How Can Healthy Buildings Stop Covid-19?

Designing for wellness supports infection control now, but also resilience to future epidemics

May 2020

Words by Meike Borchers

Do building wellness standards address infection control?

At the onset of the pandemic, the International Well Building Institute went into action quite quickly to review the WELL standard, examining how it affects the spread of infection and whether it can help to prevent it. WELL is organized around 10 themes, ranging from air and water quality to other concepts that have relevance for infection control, such as fitness and mental health. It does contain a lot of guidance to promote hygiene: it starts with very simple things, such as using signs to encourage people to wash their hands, but it also has very detailed policies for designers and facilities management staff. It looks at the types of surface that are specified – are they easily cleaned, do they harbour contaminants? On an operational level, it addresses aspects such as staff training, cleaning products and protocols. So with handwashing, for example, soap dispensers should be touch-free so that we can clean our hands without picking up pathogens, and we should be able to dry our hands using tissues or touch-free devices.

We don’t need “chemical bombs” – we can still use environmentally friendly and healthy products.

When you look at the chemicals that will kill the coronavirus, scientists have found that some very basic products, mainly containing alcohol and other standard ingredients, are the best way to deal with it. Using the right products is not just about containing viruses, but also ensuring that we don’t compromise air quality and health more broadly.

The air quality criteria of WELL make a huge difference.

The WELL air concept aims to ensure high levels of indoor air quality across a building’s lifetime, and if you are carefully controlling the airflow and the supply of fresh air, you can reduce the risk of cross-infection. For mechanically ventilated buildings, it’s absolutely crucial, for example, that the right filters are installed and regularly cleaned or exchanged to ensure that no bacteria or viruses are brought into the space. WELL contains strict requirements both on equipment specifications and maintenance regimes.

Perhaps now other areas of wellness standards will come to the fore.

A key aspect of WELL is that organizations have to prepare an emergency management plan, to deal with risks such as fires and earthquakes as well as infections. So in the case of a pandemic, they need to have measures in place for informing staff of the risk, providing alternative ways of working, implementing strategies for at-risk groups and so on. All of this was already in the standard, therefore buildings with a WELL strategy in place might be a bit better prepared for the current situation.

Buildings that promote use of stairs over lifts will fare better post-COVID.

Giving people access to stairs and making them a prominent feature of the building is a key aspect of WELL, because it encourages occupants to move about, socialize and stay fit. It will be easier to socially distance in a building with a well-dimensioned feature stair that provides enough space to allow people to go up and down at the same time, rather than a narrow fire escape stair or a small elevator.

Clearly, the WELL standard needs to work in parallel with other guidance.

A standard such as WELL is both guidance and – through certification – an assessment of conditions and intentions at a certain point in time. Organizations will still need to assess and adapt to how their particular space works for their staff and the activities they need to do. I am also curious to see how the current trend of increased working from home and its inevitable impact on workplace design will shape future versions of WELL.

The crisis has illuminated a wider point about wellness and why we need to keep people healthier.

It’s important to remember that there is more to reducing risk than good hygiene and social distancing. Aside from age, the groups that seem to be most vulnerable to COVID-19, are those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, heart disease, obesity or type 2 diabetes. Quite often this is linked to an unhealthy lifestyle or poor living and working conditions. Taking one example, poor air quality is thought to be responsible for 400,000 premature deaths every year in Europe alone. A well-designed “healthy” building can contribute to physical and mental wellbeing – then if people do become infected with a virus, they have a better chance of a speedy and full recovery.

Meike Borchers is head of sustainability and a WELL AP with WSP, based in Germany

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