Designing the Built Environment for the “Post-pandemic” World

Joe Mcfatter
17 min readAug 19, 2020

(Installment №2 of a two-part story.)

As anyone who has been into a store as of May, 2020 is fully aware, various businesses have already implemented protective measures. We see human footprint or other images on the floor at checkout lines reminding us of the need to maintain 6-feet separation, Plexiglas barriers and dividers at cashiers, and in factories and plants across America, designated essential and “non-essential” businesses have taken measures in response to COVID-19 governmental guidelines and directives, although the interpretation of such appears to vary along with protocols of operations. It is certainly appropriate that there be leeway in implementing these interim, emergency necessities, but in the long run, based on continuing research and data, permanent standards should be set forth to provide a common knowledge base, at least within given states or regions, and as pertains to Federal facilities.

I will address several common types of facilities that we are all familiar with, as well as offer my thoughts and suggestions regarding other types of facilities that are known to a lesser extent by most of us.

Facilities that we are all familiar with are:

· Elementary and secondary schools;

· Housing (of all types);

· Office buildings;

· Retail stores and “malls;”

· Movie theaters and performance venues;

· Sports stadiums;

· College classrooms and lecture halls;

SCHOOLS: Already in the news we hear of entrepreneurs and administrators moving ahead with technological advancements and proposing new and radical ideas in response. In Dallas, Texas the school district is looking into how to combine “in class” with “on line” programs, pending determination of when and how students might be able to return to their schools full time. Human ingenuity is boundless, and that alone should provide some consolation to our worries. We need and must believe in ourselves to resolve this crisis and prevent another.

Predicting how our school facilities will be influenced in the long run by the pandemic experience is foolhardy at best, as schools are all under local control, and totally dependent on local feelings, and feelings translate to funding and property taxes. We can though lay out a few predicates that ought to be considered in the context of the present discussion.

First, many of our schools, especially in the inner cities and rural areas have been ignored for decades, and by any measure should be totally replaced or given major overhauls and modernization. This will not likely happen if left to decisions made locally, given financial constraints, particularly after the economic meltdown COVID-19 brought on. So the alternative is for the Federal government to provide grants directly to school districts, based on solid grant proposals that incorporate local needs, integrated with guidelines of the nature advocated here. Providing grants only to state government will only result in further disparities due to politics. As bad as the pandemic is, it has the potential silver lining to affect positive change long overdue in our suffering schools across the Nation. Education must be given top-drawer priority in the new economy.

New and renovated schools should have goals of incorporating space, isolation and ease of sanitization protocols. Crowded classrooms having poor air conditioning and lighting typical of many poorer schools are “petri dishes” for illness, as most parents and teachers know, given how many are ill over the course of a school year. The theme of this book is that design should acknowledge and respond to the threat of future epidemics and pandemics, and biological terrorist attacks. The latter is probably not one a school can made to be resistant to, but much can be done to improve the air quality in schools: increasing outdoor air intake, assuring maximum separation of air exhaust from air intake locations outdoors, better filtering and decontamination of recirculated air, and greater isolation between student classrooms and common areas. Such isolation would have the goal of minimizing the spread of infection from one or more students in one classroom directly to other classrooms via air propagation. Common areas perhaps should be rethought architecturally; e.g., clustering a few classrooms to have direct exit corridors in lieu of all merging together into main corridors. Auditoriums and gymnasiums also must be rethought, and this presents considerable challenge, as will any type of “assembly” areas, including performance halls (which often have special acoustical design considerations for the air conditioning distribution). Within schools, it may just be that major assemblies of an entire school will have to be left in the past era, with students “assembling” virtually.

HOUSING: The second type of facility in the above list, “housing,” is broken down in building codes into various classifications, such as “single-family” dwellings, dormitories, and various types of apartments, with further sub-classifications based on occupancy, height of the buildings, and so forth. Codes, standards and construction materials and methods vary considerably across the nation as pertaining to “housing.”

