Imagining a Virus Controlled World

Imagining a Virus Controlled World

By Renée Azerbegi, President
and Clayton Bartczak, Sustainability Team Leader, Ambient Energy

Imagine a world where deadly viruses abound and we must learn to live with them, without spreading them around… and we are NOT staying home. We are smart about how we work, live and play together.   What would this world look like? How would you design, construct and operate a building to reduce the likelihood of future virus contamination? The intent of this article is to imagine the potential building design implications of a future forever changed by our current circumstances.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a lot of questions about the future of building design. Does building dense cities make sense in a pandemic world? Will we continue to have hospitals, or will we digitize health care entirely or go door to door? How will we go to the office without fear of contamination? How can we go to concerts or attend sporting events without concern?  While we won’t be able to solve all these problems immediately, we can take steps towards reducing the spread of contamination by identifying solutions today and developing systems needed for the future tomorrow.

Architects, design teams, contractors, and facility managers cannot treat or cure people who are already sick, but they can reduce the spread of contamination by creating healthy buildings. Similar to design professionals’ increased role in reducing negative environmental impacts, the trend of designing healthy buildings will become more pervasive.

There is a lot that can and should be done in the healthcare market to design for viruses - Singapore is a great example of this as they learned to contain SARS in the early 2000s.  Although there are many containment strategies for hospitals, such as the ability to convert a patient room into an ICU, this article focuses on offices, airports and other public spaces.

Smart Cities
While this epidemic may not reduce the density of our cities, and it would not be sustainable to do so, it will create smarter cities, better prepared to respond to life-threatening virus outbreaks. Smart city technology will allow us to communicate more effectively in times of pandemic.

Touchless for all Public Buildings
Even though a virus may be on your hands, you still must get it into your body – often by touching your face, touching your food, or not sanitizing properly. Touchless hand washing stations will be next to the touchless water stations and a lot more prevalent.

Entrance doors on buildings will all be automatic, as well as doors into all interior rooms and bathrooms, instead of having to press the handicap button. Facial recognition scanners will become more widely used for security purposes.

Restrooms in all public buildings will be touchless from the front door, to the toilet room door, to the sink, to the paper towel rack (yes, paper towels are considered more clean than air dryers which circulate potentially dirty indoor air).
Public Transport
Public transportation will be completely touch free, negatively pressurized, more compartmentalized, and sanitized multiple times a day.

Sporting events and concerts will have not only metal detectors but non-contact infrared thermometers or full-body thermal scanners to identify people who are ill.

Books and news sources like magazines and newspapers become completely electronic. Libraries become community centers and workplace training centers.

Shopping will rely on RFID sensors as we eliminate a person at the register, and we lose the ability to try on clothing at the store. Online retail will become even more common than it is today.

HVAC systems become critical to avoid circulation of contaminated air in offices – from how air moves through a space, to how its filtered, to its temperature and humidity, to its air quality sensors. The mechanical systems of choice will be dedicated outdoor air systems, with demand-controlled ventilation and heat recovery or solar ventilation preheating that do not have any return air recirculating into buildings but supply the minimum ventilation amount, with radiant heating and cooling systems.

With a six-foot separation mandated across the world, the size of the typical office in an open space is very likely to get larger, instead of the trend towards smaller desk sizes. Additionally, partition walls are likely to get higher, hopefully still providing natural daylight in open spaces. There may be a move to more enclosed offices.

High touch surfaces such as countertops and fixtures in restroom and kitchens, doorknobs, light switches, and elevator buttons will be made from abrasion-resistant materials and meet minimum standards for anti-microbial properties. Refrigerators, microwaves, doors and coffee pots will be redesigned to be as touch free as possible and cleaned on an hourly basis. All furniture, appliances, and high tough surfaces will be regularly cleaned with ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) equipment. Furniture with advanced antimicrobial properties will become the norm for all building types, not just health care facilities.

Elevators and thermostats will be voice activated. Lights will all have motion sensors.

Airports and Airplanes
Airports will move to advanced airport check in and security, automated luggage bag tags, biometric screening, and security lines with robots instead of TSA personnel. The door to the gate only opens if you have the right boarding pass, and there are no flight attendants that walk the isles.  Airplanes already do have hospital grade levels of ventilation and filtration, but to really avoid contamination, the seats become ventilation-controlled bubbles and, maybe, just maybe, we will even lose the middle seat! 

Health and Wellness Certifications
Last, but not least, public policy and codes that require LEED also adopt FitWel and WELL as alternatives to LEED, finally. FitWel and WELL place a heavier emphasis on the need for best health, ventilation, and air quality practices.  Ambient Energy is ready to facilitate your projects’ wellness strategies today!

We may not implement all of these strategies quickly, and we may not implement some ever, but if we become smarter, and assume this is not a once in a lifetime phenomenon for the world, we have a fantastic opportunity to rethink design so that we can still work, live and play like we always have even during times of pandemic. Let us all see the challenges provided by COVID-19 pandemic as opportunities for a better, healthier built world.
1. Covid-19: the ways viruses can spread in offices, March 25, 2020, by Lu-Hai Liang, BBC Worklife
2. Hospital design for better infection control, Journal of Emergencies, Trauma and Shock, Fatimah Lateef, September 2009.
3. How the COVID-19 Pandemic will Change the Built Environment, Alyssa Glacobbe, March 18, 2020,


Region Sponsors