At the time of writing, at the end of May, it is uncertain how the story of COVID-19 will play out, and whether we will find a vaccine. Will there be further waves of the virus, and will societies need to adapt to co-exist with COVID-19 or other pandemics? The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control states that “it is increasingly recognised that we will be living with COVID-19 for many months, or even years. This disease will continue to affect our lives for some time to come.”
The Health and Safety Executive has reminded employers that the risk of work-related exposure to COVID-19 must be assessed and managed. Architects therefore face additional challenges. They must, due to the CDM Regulations, seek to identify risks presented through the life of their proposed building or structure and seek proportionate design solutions. By extension, architects should consider how their designs could influence and mitigate exposure to COVID-19.
As a starting point, architects could refer to the current, sector-specific government guidance to understand how workplaces of the future may need to function.
Broadly, this guidance follows the CDM principles of prevention, with measures to avoid people coming into work being the most effective option and PPE being the last. They also follow basic infection control principles – which will be familiar to architects working in health care settings.
Protecting construction workers
Architects can help protect construction workers by:
- Increased use of modern methods of construction. It can be easier to control movement of people and hygiene in offsite manufacturing facilities, rather than in dynamic construction sites.
- General arrangement/site layout plans providing more widely distributed welfare facilities to support frequent handwashing, outside eating areas or one-way pedestrian routes through the site.
- Project phasing or programmes being organised to prevent multiple trades working in the same area (which could of course extend the overall programme).
Project teams can consider developing COVID-19 or pandemic strategies alongside their designs in the same way that we presently develop fire, access and maintenance or handover strategies. This would explain how the design supports pandemic resilience. For example, some measures could be employed flexibly depending on whether, at that time, the COVID-19 risk is higher or lower. These would include:
- Reducing the need for people to come into work
IT infrastructure can support remote and flexible working. Lessons can be taken from higher education with the use of video capture technology for meetings and training events.
- Designing to achieve two-metre separation distance and good personal hygiene
This requires careful consideration of the position of workstations, access routes and so on. This crisis could prompt moves back to more traditional, cellular designs (or use of flexible partition systems). One-way systems and separate access and egress points could help reduce breaches of the two-metre separation distance.Smaller welfare facilities distributed widely throughout the building could support more frequent hand-washing and enable areas or teams to become self-contained. In the event of someone becoming ill, the virus is less likely to be transmitted beyond that team.
Outdoor spaces or roof terraces could be turned into meeting spaces (with suitably protected electrical sockets).
- Managing visitors
The use of electronic information boards, wayfinding apps or ‘remote reception’ facilities using digital screens will reduce physical contact between visitors and front of house staff. If reception facilities are still needed, screens can help protect front of house teams.Designated visitor meeting rooms close to the entrance will minimise visitors’ contact with the building. At a time of heightened COVID-19 risk, similar measures could be used to control interactions between teams in the same building.
Materials can be selected for their ease of cleaning and their resistance to the virus (e.g. the World Health Organisation indicates that the virus can live up to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces and 4 hours on copper REF 4).
We might anticipate living with COVID-19 for years to come. Architects can help clients find pragmatic and creative solutions that enable core functions to continue while safeguarding the health of people and the business.