Given the immense portion of our lives spent inside our residences, whatever the type, it is imperative that these receive considerable study and rethinking. Also since there is a crying need for upgrading or replacing low-income housing, programs of the future can accomplish both. We need to approach housing with two thoughts, that no one in the residence is known to be infected, or someone in the residence is.

So, taking the proactive/preventative measures into account, what can be done? In many cases older designs do not afford nearly enough day lighting, so let’s make sure all housing in the future has plenty of fenestration and positioning of windows and day lighting “shelves” and “wells” and other means of getting the light of the sun deep into all areas. Most residences have air conditioning systems dedicated to each residence, but older ones that have not been renovated may have some central systems, especially for common areas like corridors. Yet even though dedicated systems provide a “barrier” to direct exchange of conditioned air between dwellings, within each home there is usually air returning to the central units throughout the home. Some newer, energy efficient designs may use distributed air conditioning, with on unit per room or sector of the dwelling, which does provide some degree of isolation in the event someone in the house is infected, but air exchange via doorways is deleterious to isolation. Even in dwellings that can be designed to maximize isolation, the threat of a sick person passing on the disease is considerable, unless the residence is very large by normal standards. Ideally there should be emergency housing units that can be “stood up” quickly to which those diagnosed with such as COVID-19 can go to in lieu of returning home and risking infecting their family or friends, sort of a publicly owned “Airbnb.” However, whether people would opt for this is a huge unknown, requiring study.

Regardless of the locale, latitude or type of residence, most residences, with the exception of some custom, “green” architectural designs, do not admit nearly enough day light nor outside air. Whereas greater day lighting would correspond to similar intentions of energy conservation standards, significant increase to outside air requiring energy for added cooling/heating/humidification/filtering/decontamination will drive up the cost of the air conditioning system. Again, however, where there is a mandate to do something, there are those ingenious ideas that come along to make achieving goals easier; sort of a “build it, and they will come,” dynamic. I would submit that consideration should be given to government, state and/or Federal, providing tax incentives, similar to those provided previously for installation of photo-voltaic energy systems. There is a strong case to be made that “healthy at home” translates to a robust, resilient economy for all. Designers no doubt will also focus more in the future on providing appropriate spaces for persons “working from home” or who have their own businesses operated at home. That many former “office workers” will no longer desire to undergo the agonies of daily commuting and the associated expense should be a foregone conclusion.

OFFICE BUILDINGS: To segue into the next category in our list, office buildings, designers should be leading the discussion of how this huge sector of the real estate market can be responsive to the lessons we take from COVID-19. My experience with realty developers and leasing firms is that they are very smart, and understand the value of benefits and features in closing lease deals. For the interim it is likely that the combination of many business failures, coupled with an exponential growth in “work from home” employees, will directly impact the realty market, forcing changes. Whether such changes also include needed rethinking of such as building air systems, isolation, and sanitization will most likely require changes in codes.

There is one aspect of all “high rise” buildings, particularly office buildings and large governmental edifices, such as court houses, that sorely needs addressing in the “new thinking” regime: elevators. Next to a jailhouse holding “tank,” there probably is not a worse place for contagions: people crowding into the elevator until no one else can fit, breathing one another’s exhaled breathes for many seconds. Serious rethinking is needed in studying new formulae for computing how many elevators are needed so as to limit occupancy on any one run. Perhaps there needs to be even a booth that persons pass through on the way to the elevator that automatically reads body temperature and blocks someone with a fever from proceeding. Is this over intrusive? I think not. Also perhaps there should be like little segregated places to stand on the back and sidewalls of the elevator, with barriers between, and with 100% outside air pulled upward at each cubicle to minimize cross-transfer between passengers (anyone who rides elevators knows there is little to no ventilation presently other than air exchanges when the door opens and closes).

RETAIL: The category of “retail” stores of course covers hundreds of types and sizes of businesses. Shopping malls present whole other category of design rethinking as well. Since even before the pandemic many large chain stores were struggling, with many continuing to go under, it is clear that the impact of on-line shopping was leveraging the competition and permanently changing the landscape. On-line shopping has become most convenient, in some cases allowing customers to essentially try on and return clothing with little difficulty. I myself, one who abhors shopping malls particularly, has bought virtually all of my purchases other than food and some personal items on-line for a number of years, and I am well into my 70’s!

