
Touchless plumbing systems have particularly gained attention because restrooms are seen as ideal for transmitting germs. And these systems reduce that risk through the installation of hands-free water fixtures that make use of sensors to operate. Using these kinds of systems results in several benefits such as the convenience of not having to turn knobs, cost efficiency from being able to dispense just the right amount of water, and better maintenance from having fewer moving parts.
Less Densification in Buildings
As eloquently conveyed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have too many density-oriented infrastructures that have proven unsustainable for managing infectious diseases. These are infrastructures we almost cannot do without such as offices, lecture rooms, and places of worship. This quality of indispensability necessitates structural modifications to make these buildings compatible with social distancing and, consequently, more resilient against future infections.
Expectedly, some structural design firms are already taking futuristic strides towards accomplishing this. Several designs are already in works to revolutionize the way office buildings are structured to complement the new culture of social distancing better. Also, with many activities shifting to the virtual space, buildings would have to reimagine to accommodate both virtual and in-person activities.
Proper Ventilation for Buildings
While there is limited scientific literature establishing that HVAC systems could actively increase the risk of transmitting airborne diseases, there is little contention that poorly ventilated buildings are ideal for the spread of airborne diseases. The HVAC engineers’ Society (ASHRAE), in an official statement, has acknowledged the need for changes in building ventilation to reduce exposure to airborne transmission. There has also been strong evidence from ASHRAE that HVAC technologies, when appropriately modified, could mitigate exposure to infectious aerosols. This could set the tone for modifications to the HVAC system design in buildings.
In line with ASHRAE’s recommendations and guidelines, the modification of HVAC system designs could take the form of reprogramming the systems to provide flushing before and after occupancies; upgrading air filters to ones with a higher MERV rating that can better capture smaller particles, and possibly installing air-cleaning technology like UVC lights.
The present health crisis has yet to show signs of going anywhere anytime soon, and the maintenance of a complete lockdown is no longer tenable. We can only foresee that more of these adjustments to MEP and structural designs would continue to improve our built environment’s health safety.