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

Joe Mcfatter
16 min readAug 18, 2020


(Installation №1 of a series.)

To begin this discussion, let’s engage in a brief review of what can be considered facts, setting the stage for the more detailed discussion in the later chapters. Given the politicizing that permeates so much of the public discourse related to this pandemic, for those readers who may remember the TV show of the 1950’s, Dragnet, like the cop Joe Friday said in every week’s episode, let us deal with “just the facts.”

As everyone knows by the time of this writing, there are several basic factors which, if ignored, exacerbate the transmission of the virus from person to person. One is sanitization, or better said, the lack of adequate sanitization. In this pandemic every person and every physical object could potentially harbor the virus, and the virus may live from minutes to days, depending on the type of surface, temperature, humidity and perhaps variables we aren’t even aware of as yet. So obviously everything that can be done to mitigate the potential for spread of the virus by contact should be considered. Some of these are quite simple, such as thorough hand-washing using soap, and the masks we all (should) wear when around others outside our domiciles. But then there are issues related to disinfecting such mundane things as grocery carts, just to name one of hundreds of stationary “things” we are apt to touch depending on our activities. The bottom line is that inventors and designers need to, and no doubt will, develop new technologies and products that will greatly enhance minimizing the lifespan of viruses on things we touch in public. It may be time now to even consider means of disinfecting/decontaminating the interiors of entire buildings such as office buildings.

Another major factor, which we are all living with, is separation. We all know the “6-feet rule” now, although it seems many Americans disregard it for whatever reason. It has been stated by knowledgeable persons that COVID-19 may be much more airborne than we believe, especially in closed spaces with little air movement (such as a closed church during choir practice with the air conditioning turned off to save on the church’s energy bill); it has been suggested that a 10-foot separation be used. So, in the future, we must provide designs that accommodate separation, but such designs should be “flexible” to the extent practical; smart design can satisfy both the separation when needed during outbreaks of highly infectious viruses, and then during “normal” times allow for other use of slack space.

However, in general it would be prudent to thoroughly study the benefits of increasing the dimensions of spaces in typically crowded areas, such as corridors and elevator lobbies of office buildings (also see discussion later about elevators). Operationally, given that it is likely that a much greater percentage of the office workforce will often work from home in the future, the resulting reduction in rush hour crowding should be accounted for in standards that speak to space and distancing. Consideration should also be given to staggering work shifts, which of course helps with many other issues such as traffic and mass transit loading. Presently the various building codes and the NFPA Life Safety Code and other standards designate dimensions of exits and so forth, so these documents would be the candidates for incorporating possible increases in sizes of corridors and various special occupancy spaces.

Designs will also need to address isolation (which could range from isolation as in research labs and infectious disease wards of hospitals, to “segregation/shielding” in such areas as retail or customer serving. Isolation, regardless of the application, has ultimately to do with the control of conditioned indoor air. This engineering science is well-known and “how to do it” is textbook, but preparing for future pandemics and/or biological germ terrorist attacks, such measures must be extended into sectors of the built environment where little to no consideration was previously justified. Existing technologies for decontamination will need to be brought to bear in specific solutions, and no doubt there will be new approaches and new technological inventions that come on line.

Another aspect which relates to building design, but falls into the operations and maintenance of building systems, would be what we can lump together under the rubric of enhanced operational safety. In this cubby would be changes related to everything from how air conditioning systems would be operated to how various components of building systems would be maintained, all toward minimizing the presence and growth of viral microbiomes within buildings. Example would be requirements to purge the building with outside air daily, to clean/replace high efficiency filters or do other means of decontamination of these on a regular basis, such as weekly.

So, codes and standards must speak to these three factors in addressing design for future facilities of all types: sanitization, separation and isolation. It can be expected that new technologies will parallel and likely emerge much more quickly than the evolution in design governance; even so, appropriate, studied changes in design parameters will need to be instituted to assure basic health and safety in the future under the threat of continuing business operations during the next pandemic.

We all by now are aware, in not familiar, with guidelines promulgated by the CDC and distributed and enhanced by various state and local governmental agencies, as well as those practices/protocols established by employers in various industries. These really should be viewed as a prelude to rules, guidelines and protocols that should be included in the development of the new standards of the future. Education and testing must play a role equal to the concepts built into the new environment of the workplace. Employers, from small to large, should be strongly encouraged to include briefings and tutorials and testing on such educational materials, as part of the “on-boarding” process for new employees, much as is done now pertaining to anti-discrimination. Typically there are also recurring annual refreshers on such important matters, so the new standards pertaining to health practices should be rolled into those sessions also.