So the time is ripe for a total rethinking of retail designs for every type of store and facility. Back in the 50’s the trend was toward shopping centers rather than the huge covered malls, but the pleasure of going into a mall that is air conditioned and has so many attractions, especially at Christmas, soon caused the indoor mall to dominate. However, rethinking of future shopping aggregations should be in order now. The drive-up centers offer greater protection generally from disease, at least it would logically seem so: customers are spending less time in enclosed spaces with others. The retail stores of all varieties each need pointed thinking in changing how customers can be and feel safer shopping. Perception of safety will be important in the future (and I would add, increased safety from “active shooters”!). Many of the malls and larger stores already make use of daylighting, but this too should be looked into. Perhaps instead of giant malls with multiple floors there should be single story “mini-malls” that specialize in certain merchandise (such as furniture, clothing, sports, et cetera), and groups of these mini-malls could be situated on the same land site, with drive-up capability or moving sidewalks to get around between the mini-malls. Even these small malls could be equipped with entry scanner booths to check customers for temperature. This brings to the discussion, drug stores. If we continue to allow people who are sick with a highly infectious virus to come inside a drugstore to get medicine, that seems contrary to the lessons we have learned, and frankly, common sense. Perhaps only drive-up or delivery of meds, or having a well person who at least goes through a screening for fever allowed to do business in the pharmacy area.

Theaters: Where I grew up in rural Texas, drive-in theaters were common and popular, as much or more so than indoor movie theaters. Even while writing this book I heard of renewed interest in drive-ins. The basic drive-ins of the past basically consisted of long, curved rows of parking spots, with each spot having a speaker on a cord to attach to the car window to hear the movie’s sound. The rows also often were raised mounds so the car was placed in a comfortable position for viewing. Some theaters had open-air seating near the screen for eating, and of course the refreshment/food stand was busy, as people would walk to get their food or someone would take the orders and bring it like the old style eating places. I expect with the driving force of 5G streaming that indoor theaters will be relegated to special, high ticket price venues with very limited seating, more of a boutique style and perhaps setup much like high-rent viewing suites are at major sports stadiums. So for those who want to get out of their homes to see a movie on a large screen, drive-in’s offer that with much greater safety. While drive-ins may work well in many areas of the nation, obviously in large urban settings finding suitable sites that are also safe and generally secure will be hard to find, and given the price per square foot of land, drive-ins easily lose when pitted against high revenue buildings. It may be that some combination projects, basically multi-use as we know them today, could include a drive-in.

SPORTS STADIUMS: Now sports stadiums are a tall order to fill when it comes to designing them to, as necessary in the future, mitigate the spread of infectious disease. It is well known, however, in security circles that open stadiums in particular provide perfect soft targets for terrorism, and why this fact has not directly been accounted for in the design of recently completed stadiums is unconscionable. Therefore, existing stadiums should be studied by an independent group toward finding ways and means of improving these venues given the consequences of the pandemic, and future such threats. Since it comes down to finances, with the local public often footing the bill for new sports palaces (yes, “we” pay for these with our taxes!), then there are a few algebraic equations that must be solved for any such proposal. That is “way above my pay grade” and far beyond the scope of this book, but I want to prompt anyone who may be presently or in the future involved with major sports facility decisions to consider these issues. How do you design a stadium where fans can have fun and not be packed together, or is that even possible and is it self-defeating to the spirit of attending? (I do not have an opinion, not being a sports fan myself). Again it may be that people attend as groups from pairs to groups of say ten, and each such group sits in its own segregated area. I suggest that with technology being what it is, people would not even have to get up to go buy food, as this could likely be delivered robotically or some other automated systems. Now going to the restroom could be a little challenging, but again, each group could have its own restroom, and each restroom could be appropriately ventilated and provided with more segregation between fixtures than is typical. Designing for “accessibility” could be accommodated as it must be.

