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Distancing Design – Re-entering the Built Environment, Post COVID-19

We have begun returning to the office, the classroom and certain social gathering places such as restaurants, but it is not business as usual. 

The office and class-rooms will look different, function different and be utilized different. The focus on health, safety, density and security now have entirely new meanings and high-quality property and facilities management are more important than ever.

The physical office and classroom space will continue to facilitate interaction, collaboration and innovation and ultimately, personal health, wellbeing and productivity. But we must approach these spaces in a different way as we move forward. 

Flexibility will be critical to accommodate rapid change in these built environments. For some institutions, the Learn/Work from Home (L/WFH) policies have been effective and will continue. But touch down points catering to face-to-face or group meetings promoting connections and collaboration will still be needed as social connections are key to innovation. 

As we are in summer, out-door amenities have risen in significance, foregoing the enclosed built environment and cultivating these social interactions.

Recommendations for Re-entry

Processes, protocols, clear workable agreements, and rules of conduct must put the safety of everyone first. In our opinion, the most crucial element in returning to the office or classroom is to understand the occupants’ needs and maintaining communication.

Significant collaboration will be needed between building owners, administration, tenants, employees and governments to address the challenges that lie ahead.  Clear communication and education will ensure a smooth “re-entry” with new guidelines and expectations. 

We suggest designating a small core team for all communication to maintain a consistent message for a smooth journey back to today’s new normal. Facility managers may want to refer to IFMA (International Facility Management Association) guidelines and protocols for further information.

Bringing offices, universities, military and health institutions back on-line without these considerations brings vulnerability for the secondary waves of contamination that our nation is currently trying to ward off. Those with dining, living or other spaces that cater to large groups must be re-evaluated and ensure adequate social distancing so they can safely function. Estimating usage, monitoring density, flow and creating flexibility to adjust protocols will be critical for reentry. 

New work-flow diagrams will allow people to walk safely through spaces avoiding congestion points. For example, single way directional flows should be implemented such as one stair-case for up-traffic: a different one for down. These specific plans and new way finding should be visually displayed for all inhabitants to utilize properly.

Depending on the size of an organization, scheduled lunch or dining shifts can alleviate clustering around kitchens, microwaves, and dishwashers. New space plans mandating social distancing policies for public socializing, open offices and common areas will be needed such as eliminating every other desk or table. To limit the number of people in a space at a certain time, staggered workforce hours and class schedules, fewer chairs at tables and posting capacity signage are quick and easy fixes.

Building occupants can stay healthy by requiring Temperature Checks with COVID health questionnaires of anyone who enters the buildingzs. Installing sanitation stations in common spaces and posting the documentation of the more frequent cleaning schedules will also be required.

Reduction of “Touch-Factors” utilizing motion detectors, new automation, and voice technology such as Amazon’s Alexa for automatic doors, lights and elevator usage will be helpful for safe common spaces.  

Bathrooms are another issue for maintaining sanitized surfaces.  Installing motion sensor lights, toilet flushing, faucets, soap, and paper towel dispensers are simple solutions. 

 Hand washing must be approached as both an infrastructure and a behavioral issue. Water temperature, vigilant refilling of soap dispensers, and dynamic signage should also be mandatory.

Retrofit the Built Environment

While social distancing may seem, hopefully, a temporary action, an eye toward open spaces, enabling and encouraging people to spread out, may be a better option. While physical barriers will be used in the short term, a more long-term architectural solution can be developed with space planning. 

New furniture may be needed that has antimicrobial fabrics or materials and adapting workstations for all employees to work safely will be required. In addition to these general retrofits, other new building upgrades may be required such as negative air pressure systems to prevent the spread of future infections. 

Implementation of biophilic design principles, which connects occupants to nature, is proven to have an immediate, positive impact on mental health. A living green/plant wall, nature-based wallpaper or framed artwork are some examples of ways to positively improve the human experience in the built environment.

What we do now will ensure that our communities maintain their vitality while protecting against similar scenarios in the future. We hope that some of these ideas will assist your organization as it transitions into this Post COVID-19 Era.

Benedict H. Dubbs, AIA, LEED AP has been a Principal since 2000 and leads Murray Associates Architect, P. C. with over 30 years’ experience. He is involved in most project phases, with focus on programming, interiors and sustainable design. Benedict is currently a member of the Corporate Affiliate Working Group for the Association of Independent College and University Association (AICUP), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and Preservation Pennsylvania.

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