Adapting spaces to new risks in a global pandemic

Communities around the world are racing to control the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. Increasingly, that means implementing aggressive social distancing measures, which can inhibit the spread of the virus and flatten the transmission curve, according to the Urban Land Institute.

Governments have been shutting down schools, restaurants, large group gatherings, and other functions, and individuals have been limiting their interaction with other people.

Some functions, such as government operations, communications, pharmacies, and IT operations, still require essential personnel to report to government and commercial buildings, allowing the larger community to telework and function from their homes.

Adoption of staggered work schedules with adequate physical spacing can help reduce the spread of infection, and building-management strategies can also be employed to mitigate the spread of disease.

Building Strategies 

Given what is known about the virus so far, employing building strategies to help slow the spread of the disease makes sense to help protect those who must work in an office or commercial setting and in multifamily settings. These include:

  • Continue to encourage hand washing: Health officials recommend washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Building managers should post signs encouraging hand washing and demonstrating effective washing techniques. Supply hand sanitizer. Hand washing is especially important after going to the bathroom, before eating, after blowing one’s nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Strengthen cleaning: Implement an infection-control plan that includes regular disinfection of surfaces within buildings, including door handles, handrails, light switches, elevator buttons, restroom fixtures, shared keyboards, water fountains, other commonly touched items, and shared workspaces. Increase cleaning frequency; replenish cleaning supplies ahead of time; and ensure that bathrooms stay stocked with hand soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, and facial tissue.
  • Increase ventilation and reduce the number of people in the building: Ventilation with outdoor air is vital to diluting airborne contaminants and decreasing disease transmission rates. Many newer buildings reduce outside air to save energy (usually based on carbon dioxide levels.) The method is called demand-controlled ventilation (DCV). Such systems can be disabled during periods of concern. For buildings without heating and ventilation systems, another option is simply to open windows to let in more outdoor air. In addition, allowing people to telework or stay home reduces the population in a building, increasing ventilation per person for those who remain.
  • Filter indoor air: Most urban buildings have central systems, and filter technology has advanced to fit better filtration into ordinary filter racks. Schoen recommends using the highest MERV filter available that fits in the filter rack and sealing the edges.
  • Maintain optimal humidity: Evidence suggests that viruses survive better in low-humidity environments. Sources vary in recommendations for optimal humidity levels, but humidity levels of 30 to 40 percent at minimum are recommended. Higher humidity ranges of 40 to 60 percent, while potentially beneficial in the short term, can pose cause long-term maintenance challenges. Building operators can increase humidity through adjustment of heating and ventilation systems or by purchasing and installing portable humidifiers.

Experiences in Asia 

Responding to the threat of the coronavirus in Asia and elsewhere, and as part of comprehensive virus-containment strategies orchestrated by governments, building owners and managers have been deploying extensive regimens to address the spread of the virus, including enhanced cleaning protocols, signage, and more. China was the first to identify and confront the virus, and experience in Asia offers some lessons for building owners and managers elsewhere.

In a March webinar produced by ULI Asia Pacific, leaders of property investment, management, and development firm Hongkong Land shared some of the measures they have put in place in areas that are at high risk because of the level of disease spread and density. Those measure include:

  • Employees and visitors to Hongkong Land buildings must don surgical masks before entering. This does not protect the wearer so much as it protects others if the person wearing the mask is unknowingly infected. It also helps remind the wearers not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • As part of national surveillance programs, thermal scans to check body temperature are performed on all tenants and visitors.
  • People entering the building are asked about recent travel and may be denied entry to tenants’ premises for 14 days after their return from travel to severely affected areas.

Ventilation, filtration and humidity

In addition to the measures described above, building owners and managers are consulting with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning experts for guidance on how their systems can be managed in response to the virus outbreak. Engineers who are familiar with a building’s equipment and local requirements can provide the best advice for specific situations.

In addition to ventilation, filtration, and humidity-related strategies, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI)—which uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light (UV-C) to kill or deactivate microorganisms—is an additional potential protective measure. UVGI can be used to destroy virus particles in HVAC filters and can be installed in the upper part of rooms for high-risk occupancies, like hospitals and schools.

This is an abridged version of an article published by the Urban Land Institute. To access the full article, click here.

Adoption of staggered work schedules with adequate physical spacing can help reduce the spread of infection, and building-management strategies can also be employed to mitigate the spread of disease.