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Will Building Designs Evolve to Reflect Public Concern with the Coronavirus?

Bill Grote

Will Building Designs Evolve to Reflect Public Concern with the Coronavirus?

Posted: June 12, 2020 | Estimating, Project Management

With the onset of COVID-19, many people worldwide are looking at their personal safety and trying to understand the nature of this pandemic. A multitude of our codes, laws and building methodologies are simply our response to a challenge (such as this virus), a wrong, or a hazardous situation. For instance, commercial buildings are typically renovated when they are in need of updating to appeal to their customer base. Sometimes change starts with customer requests or suggestions. In the case of public health or wellbeing, it can come from health department or fire marshal reports that point to a safety issue. And many times the public acts to report a building’s perceived health violation to the health department so as to protect themselves and others.

When owners ignore the requests of their users and customers, these disgruntled customers may file lawsuits to demand action and right a wrong. Eventually these lawsuits and customer demands work their way up the chain into legislature to become code requirements that ensure standards for fire and safety.The Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990, was one of these customer-requested codes which centered on providing a standard equity to allow accessibility for people with disabilities. It freed disabled Americans to join our larger society.

Changes in fire station function and design also came about when it became apparent that fire fighters were developing cancers of the lungs, skin, esophagus, brain, kidney and prostate at a very alarming rate in recent years. Studies determined that carcinogenic soot from fires with plastics found in everyday life was becoming impregnated in their equipment and working its way from the soiled area to the clean areas of the fire station.

New, separate areas for equipment decontamination are now being designed as separated contamination areas. They are now located far from the air supply to sleeping and living quarters. Diesel fire truck engines are no longer allowed to idle and fill up apparatus bays with fumes. Instead, new engine exhaust devices are designed to carry the diesel fumes away from the building. In the same way that necessity provoked changes in fire stations, COVID-19 is now prodding a response for changes in public buildings. Until a vaccine is commonly available, it is imperative that the public practice social distancing, clean air flow, and sanitation procedures needed to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of Americans. As the U.S. opens up public places closed due to quarantining restrictions for the Coronavirus, it is vitally important that buildings remain safe and clean. The new normal may very well mean new building floor plans to limit social distancing.

As with the changes taking place with fire stations, eventually cities and even small townships will change their buildings to fit with required safety precautions, or be forced to by lawsuits. “I believe we’ll see concerns with Coronavirus similar to what we had with fire stations,” mused Steve Sharp, of McCall Sharp Architecture. “With Coronavirus, distancing and air flow is going to be on everyone’s mind as businesses start to open up again. In the designing of new facilities, or re-designing of old ones, distancing and public safety will soon be a priority, or customers will be hesitant to enter.”

Ed McCall, of McCall Sharp Architecture, recalls, “Architects went through a lot of new design changes with the initiation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I can easily imagine that happening again to protect against this and future viruses. The large bathrooms in sports stadiums, airports, train and bus stations, where people wash their hands shoulder to shoulder will soon become a thing of the past. I imagine that the new bathrooms will probably be an individual single water closet restroom with antimicrobial and durable surfaces, no-touch doors, UV light disinfectant, and plenty of hand sanitizer.” Even if a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, it seems inevitable that the Coronavirus has now been etched into the psyche of the public, causing them to desire the increased safety of social distancing, especially inside of enclosed spaces. Aside from distancing, there are other areas of architectural design that are likely to be affected — like transparent barriers, more efficient HEPA filtering of the air supply, and perhaps even UV light filtering of that air.

In the near future we will likely see less cramped open office workspaces. Instead we’ll likely see IT infrastructure to accommodate employees working remotely, enhanced video conferencing for more virtual meetings, and visual clues in the flooring for social distancing.

But even today, on any construction job site, you’re likely to see holdouts that are resistant to don masks and practice social distancing. It takes a while to catch on. “There will always be those individuals that feel that this whole COVID-19 mess is nothing but a big inconvenience, or worse, a hoax — until they or a family member becomes seriously ill or dies,” Steve Sharp remarks.