The lessons we are learning from the pandemic are multi-faceted and have many complex linkages across the spectrum of our personal lives and society at large. While most of these are caused by the virus and our manner and means of responding to the containment of its spreading, much of the complexity has to do with problems we have created due to the juxtaposition of feelings and attitudes about “getting people back to work” versus avoiding illness and death. These intense discussions and (so far) borderline violent incidents will no doubt continue but should abate in the near future as we work through this. The very fabric of our society is challenged as it never has before, not only because of the pandemic, but because the disease has overlain a multitude of ongoing social issues that must be addressed if the reality of America is to come into focus with the idea of America.

So regardless of our differences, I am betting that there is sufficient common ground amongst professional, political, government and citizen stakeholders to begin converting lessons learned into practical guidelines, standards and codes to affect needed physical changes in all types of facilities. We must be leaning forward and acting now, as we know not when the next novel virus will spring forth, or a biological attack on the Nation occur. Given it is much easier for an enemy to produce biological weapons than nuclear, we must not be myopic in our security planning.

The development of the broad response pertaining to facilities will depend a great deal on how information gathered over the next months of 2020 and no doubt going well into 2021 or beyond. Not a great deal is truly known about COVID-19, and its longer-term behavior, so planning will need to be elastic and responsive to changes in what we learn about the virus and the disease.

If, however, no highly effective vaccine is found, or therapies prove less robust than hoped for, then the virus will bounce around civilization far into the future. Probably the answer is somewhere between the two scenarios. Likely one of more fairly robust vaccines will be found, but it is also likely that a large segment of the populace will shy away from taking it (polling done in May, 2020, indicates only about one-half of our population would take a vaccine, at least until its safety is proven). My sense of the situation is that COVID-19 will be with us for decades, come and go and we will be jumping to tamp it down in various spots and pockets almost continually, as is the prevailing flu strains. The problem is that in this case we are then dealing with both the novel virus and with whatever strain of seasonal influenza is stalking us. Add to that the probability of yet other viruses overlaying existing means we truly have to create a new human habitat and way of life.

To prevent major centers of illness and death, I take the position that we must brace ourselves, and embrace necessary change in our lifestyles and ways of living, playing and working; i.e., manage our society in response to conditions, as we always have done. Having been born in 1946, I clearly recall our “preparedness” for a nuclear war with the Soviets, and we mentally and emotionally adjusted to that possibility, which nearly came to pass during the Cuban missile crisis (actually at other times also, due to human errors). We can adjust to the threats of novel viruses also.

A lot of this management will be operative, outside of the theme of this book; for instance, increased tracking of each of us and who we cross paths with, whether we like it or not. Personally I am torn on this subject, but I can see that giving up some “privacy” in the interest of the common good, to minimize the spread of such contagions, would be acceptable. Since we have little true privacy anymore, and privacy in and of itself is a relative/subjective social parameter, more than likely whether we object or not, incrementally (and unconsciously) we will begin to think more in terms of America being a collective, a quasi-village, where the survival of all depends on the cooperation of individuals. Is this bad, I think not, and no civilization is static: the Athenians of ancient Greece lived in a world where the whole of their society was the ruling ethos.

Such matters we will just have to wait and see how it all “shakes out,” but regardless we can begin to lay the ground work for changes in how we design buildings and facilities for the future. The previous chapter identified the three main elemental lessons we have learned, those being sanitization, separation (or “distancing”) and isolation. So let’s look at each of these more closely, drawing down on the implications to design.

The ability to sanitize contact surfaces is extremely important. As mentioned, perhaps technology will produce materials that are not conducive to germ growth and are even germicidal. This would fall into a category we can call “inherently sanitizing.” We also mentioned that facilities can (should) be designed that provide for the cleaning/sanitizing of public transportation ground vehicles on an efficient, fast and mass scale, so that transit companies can clean all their equipment daily if not twice a day perhaps. Obviously commercial passenger airplanes need a similar cleaning, and no doubt greater inroads will be made in this regard, but that is beyond the theme of this book. For the purpose of this book, I will call such vehicle cleaning “large vehicle atmospheric sanitizing” implying methods which use steam or gas envelopment in the process.