COLLEGES: Now colleges present a daunting challenge in responding to the lessons we are learning about such as COVID-19. How colleges can respond to say a “COVID-26” is an open question. Colleges are above all else today, places that not only provide an education to its students, but also sell that education. They are places of business regardless of whether private or public. Existing institutions will have to evaluate their own needs and chart their own paths based on each one’s unique circumstances. Large universities, with which I have much experience personally, if public, are controlled by politically sensitive state-wide offices of facilities. Needs bubble up to these from the schools and colleges and university campuses around a state, and the planning of renovations and new buildings are a balancing act of stakeholder needs with design standards with “monies.” Private universities may function similarly. Even while America is still in the midst of the extant pandemic, colleges are trying to figure things out, and it is clear they must if they are to survive financially and if students are to in fact be educated for their future careers. So the thinking put into this challenge now must be continued into the post-COVID-19 period, with existing design standards weighed against threats, vulnerabilities and “how to pay” for increased construction costs. Trade-offs likely will have to be made: in fact, some college may have to consider trimming down what they offer to offset the costs. Since many institutions rely heavily on their college sports programs for revenue, consideration of this also must be included.

NURSING HOMES: Let us consider now a few other facility/building occupancy types. Nursing homes and other homes for the care of the aged and infirm, including veterans, have around the Nation become places of high COVID-19 mortality. As someone old enough to have seen grandparents (my parents never made it to old age, as they both succumbed to cancer) and my late mother-in-law in such facilities, I can say that even without the pain of the pandemic, many of these places are an abomination of what should be our higher values. It is not uncommon for there to be just a few (even one) nurse or attendants on duty serving dozens of residents of such “homes.” This is unconscionable! As a side note I also wish to say that care facilities should be required to have more green space around them for residents to enjoy. Most do not, even the newer ones, and if residents can be taken outdoors the scenery needs to be more than pavement or a street. I mentioned landscaping at the beginning of the book, so this is a great example of where more outdoor space and “anti-pathogen” landscaping is needed. By this I mean pretty landscaping that can be enjoyed with appropriate “distancing” of residents, with perhaps attention to creating a bit of privacy for each person or small group. No matter what changes are made to the design of such facilities, unless America wakes up to the plight of the elderly housed and often forgotten in such dismal places, we have failed.

But now let’s consider what changes would improve the environment. Sunlight, sunlight, sunlight! Standards need to be changed providing guidance for enhanced fenestration and admittance of day light deep into the interiors of spaces, including residence rooms and common areas. Light kills germs, it’s quite simple. I was at a Walmart and asked a worker at the exit if I could just leave the cart inside as I did not need it. She told me to please take it outside and leave it in the sun! As often heard, this “ain’t rocket science”: using the rays of the sun to kill microbes.

Along with letting in more day lighting, more outside “fresh” air is definitely needed. Of course this adds cost to the air conditioning system, as outside air must be filtered and treated, but let’s view all of these type costs as “investments,” which they truly are: investment in humanism, but with returns of better health and lower health cost for our loved ones in these residences. Again, new technologies will also play a part, giving architects and engineers new tools in their kit to design highly effective domiciles for the aged and infirm. Let us keep in mind, that each of us may one day be a resident in one such home: what would we wish to breathe and live within?

HOSPITALS, CLINICS & SPECIALTY HEATHCARE: While I am tempted to tackle what changes ought to be made within hospitals and other healthcare facilities, I will forego including these in this discussion. Suffice it to say that today’s hospitals range from older to new, from small to mega-size. Having been involved with the design and construction of numerous hospitals, including renovation and new construction, I can assure the uninformed reader that these represent the nexus of codes/standards, technology and complexity; yet, they also can be improved toward dealing with “everyday” pathogens and future epidemics/pandemics.

