Will Healthy Buildings Change in a Post-Covid World?
An intimate jazz concert took place in October 2020, in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, at a downtown bar in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. An audience of less than two dozen students and faculty from the University of Illinois sat listening, all of whom had recently tested negative for Covid-19. For some of the performances, the musicians performed wearing masks or with covers over their instruments’ mouthpieces; the rest of the time, they did not. While they played, a mechanical engineering professor experimented offstage, altering the airflow at the venue throughout the evening by turning on and off exhaust and recirculation fans. His students monitored air quality to determine how well-ventilated the building was by measuring the presence of fine particles and carbon dioxide concentrations.
This experiment examined the role of proper ventilation in preventing the spread of disease. As the result of this and other investigations, improving indoor air quality is now recognized as one of the best ways to ensure healthy buildings post-Covid. In fact, building standards must increasingly take into account recommendations from public health organizations to ensure occupant safety.
The coronavirus pandemic has foregrounded the importance of healthy built environments like never before. Now, it’s highlighting how the Internet of Things (IoT) and associated smart technologies can make healthy buildings possible.
Creating Healthy Buildings Post-Covid
Covid is already accelerating new approaches to building design and management that will make people who work and live in these buildings healthier. It is also driving building owners to upgrade and retrofit existing systems. While some of these changes are critical for reopening businesses and regaining visitors, they also have long-term benefits that will protect occupants far into the future.
A study published in February 2019 found that maintaining a minimum level of outdoor air ventilation within buildings can reduce influenza transmission the same as if 60% of occupants were vaccinated. With Americans spending 90% of their time indoors, these findings are stark evidence of how important clean air has become. It could even be argued that heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) is a first line of defense against many illnesses.
The significant role aerosols and droplets play in Covid transmission has caused architects and HVAC system designers to take note. While improving ventilation and filtration systems can be an important step in reducing Covid infections, many of these design changes will also help prevent other health problems, including respiratory illnesses, allergies, eczema, and even cancer. IoT sensors can be an invaluable part of forward-thinking ventilation strategies; sensors within HVAC systems controlled by an intelligent BMS can be integrated with indoor environmental quality sensors that measure volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, and other contaminants to assess air quality and provide suggestions for corrective action. An intelligent analytics platform can allow many of these corrective actions to be taken automatically while also opening up other opportunities for health-focused automation, such as increasing or decreasing ventilation according to occupancy.
However, improving ventilation isn’t always a straightforward process. With many higher-quality air filtration systems, air handlers are needed to push more air into the building; otherwise, air pressure drops quickly. This will bring hot or cold air inside through means other than the ventilation system, causing higher usage of HVAC systems along with higher heating and cooling expenses. Building owners and facilities managers must take care to find the right combination of equipment and settings.
In some buildings—particularly hospitals—creating negative pressure areas to isolate and quarantine those with highly infectious diseases like Covid is of utmost importance. To achieve these pressurized areas, mechanical systems must evaluate and change air pressure accordingly. Smart control systems that glean information from pressure sensors within these areas can help hospitals maintain negative air pressure space when necessary.
The lessons of Covid will likely have a heavy influence on the design of new builds. Forward-thinking architects and engineers are increasingly integrating features like IoT technology, automated control systems, and displacement ventilation from the very beginning to ensure healthy buildings post-Covid. Though surface transmission of the coronavirus has been less of a problem, increasing sanitation and contact-free components will also become more common. All of these strategies rely on innovative technologies, including:
- Machine learning capabilities that allow an intelligent BMS to alter the environment based on information gathered by IoT devices.
- Ultraviolet (UV) light, automated sanitizing, and advanced janitorial tracking software to disinfect surfaces.
- Touchless technologies, including keycards, motion sensors, voice control, and facial recognition as well as elevators, lighting, and other systems controlled via smartphones.
Additionally, many companies are embracing the idea of biophilic design to decrease energy costs, boost the health of building occupants and increase employee productivity. This concept involves bringing better access to sunlight, introducing plant life indoors, decorating with natural images, and using natural sounds like running water or wind to create healthier workspaces.
While new buildings can be built according to cutting-edge designs, retrofitting existing structures can also transform older buildings into healthier buildings. Post-Covid, older buildings are likely to correct deficiencies noted during the pandemic, particularly in their HVAC systems. Some ways in which older buildings can upgrade HVAC include:
- Creating negative air-pressure spaces to prevent the spread of infections
- Implementing advanced building automation to optimize HVAC performance
- Installing ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) in return air ducts to kill bacteria and viruses
- Mounting carbon dioxide and occupancy sensors in spaces where groups gather to increase ventilation when needed
- Using high-rated air filters, such as MERV-13 or MERV-14, to capture viruses, bacteria, mold spores, and other airborne contaminants.
While retrofitting is often thought to be cost-prohibitive, updating existing buildings will be critical to remaining viable in a post-Covid world and can provide a great return on investment.
Will Changes to Buildings Post-Covid be Permanent?
Today, there is unprecedented attention being paid to ensuring building occupants are safe from airborne contaminants. But while concerns about Covid may soon become less acute, their impact will be felt for years to come, whether from tenants insisting on better sanitation practices or regulatory bodies creating stricter air quality standards.
Indeed, a survey of real estate experts released by the Urban Land Institute in October 2020 found that 90% of respondents thought certification measures were likely to rise to ensure healthy buildings post-Covid. As Rachel Gutter, president of the International WELL Building Institute says, “The built environment is a first line of defense in a pandemic—it makes the difference between whether you get a disease that will kill you or not. That’s a real shift in how we think about buildings.”
Already, building owners, landlords, and facilities managers are seeing tenant priorities shift. “The pandemic has really shone a spotlight on, ‘What is my indoor air quality like, and why does it matter?” says Melissa Baker, senior vice president of LEED development at the U.S. Green Building Council. “These are the questions that tenants will be asking landlords now.”
In this new and evolving landscape, buildings that integrate advanced, health-focused technologies and intelligent automation will be well-prepared.
Natalie writes about trends in commercial real estate technology, building data analytics, master systems integration and controls for building systems.