Perhaps there are some young geniuses out there who can find ways to design grocery carts that are self-sanitizing, or have built-in alarms to detect the virus and alert persons if contaminated (there are face masks being developed to detect/alarm the presence of virus in the wearer). Necessity is the mother of invention it is said, and the door is open for many kinds of inventions at this time to fight this and future viruses.

With respect to building design, industries need to consider materials that do not allow a virus to live long if deposited on the surface of an object, whether it be seats, handrails, elevator buttons or door knobs, or anything touched, especially by multiple people. It is obvious that things like point-of-sale devices need to be essentially hands free but they are not presently. Likewise gas station pumps are another source of transmission, so anything that can be done to mitigate transmission via pump handles would be great! We could make a very, very long list of objects that are ripe for attention by inventors.

Already public transportation vehicles, in New York City, and elsewhere, are getting thorough and frequent sanitizing, but these are “make do” solutions, and better, permanent facilities should be looked at. There should be ways to run train cars and busses through enclosures where the air space can be flooded with steam and even disinfecting aerosols such as alcohol. It also should be clear that there should be a limit on the number of passengers, with passengers not crammed together. A system could be designed to alert the driver, and even block new boarding passengers if the bus is beyond boarding limit. Bus scheduling would need to be upgraded to account for passenger loading, using a wireless system back to central control; messages could be dispatched to riders alerting them when busses would arrive that they can actually board.

Hopefully we will at large also experience an awakening to practice better hygiene. I could not count the number of times in my own life I have witnessed people not washing their hands leaving the restroom, or coughing without covering, or coughing in their hand then reaching out to greet someone else! Surely the episode we are living through now will have a corrective influence on this, and social-shaming likely will play a role.

Generally new design should avoid creating and even eliminating, or at least controlling, common spaces where persons during “pre-coronavirus” days would congregate or be in close proximity. Besides elevator lobbies, such things as public water fountains should be done away with. Add to the list vending machines that require contact for selection and paying, and let’s throw in coffee bars or other self-service food locations, including conventional cafeteria serving. This types of spaces beg for new technology, new processes and inventions, and no doubt these will begin to be brought to the marketplace.

One of the most direct and possibly effective means of minimizing viral contact transmission can be achieved by appropriate “architectural” design of spaces where people touch building or fixtures. If there are less things to touch, then that is good, so architects should consider very austere designs that provide for minimal opportunity for hands to come in contact with common area surfaces. Let’s add this to our beginning list of nomenclature: “contact minimization.”

The second of our three lesson rubrics is segregation (distancing). This one factor will likely be the most controversial as discussions ensue along the lines of this book. The implication is that a building design give strong consideration to using more area per person to facilitate distancing. Obviously there are many “twists” to this issue, depending on the type of facility and facility usage, but it is one that should be enrolled in the building codes and standards over time. My opinion is that this factor must be considered in the context of the holistic building functional design, with various synergies and trade-offs considered. I will give this factor the name, “flexible organic space design.”

One factor stands to add greatly to the cost of a building facility, that beingisolation.” Actually this factor overlays with at least other design variables such as air filtration and fresh air intake and building air exhaust, all of which are routinely included in the design of air conditioning systems for any type of building. Therefore, besides being perhaps the most costly other than the spatial requirements, this factor should also be the easiest to implement within the design governance regime. Researchers need to study how outdoor “fresh” air can be brought into the indoors in all types of facilities, but particularly such areas as nursing homes. Over 150 years ago Florence Nightingale saw the benefit of leaving windows open, and as a first grader I remember how nice it was to feel the breeze coming through the large windows of our one room country schoolhouse. Also technology will no doubt provide additional means of cleaning building air that we breathe, to rid that air of germs. Technologies have been around for many years to do this, but advancements are needed to provide effective application in all types of buildings.

Throughout my career, I enjoyed designing electrical illumination systems. As we moved into the 21st Century, energy conservation codes required that the “watts per square foot” of lighting energy “allowances” decrease, with more stringent requirements imposed every few years. Concomitant with more efficient electrical lighting systems and applications, architects began open up spaces for the entry of more sunlight to penetrate into the building interiors. The use of “free lighting” from the Sun has been around for centuries, but in recent times it has become known that sunlight has positive effects on the microbiome, often decreasing the lifespan of germs harmful to us, the inhabitants. So, the need is strong presently for more research into the effectiveness of sunlight in killing or at least mitigating novel viruses and other pathogens. Particularly, facilities for the care of the elderly and infirm, as well as hospitals, should be seriously studied toward designing for sunlight to reach into spaces not normally “day lighted.”

