Creating Your Safe Space

Office design standard of care in the COVID-19 era

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Change is coming, and years of architect experience in the design of commercial office space, restaurants, and schools are going to be tested by the advent of COVID-19. This test will not be the final exam but rather a pop quiz, as new biological challenges will continue to emerge and be dealt with by those professionals charged with designing our work and recreation environments.

Notwithstanding the stunning advances that medical science has made in the last two centuries, addressing newly emerging pathogens that cross into the human population due to mutating DNA and dangerous sanitary and eating practices will be a continuing challenge. A different war may need to be fought each time a pandemic-causing virus emerges, and architects, not just doctors, will be at the forefront of that battle.

Open-plan office design was only recently perceived to be a facilitator of intra-office communication and collaboration. Today, it is perceived as an impediment to returning to work. The sharing of virus-laden droplets of breath is viewed as anathema, and businesses all across the world are struggling to find new solutions to this new problem.

Think about the myriad pathways for the transmission of pathogens that exist in an office, a restaurant, or a school. Something as simple as using the bathroom presents multiple pathways for infection. Architects will have to devise ways to limit the exposure of building occupants to disease. Something as simple as opening the bathroom door has turned into an act of bravery. Sure, you can bump it open with your elbow on the way in, but how do you get out without exposing yourself to germs when you have to pull the handle to exit after carefully washing your hands for 20 seconds? Do you wash your hands again after you push the knob to dispense your paper towel, or do you grab your paper towel before you wash your hands and use it to grab the handle on your way out, hoping that there is a nearby waste container to accept your three-point shot from the safety of the hallway? Or does the architect of the next decade address this simple process with a bathroom door that swings both ways and motion sensor-equipped paper towel dispensers?

What about work stations? Unless they are separated by larger distances, they almost have to become self-contained “sani-pods” where people can work without worrying about being exposed to the unprotected hack or sneeze from the next station over. I am certain that office furniture vendors are already pitching their solutions to architects and interior designers. Temporary solutions will surely abound until employers can offer their employees safe workspaces constructed of materials impregnated with the latest in antibacterial agents.

HVAC design will also certainly be affected. How many air changes per hour above the customary 4-12/hr will be considered to be “safe,” and who will decide? Can air changes of up to 30/hr be far off, and how do you retrofit an existing HVAC system to deliver that capacity?

As of April 20, 2020, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) was already recommending lowering building populations in order to increase the effective dilution ventilation per person. In addition, ASHRAE was recommending disabling demand-controlled ventilation, increased air filtration, fully opening outdoor air dampers in order to decrease recirculation during more temperate seasons, and even using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation to protect people in high-risk spaces such as waiting rooms and lobbies, both of which may become things of the past.

Certain challenges will be difficult to meet with purely design-related considerations. The average hallway in an office does not permit two parties to pass and still maintain proper social distancing, and the same holds true for elevators. Will the use of stairs become more common, and will social distancing measures dicate that some stairs become “up only” and others “down only”?

What about breakrooms? Let’s face it, most breakrooms (or their refrigerators, at least) were already hotbeds of disease. Swamping out the old abandoned lunch containers once a month will no longer suffice. Encouraging people to eat at their workspaces and getting their coffee outside the office will become de rigueur. Deeper and more regular cleanings will become standard operating procedure.

All of this will have an attendant cost. The temptation for the already financially distressed employer will be to cut corners. Knowingly cutting corners on worker health protection measures will probably deprive the employer of the workers’ compensation claim bar. Accordingly, these are corners that cannot be cut. Employers will increasingly turn to their architects and engineers to find cost-effective solutions to these problems.

How much thought are you giving to the advice you plan to offer these policyholders? Have you considered what liability exposure that advice could create for you? Standards of care are not etched in stone; they are constantly evolving, especially in times of trouble. Insurers must evolve with them, or be left behind. 

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About The Authors
Lawrence Powers

Lawrence Powers is the co-partner in charge of Hoagland Longo’s construction industry practice group.

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