Real Leaders

‘First Line of Defense’: COVID-19 Prompts Rethink In Role of Buildings

A rendering of strategies for reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic included in an American Institute of Architects publication. Handout image courtesy of VMDO

From office workers to students, Americans facing colder weather and more time inside have a pressing question: How can they keep safe amid a pandemic that scientists say thrives in indoor settings?

The search for answers has prompted a new look at what architects and their buildings can do to help, both now and in the future.

“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,” said Rachel Gutter, president of the International WELL Building Institute.

“That’s a real shift in how we think about buildings,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Gutter and her colleagues oversee a global set of standards for buildings aimed at promoting the health of their occupants.

Some 4,900 projects in more than 60 countries are currently at some stage in the voluntary WELL certification process.

In September, the institute launched a major update that includes coronavirus-specific changes that it began piloting this summer, the result of work by about 600 public health officials, government officials, designers and more.

Last month, a group of U.S. scientists warned in an open letter published in the medical journal Science that infected aerosols – small droplets and particles – lingering in the air could be a major source of COVID-19 transmission.

The letter called on public health officials to highlight the importance of moving activities outdoors and improving indoor air, along with wearing masks and social distancing.

“COVID-19’s favorite season is winter – like the seasonal flu, this virus loves the cold,” Gutter said.

“Indoor air quality considerations will be of even greater importance in regions of the world that are preparing for winter.”

The changes to the WELL recommendations highlight the need to limit touch as people move through a building, safely disinfect surfaces and more, in particular boosting indoor air quality, Gutter said.

Interest in the coronavirus guidance has been enormous, and implementation has been “lightning fast”, she said, adding that about 350 million square feet (32.5 million square meters) of space has been newly registered with the institute since June.

Other building certification systems have rolled out new guidance, too, including LEED – or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – which focuses on environmental impact and has been widely adopted across the globe.

“The pandemic has really shone a spotlight on, ‘What is my indoor air quality like, and why does that matter?'” said Melissa Baker, senior vice president of LEED development at the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees the system.

“These are the questions that tenants will be asking their landlords now.”


Months into the pandemic, designers are tracking changes in how people interact with buildings and trying to see how they can help make the indoors healthier, said Rachel Minnery, a senior director with the American Institute of Architects.

“Here we are, almost every building except your home is considered unsafe,” she said.

“What role can the built environment play … so hopefully we’re not in quarantine for the next two years?”

Design tweaks could start with a user’s entry into a building, Minnery noted, through vestibules and queuing areas to facilitate temperature checks or social distancing.

Architects are also incorporating one-way doors and hallways, spreading workstations farther apart, deploying touchless technologies and upgrading air-filtration systems, she added.

The demands are forcing designers to learn about a range of new issues.

“I’m not an epidemiologist – I’m an architect,” said Jenine Kotob, who works just outside Washington with Hord Coplan Macht (HCM), a national firm.

When the pandemic hit, Kotob and her colleagues started participating in emergency workshops with public health experts.

“They defined for us a baseline of understanding, the knowledge base that any architect now needs to be aware of: how infectious diseases are transferred,” she said.

In a survey of real estate experts around the world released by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Urban Land Institute in October, 90% of respondents said certification of healthy offices will likely rise in coming years.


The pandemic is also shifting thinking in terms of how buildings can help with the way communities function more broadly, from wellbeing to work.

“The thing that’s different about COVID is we’re focusing not only on physical wellness but also emotional wellbeing,” said Donald Powell, a partner at the BOKA Powell architecture firm based in Texas.

“That’s the hurdle all corporations have to cross before employees will come back to the workplace.”

In response to client queries on how to entice workers back to the office, Powell said he and his colleagues are considering on-site child care and even classrooms, aimed at parents who are home-schooling and want to come back to work.

Schools have been a high-profile point of contention throughout the pandemic, and a growing number in the United States are contemplating how to open back up.

“Without school buildings able to come back online during the pandemic, the longer we stretch it out, the longer we will see repercussions to our society,” said HCM’s Kotob.

She and her colleagues are being asked to repurpose cafeterias, libraries and other large gathering spaces to create multiple smaller classrooms, all while adhering to local regulations and social distancing guidance, she said.

The need for these changes has underscored the chronic underfunding of public schools, Kotob noted.

U.S. elementary facilities face a shortfall of $38 billion a year, according to advocacy group [Re]Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition.

Pending legislation would provide $5 billion for emergency school repairs as part of a pandemic relief package, which could go toward improving sanitation and upgrading air-filtration systems, for example.

“What we’ve seen in the pandemic is there are specific issues that have gone unaddressed for so long – air quality, overcrowded conditions, access to the outdoors – that can’t be tabled any longer,” said Kotob.

That kind of thinking is prompting broader recognition of the notion of health as a human right and its links with buildings, said Gutter at the International WELL Building Institute.

“Many of us have now been cooped up in our homes for months, so we’re much more tuned in to these impacts on our health,” she said.

“The way we build affordable housing, construct our schools – what would happen if we embraced the notion that these could enhance rather than take away from our health and wellbeing?”

By Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary.

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