We must also look to technological advancements that provide integrated solutions to specific design challenges. Robotics, automation and artificial intelligence will certainly can play huge roles in performing tasks or helping people make choices that mitigate human exposure and the spread of disease; for instance, as I mention later in the book, robotics or automation could be used to deliver food and drinks at large sports venues and theaters. The technology exist and it is merely the adaptation and integration to specific requirements that is needed.

The broad-scope lessons we will take away from COVID-19 will influence the future built environment either through voluntary, common-sense initiatives by architects, engineers and builders, but due to the inherent cost of deep design factors, it is imperative that these lessons find life in standards, codes and guidelines for design. While codes tend to be state or municipality-driven, influenced by national standards, standards and guidelines are the work of professional and not-for-profit orgs.

Unfortunately even when it comes to life safety, health and public welfare, politics holds sway, often checking forward progress in those sectors. While I have personally found encouragement recently in seeing a great deal of cross-party cooperation, the fact is that this country is more divided politically than at any time in our history. So the depth and rapidity of needed changes in standards and codes will depend a great deal on the outcome of the 2020 elections, sad to say. We can expect delays and push-back by conservatives to proposals that increase costs and impose greater governance on building owners and realty developers, if Republicans hold sway after 2020. It takes 2–3 years or longer for changes to codes to be agreed upon and incorporated into documents, and these also typically have to be approved and adopted at the municipal level, although more and more states are using state-adopted codes, especially those pertaining to energy conservation. However, I do believe that the lessons we have learned are so basic that needed changes will be embraced regardless of politics.

Most likely what we will see over the next few years, knowing that most professionals, whether architects, engineers or those serving on various professional committees that develop recommended changes are dedicated to doing what is best for the public and occupants of buildings, is that designs will in time reflect the lessons we are learning. Questions touching on the “anti-pathogen” issues will be raised during early “stakeholder sessions” which will inform the conceptual design criteria for projects, and the following design stages. Through discussion, deliberation and weighing of costs and benefits, little by little projects will began to include considerations that reflect the threats and vulnerabilities we are discussing.

One avenue toward affecting change will also take place in the publications and meetings of the many professional societies, and the many more committees and sub-committees of these orgs. People not unlike myself will write technical papers, peer-reviewed, addressing various such issues in the context of specific buildings (e.g., food processing plants) or building systems (e.g., air conditioning), and these will see broad audiences which often inform and drive topical discussions in forums and major annual meetings. I have no doubt whatsoever that slowly the topics of the discussion at hand will find their way into the reality of building design. My concern is will this happen quickly enough through this innate process, or is a greater impetus needed? I believe the latter is, given we have no idea how soon we may be faced with other novel viruses or laboratory-designed pathogen releases (whether accidentally or as an act of terrorism). The fact that COVID-19 will be with us far into the future, coupled with the other mutating influenza strains, should really support the rationale for the Federal government to provide an umbrella to the overall process.

Initially there will be increased cost to affect these new design accommodations, but the payback over the decades will reap returns that make the investments one of the best we can make as a Nation. Given we spend far and away too much on our military, with what are arguably no returns, spending on fortifying the environments we spend most of our time within only makes sense. The reduction in health cost, lost work time, not to mention saving lives and widespread economic disaster warrants such investments. The only question should be the best means and methods of allocating public and private funds, which ultimately become political; however, I believe the largest lesson to come out of the current pandemic is that we must work together, regardless of political views, toward rebuilding for the future.

Codes and standards bodies such as the International Code Council (ICC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), The Joint Commission (JC), and the Facilities Guidelines Institute (FGI) are just a few such. Professional organizations such as The American Institute of Architects, American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and many others provide the caldron for intense discussion of new challenges and ideas. I should note that ASHRAE has already stepped up with information to its members on such subjects as its Position Document on Infectious Aerosols.

While it may be wishful thinking, especially given that all of our Federal and state government agencies are (at the time of this book being written) attending to the exigencies of the catastrophe, we need to see coming out of this, posthaste, a directed and organized approach to changing and/or creating the aforementioned codes and guidelines. Given that the development and release of such controlling design documents can take several years to run the course of getting final sign-off, we cannot afford to dally in starting this activity. In my opinion there should be a special executive position created within the Administration, a “czar” who would be in charge of this effort, coordinating with Federal and state agencies and public and private professional organizations related to the design and safety of all types of facilities, from healthcare to schools, from food processing to pharmaceutical manufacturing, and so on.

(to be continued….)