To protect vulnerable populations residing in Senior Independent Living Facilities, future facilities could be designed as pocket neighborhoods like the Community Gardens Senior Housing project, designed by McCall SharpArchitecture. At Community Gardens, building community was critical. Neighbors can wave to one another from their front porch or stroll down a tree-covered promenade built for walking only.

Humans are social animals and socialization at future senior housing will likely be encouraged — at a distance. The days of many seniors living inside a giant box of a facility may be fewer and far between. Large communal eating areas, prevalent in many independent living facilities, will likely require more distancing or disappear altogether. Social directors of these living facilities will have to be creative in how they allow social interaction with distancing in mind. “Just as fire stations changed to protect the lives of fireman from carcinogenic-causing contamination, hospitals, nursing homes, and independent living facilities will soon evolve to protect nurses, doctors, patients, and residents from COVID-19. These changes are likely to involve new rooms, procedures, and equipment to prevent virus spread as well as lower stress levels,” mentioned Ed McCall.

We are also seeing healthcare evolving to “tele-health” care. Instead of driving to your doctor’s office when you need care, you now arrange a call using an app on your phone where you communicate with your doctor face-to-face on your phone or computer and express your concerns. The doctor or nurse will be able to assure you, take a look at what ails you, and send you a prescription, or have you pick it up at a drive-through window. Fear of contracting the Coronavirus has forced the infrastructure of health care to also change to fit the client’s needs in a short amount of time. McCall Sharp Architecture is working with a health care client at this moment to design a health care drive thru because many patients fear coming into a building with the possibility of potential viruses lurking.

As a small business, McCall Sharp Architecture has learned that it’s important to be nimble, flexible, and responsible in crises. “Our business affects other people and it’s important that we pay attention to the details that affect the building users. We must be proactive in changing how we design. That’s what keeps us in business,” notes Steve Sharp. “The needs of people bring about these changes that make better, healthier buildings.”

“In architecture, opportunities arise from making buildings safer and more efficient. Architecture is an industry that is constantly solving problems. The American with Disabilities Act created a sea of change as restaurants, housing and office buildings had to redesign to fit the needs of handicapped customers. After that came 911, which placed an emphasis on security. You probably notice large bollards and heavy concrete planters in front of most public buildings, and, if you look closer, more security cameras. Today, the Coronavirus will likely require advanced filtration HEPA air systems and improved social distancing. These are also customer-driven changes that quite possibly could become part of a new health standard,” Steve explained.

But sometimes, small changes in a facility, such as an office building, can create positive mental energy for the public and the employees. As Mr. McCall sees it, “I think we’ll start to see many customer-based changes taking place in hospitals where healthcare workers are stressed and under pressure to help sick patients get better without getting themselves sick.”

McCall Sharp Architecture has recently employed technology to keep social distancing by projecting plans on a wall during architectural meetings to avoid huddling closely around a set of drawings on a table. With large TV screens, groups can interact and provide feedback while practicing social distancing. New 3-D design programs such as Revit technology can produce 3-D designs and build “fly arounds” that enable the client to visualize and interact with the plans and make changes to the design long before work begins. From the McCall Sharp Architecture website you can see for yourself how the actual finished building matches very closely with the approved 3-D Design.

To be relevant in business, McCall Sharp Architecture has had to produce responsible designs that appeal to all ages. But as Steve Sharp has noticed, “Different generations see things differently. So we have to be cognizant and appeal to the demographic we’re serving. Some things are changing fast. If you’ve ever been to a Google building, for instance, you can see how they’ve applied an edgier design to appeal to a younger demographic. At Google, you’re not required to labor away in the same office all day. You can take your laptop and flop down anywhere in large luxurious couches and do your work. It’s an open work environment. The days of sitting at the same desk, in the same office, with your name on the door, are disappearing fast, thanks to a smart new generation of workers.”

Keeping relevant to change and to customers’ needs is what allows companies such as McCall Sharp Architecture to thrive in the midst of uncharted change. Listening to clients is what brings customer-driven change — much like the changes brought about in the ADA Code, or in fire stations to protect firemen from carcinogens. What we’ll soon be seeing in hospitals, offices, stores and restaurants all around us as users, is building design to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

About the Author: Bill Grote is a staff writer for DCD Magazine.


Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay