WHAT IS COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a new disease caused by a novel strain of virus from the Coronavirus family, which has caused diseases previously known as SARS and MERS. Over a short period of time, this disease has evolved from a localized outbreak to a global pandemic. The speed and scale with which it propagates, itâ€™s severity, and itâ€™s severe socio-economic disruptions are defining characters of this pandemic. According to preliminary data from WHO of the infected populace, about 40% experience mild symptoms, 40% moderate symptoms, 15% sever symptoms, and 5% experience critical symptoms.
MODES OF TRANSMISSION
According to the UAE Ministry of Health & Prevention, this respiratory infection spreads through the contaminated droplets from an infected personsâ€™ sneeze or cough being breathed in by another or from people touching their eyes, nose, or mouth after coming into contact with any surface contaminated by these droplets.
LIFESPAN OF THE VIRUS
Data from research published on in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine state the lifespan of the COVID-19 virus (in room temperature and about 40-65% relative humidity) as follows:
â€˘ Printing & Tissue Paper - Upto 3 hours
â€˘ Copper - Upto 4 hours
â€˘ Cardboard - Upto 1 day
â€˘ Cloth Fabric & Wood - Upto 2 days
â€˘ Paper money & Glass - Upto 4 days
â€˘ Stainless steel & Plastic - Upto 7 days
â€˘ Outer layer of surgical mask - Over 7 days
Further studies discovered a viral envelope, a protective sheath around the COVID-19 virus which promotes itâ€™s survival in higher humidity, moderate to low temperatures, low winds, and solid surfaces. This also means that porous surfaces, low humidity and high temperatures lead to the breakdown of this envelope and thereby render the virus ineffective.
HOW HAS IT AFFECTED THE WORKPLACE?
The high speed and severity of this new disease has or threatens to overwhelm most of the worldâ€™s healthcare systems. As a result, Governments of the world have decided it best to employ stringent physical distancing measures and movement restrictions. Although these lockdowns and curfews help impede the spread of the disease, it has also led the world of business to slow down significantly and along with it, the global economy. With medication and vaccines yet to be developed and seemingly some time away, these physical distancing measures are likely here for some time.
Within the UAE, this means closing down many retail spaces and offices, and having the majority of non-essential employees work from home, or in staggered shifts. Sadly, these restrictions have impacted the ability of many businesses to stay afloat and there is an urgent need to plan for a phased shift away from total lockdown to rejuvenate the slowing economy whilst maintaining low levels of transmission.
ASPECTS OF DESIGN THAT CAN MAKE AN IMPACT ON VIRUS TRANSMISSION
With the onset of the remote working protocols, businesses worldwide have begun to reconsider the necessity to follow densely packed open plan trends that evolved from mimicking big tech Silicon Valley firms with communal work areas intended to promote collaboration. Over the years, companies have tried to pack more into less urban real estate, leaving very little personal working space to employees. Given our experience with the current pandemic, this is all very likely to change in upcoming designs, with emphasis not limited to improving the behavioral trends within the workplace but also in terms of physical changes such as signage promoting observance of personal space and good hygiene, physical barriers, automated access controls with minimal physical touch-buttons, ventilation and air circulation, anti-microbial work surfaces, and easy to sterilize designs. In chapter three of this 4-part blog series, we will explore the various physical changes geared to containment of viral transmission that are likely to be seen in post-pandemic office designs.
In addition to the behavioral changes in the future of workplaces, discussed in the first part of this four-part series, we are also likely to see noticeable physical changes in upcoming office designs. Some of these may be seen as retrofits to existing design whereas some may require a complete overhaul. We will now discuss some of the aspects that may find popularity in upcoming office designs including but not limited to the promotion of awareness, detection, containment, and disinfection.
To supplement efforts through awareness and detection, companies would also need to focus on containing transmission within the office through the use of various design elements. The following content will focus on prospective elements of design that will work to contain the spread of disease within the workplace.
With the workplace behavioral changes discussed earlier including continued remote working practices and reduced employee density, there is a likelihood to steer away from recent trends of shrinking personal work surfaces. The availability of more space as a result of reducing workplace density will allow us to accommodate larger workstations giving employees more personal space to work with.
Similarly, the decline of open plan office designs that pose the threat of quick transmission within the workplace will pave the way to a comeback for cubicle-based designs that give importance to barriers and partitioning spaces. Modular designs where barriers can be setup and dismantled based on requirement are also seeing emergence in the market. Thanks to scientific research, we now know that an uncovered cough can travel at about 80km/hr and reach distances of up to 1.8m whereas an uncovered sneeze can travel as fast as 160km/hr and can reach as far as 6m. All the more reason to setup barriers to stop these germs from flying around. This does not necessarily mean a comeback for the bulky and unpleasant looking partitions of the past but more a sleeker transparent/translucent variant that does not visibly isolate occupants while at the same time performing its primary function as a sneeze-guard to prevent the flow of germs across the office floor.
NO-TOUCH BUTTONS / ACCESS CONTROLS
These precautionary measures will also find its way to influence the use of tactile buttons and access control systems within the office. The future of these systems is likely to see growth in popularity of smart switches and access control terminals that can be operated remotely without need for touch. Our hands carry various pathogens that are easily transmitted to any surface we come in contact with. Switches, finger print access control, push to release buttons, etc. are all surfaces that are likely to be hotspots for microbe transmission. The popularity of fingerprint systems are likely to carry over to mobile operated access control systems. These systems will allow for remote unlocking without the need for direct touch, and also provide two-factor authentication using facial recognition and/or biometric sensing options available in personal mobile phones for access to areas of higher security. These smart systems not only reduce touch-based transmission but they also have a few perks such as remote unlocking, remote lockdown, instant guest passes, real-time door schedule changes, real-time alerts and higher integration possibility. Similarly, motion/activity sensors, smart AC regulators, proximity sensors or radar/no-touch switches will likely replace any touch-based alternatives that pose higher risk. Foot operated switches are also seeing a rise in popularity.
DISPOSABLE WORK SURFACE LINERS
In addition to the changes to workstation design discussed, some design houses suggest the adoption of disposable work surface liners. These liners are meant to be used when users occupy a desk and be thrown away after use. Its purpose is to provide a temporary protective surface to collect majority of the germs that are expelled from the deskâ€™s occupant rather than have the bare work surface collect microbes. This might be useful especially in workplaces with staggered shift timings and where desks have more than one occupant through the day before a sterilization cycle initiates. This will ensure that majority of the previous occupantsâ€™ contaminants are removed before the next user comes in without the need for thorough and extensive cleaning.
Ensuring there is no cross traffic within the workplace is another means to avoid chances of transmission amongst employees. This means leaving all travel routes within the office one-way. Having dedicated exit and entry points to common spaces such as pantry, meeting/conference rooms, dining, breakout, collaborative spaces, etc. would help in this regard. This would require adequate signage to indicate entry-only and exit-only doorways and sufficient indicators to prompt users to follow the right travel direction when walking within the space.
ACCESS TO TISSUES / CLOSED BINS
Another aspect that will impact hygiene within the workplace is access to facial tissues and closed bins for all occupants of the space. The use of disposable facial tissues when having to sneeze or cough, or just to wipe the occupantâ€™s personal work space down after use is paramount to good respiratory hygiene, when and only when the used tissue is disposed into a closed bin.
Although most workspaces already provide these amenities, in the future this will indeed be more prevalent and there will be benefit to designs that emphasize its presence and promote its use to occupants.
PROPER AIR VENTILATION AND CIRCULATION
With a large majority of people in urban areas requiring/making use of centralized air conditioning to make life indoors comfortable, recirculated air carries with it the risk of transmission. Although not an airborne disease, the Covid-19 virus has been found to be able to stay afloat for long periods of time when suspended within an aerosol from the sneeze or cough of an infected individual. Various research bodies have stated the unlikelihood of HVAC equipment harboring and consequently spreading the COVID-19 virus across large distances through just the HVAC system. That said, indoor air is a major cause of concern when discussing respiratory wellness. Lapses in indoor air quality management can cause reduced immunity to further increase occupantsâ€™ susceptibility to respiratory infections.
1) INDOOR AIR QUALITY
Considering the amount of time spent indoors by the average city-dweller, indoor air quality has more of an impact on his/her respiratory health than any other factor. This air quality is influenced by various contaminants of chemical, particulate, and biological nature. Light and heat will tend to expel chemical contaminants into the indoor air from poorly quality building materials and furnishing/decorative elements within the space. Indoor particulate pollution comes mainly from the lack of adequate filtration of outdoor air laden with dust/particulates, and also due to a lack of sufficient isolation when performing renovation or fit-out work. Biological contaminants such as bacteria, viruses and fungi/mold thrive in HVAC systems when functioning at high humidity and left uncleaned or unused for extended periods of time. All these factors influence the indoor air quality within a space and subsequently the health and wellbeing of its occupants.
2) TEMPERATURE & HUMDITY
Although we do not have a definitive link between Covid-19 transmission, temperature and humidity, we do know that relative humidity over 80% and under 20%, along with cool temperatures allow the coronavirus to thrive. There has also been evidence that states warmer temperatures and 50% relative humidity hinder coronavirus survival as they have a negative impact on the virusâ€™ protective mucous membrane.
In addition to this, we also know that at higher relative humidity micro-droplets (suspending infectious microbes) descend more quickly as opposed to dry conditions. Very low relative humidity will impair the occupantâ€™s ability to defend themselves from airborne infectious microbes. These air-moisture levels combined with lower temperatures promote infectious biological contaminants within indoor spaces. Large HVAC systems often are unable to keep a good control of humidity levels within a space which is where additional humidity controllers come of use. As a result, humidifiers and dehumidifiers will be very beneficial to promote good air quality to indoor spaces of the future.
3) AIR FILTRATION
As mentioned with indoor air quality, good filtration is paramount to improving the wellbeing of users within an indoor space. Although most regular air filters are not designed to stop viruses, they hinder the spread of particulate matter the viruses are likely to attach onto. In light of the current pandemic, it would be beneficial to employ High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in areas of high traffic and therefore risk such as airports, hospitals, schools, quarantine/isolation rooms, public spaces, etc. In offices, areas of business and personal spaces, although HEPA filters are not deemed necessary industry recommendation point towards the use of high efficiency air filters (ePM1 80% or higher). Furthermore, maintenance guidelines advise not to wash or clean filters as part of maintenance but to ensure regular and timely replacement while taking adequate safety precautions when dismantling and disposing of used filters.
4) VENTILATION / CIRCULATION
Recirculation of indoor air is a large contributor to poor air quality and results from cumulative build-up of indoor air pollutants over time due to the lack of fresh air being introduced into an indoor space. Various researchers attribute higher number of transmission cases that occur indoors as opposed to the outdoors as being due to the increased risk of sustained exposure to the same air as an infected individual. This can be significantly reduced through systems that ensure good ventilation and improved circulation of air to specifically good respiratory health. Simply increasing air flow without increasing the inflow of fresh air will only increase transmission potential through higher volumes of contaminated air recirculation. This calls for an increase in the number of air exchanges that improve the ventilation and stopping or reducing recirculation as much as possible.
In addition to this, there may also be a need to rethink the current air-flow direction strategy employed to circulate air. Almost all current HVAC system designs employ ceiling to ceiling supply and return diffusers. This means the direction of air flow will keep any contaminants airborne for longer periods of time. Changes to design can try to eliminate this tendency to keep contaminants airborne, to allow contaminants to settle quicker.
Global professional society ASHRAE recommends flushing HVAC systems 2-hours before and post-occupancy, and to leave the windows open for buildings where treatment of large quantities of outside air is not possible and where the outside air conditions are moderate. This ensure the replacement of all air within the space and thereby reduces the risk from contaminant accumulation. They also recommend disinfection of HVAC machinery prior to opening up a space after lockdown as contaminants/pollutants can build over time in equipment left turned off.
HOW TO OVERCOME THE CURRENT CRISIS?
With the current global numbers standing at over 5 million infected individuals and over three hundred thousand global deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in just over 5 months, this is a crisis unlike any recent turmoil from recent history, we have faced as a planet. Lockdowns and strict restrictions although essential to curb the exponential spread of this disease, have crippled the global economy. Furthermore, with an effective treatment or vaccine months away from practical use, we must slowly look to formulate an effective guideline to reopen facilities. Well defined precautionary guidelines with all the essential aspects addressed is necessary to repair and rebuild the economy.
The above mentioned guidelines attempt to address aspects of office design that may see emergence in the future. When attempting to reopen or fit-out new office spaces, one must consider all the aspects discussed to ensure the office design attempts maximum reduction of transmission risk within the workplace.
ARE THESE MEASURES TEMPORARY / PERMANENT?
The current crisis has not only effectively brought our economy to a standstill, it has also revealed the weak points within our societal systems. Similarly, not only has the lockdown shut down workplaces, they have also revealed a need to rethink the design norms that exist within the current office. Some of the above discussed aspects are changes that can be seen to make an impact to long term office designs whereas some only have a short lifespans till the dangers of this crisis wear out. This means that certain aspects such as privacy screens and cubicle designs may be short-lived whereas more passive aspects of design that pose less economic strain in the long run to improve indoor air quality, improved hygiene standards/awareness, and anti-microbial surfaces may have more lasting impacts to the offices of the future.
Do you have trouble determining the appropriate design considerations to keep in mind when creating your ideal workplace in the post-COVID environment?