Technology exist today, that should be investigated for adaption to larger scale applications, to use robots for surface cleaning of procedure facilities, and disinfecting recirculated air with ozone and/or ultra-violet equipment. Along these lines I recommend there be a focus brought to bear nationally, led by the CDC, to research such applications toward future wide-spread incorporation. Also studies of pre-discharge of hospital exhaust air should be studied, as it has been suggested in the literature that highly-infectious diseases like the COVID-19 may be sufficient even though dispersed in the atmosphere, to be borne by air currents into local populations surrounding the healthcare campus.

The trend in healthcare facilities over the last decade has seen a large increase in emergency clinics (sometimes humorously referred to as “doc-in-a-box”), and various diagnostic facilities, especially imaging facilities such as MRI and CAT scan. These facilities are often built into an existing shell space of a “strip shopping center” or business park, in residential neighborhood areas convenient to patients, and sometimes older buildings repurposed. All of these type facilities are governed by applicable codes and standards, but these too bear rethinking in the light of designing to mitigate patient exposures to pathogens during visits. Imaging rooms, due to the need to isolate them electromagnetically from the surrounding spaces, cannot be designed to admit day light unfortunately, but additional strides should be taken toward improving recirculated air and providing for surface sanitizing between patient operations.

MANUFACTURING AND DISTRIBUTION FACILITIES: Processing, manufacturing and distribution plants are so specialized that it is also beyond the scope of this book to address these specifically. However, it is clear that those having to do with food production and processing are essential, as are a few other types, and given the rate of infections of employees during COVID-19 it is clear that modifications must be mandated. This is where politics will strongly influence how design and operational changes are brought about. We definitely need to see OSHA changes its rules in response to the pandemic, and provide a stronger presence at such facilities, performing audits and inspections. The same applies to the FDA. However, when changes take away from short-term profits there is always a pushback by management of such companies, supported by lobbyists in Washington and at state capitols. No doubt employee unions will need to vigorously fight for changes that enhance worker safety and health issues.

Those familiar with the design of buildings and facilities realize that I have touched upon only a few categories. However, there really are no types that will not be impacted in multiple ways in response to the rethinking of designs, toward realizing greater resistance and resilience to novel viruses.

How optimistic should one be as to how much and how soon the lessons of COVID-19 will be codified and implemented in the design and construction of the physical world that we build? Personally, I lean toward optimism; but, I also am well aware of the schism that has essentially bifurcated we Americans, politicizing and tainting virtually everything in our society, rendering any forward movement difficult for the near future.

We may well be on our way in 2020 to 200,000 deaths if predictions of a resurgence of COVID-19 come true, especially coupled with seasonal influenza. I cannot help but muse whether, if the rate of mortality was about the same across the age spectrum, rather than concentrated in the aged and especially people of color, would our society’s reactions be the same? As it is now, unless someone’s family member is affected, a large sector of the public seemingly waves off practicing basic guidelines.

As I write this, my oldest god-daughter and her husband are still recovering from coronavirus in New York City, and we give thanks daily they survived. As a senior myself, I clearly understand my own risks. However, many in our society at large have weighed the risks of the disease against risks of financial failure, mental health and the general interruption of their freedoms, and do not heed recommended practices. Over time, it is likely this cavalier attitude will change, because COVID-19 is not “magically” going away, and more and more families will be touched by it.

So I do not expect any rapid movement along the lines I have discussed herein, for several reasons — the least of which is not the many irascible politicos who defy reason — but I do believe that we will see strong movement over the next few years. Architects and engineers and those whose professions focus on building and facility design, occupant health and safety, generally embrace recommendations that bubble to the surface of public discourse on such subjects, so in time codes and standards will adopt the needed changes agreed upon; but again, can we wait for such incremental change?

We will comeback, not to the world as it was at the end of 2019, but to a new world in need of creative thinking and dedication to the lessons learned. It may be fortunate for the world also that enough sober and astute people will see that we also must arrest climate change, which is inexorably bound up with the emergence of novel viruses. I have faith in the young generation; surely they will do a better job than we have: they must.

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” (Leo Tolstoy)