Building Codes and Design After COVID-19

By James Dudt and Mark Stefanak | Jun 09, 2020

Read Time: 7 minutes

Catastrophic events spur change. Natural disasters, nightclub fires, climate change – all of these have influenced how we approach building codes and design. In the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a new catastrophe, and it’s going to create change. Indeed, it already has, as business look for immediate solutions to protect employees and customers. As we look to the future, here are six changes in building code and design we expect to see for pandemic preparedness and public health.

Humidification is more frequently incorporated into building designs

We’ve known for a long time that a humidified environment is more pleasant to be in (less static, fewer nosebleeds, etc.). The appropriate level of humidification also cuts down on the transmission of viruses. (To learn more, see the references at the end of this ASHRAE white paper.)

Certain building standards already reflect the fact that better humidification is better for people. The WELL Building Standard incorporates humidity control into its building certification requirements. They call for 30-50% relative humidity at all times, or modeling that demonstrates you meet the requirement 95% of the time. ASHRAE 55, the standard for human thermal comfort, does not include a minimum humidity, but notes that “Nonthermal comfort factors, such as skin drying, irritation of mucus membranes, dryness of the eyes, and static electricity generation, may place limits on the acceptability of very low humidity environments.” However, designers rarely follow ASHRAE 55, and it isn’t generally incorporated into building codes.

Humidification is an added cost for both constructing and operating a building. But post-COVID-19, we might see a shift in the cost-benefit analysis: What’s the cost of adding humidification versus not doing anything?

As designers, developers, and consumers become more educated, we think that humidification will become part of the design conversation. Designers will begin recommending it, developers will ask whether they should consider it, and consumers will start asking for it.

For example, we anticipate that employers, particularly large corporations, will look at how they can make buildings a place where employees want to work. We also anticipate that employees (and potential hires) will become more educated consumers in terms of their workplace environment.

On the design side, increased humidification will require additional attention to the building envelope, to avoid condensation in or on the interior surface of the exterior envelope. Design teams will need to pay close attention to the vapor barrier during both design and construction.

Fresh attention to indoor air quality

Proper ventilation and filtration are the starting point for good indoor air quality. We expect to see movement in a few areas of building standards and design.

Increase the outside air ventilation. In recent years, building standards have decreased the amount of outside air to reduce energy use. But was that the right move? Have we been providing enough outside air into buildings? We believe that the working groups responsible for maintaining ASHRAE 90.1 (the energy standard) and 62.1 (ventilation for indoor air quality) will question whether we need to revise our approach to ventilation.

Add ventilation to existing buildings that don’t have it. Many existing buildings don’t have proper ventilation. Think of older churches with operable windows, no forced ventilation, no filtration, and everyone seated shoulder-to-shoulder for the candlelight Christmas service. Or consider buildings such as older schools, conditioned with perimeter heat and no way to ventilate. For the sake of people’s well-being, it might be time to add ventilation systems.

Implement other technologies to improve air quality. Options include HEPA filtration, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), and bipolar ionization.

An improved indoor environment will be paired with additional energy recovery requirements

Over the past 10-15 years, many of the changes in building codes and technology have been geared toward energy savings. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are now asking what we need to do to improve occupant health and safety.

As we work to improve the indoor environment, we’ll need to consider the energy implications. Indoor air quality improvements will increase buildings’ energy use. But in terms of the energy code, we don’t expect to see allowances for buildings to use more energy in order to improve the indoor environment. Rather, we think we’ll see a both-and scenario: changes to building design for occupant health combined with measures to offset the additional energy use.

One measure we might see is more code-required energy recovery. For example, a hotel might be required to provide sanitary waste heat recovery, even though the payback is not great.

We may also see required renewable energy sources to offset the increased energy use.

Screening areas become the norm

Currently, we’ve seen hospitals screening anyone coming into the building, taking people’s temperatures and verifying what they’ve been exposed to. In states like Ohio, part of re-opening any building includes a requirement for employee self-screening.

We wouldn’t be surprised if screening areas become a standard part of a building, like security booths. You walk in, sign in, answer some questions, and have a no-contact temperature scan. Screening areas could even become part of code for certain types of buildings with certain types of occupancies (for example, assembly occupancies). While it sounds like a hassle, this kind of change could be like the adjustments we all made after 9/11 - something that becomes part of our daily routine.

Similarly, we anticipate that employers will be more willing to send employees home if they’re sick. Employees come to work sick for many reasons, and we aren’t going to address the full issue here. Sometimes, though, it’s as simple as the mentality of, “If I’m going to be sick, I’d rather be sick at work.” They may think they aren’t contagious, or they just want to get out of the house. We might see employers requiring the use of PTO for screened, symptomatic employees, because they don’t want to be liable for disease spreading around the office. For social and religious activities, people may need to be told to stay home if they are sick.

Designated facilities incorporate surge hospital readiness

In the past two months, we’ve seen a variety of spaces transformed into temporary surge hospital facilities, along with a lot of creative ideas for fast space reconfigurations.

In the future, we might see the development of designated surge facilities: buildings like residence halls or hotels designed with built-in readiness for conversion to a surge hospital. These buildings would include design elements that make them easily adaptable in an emergency. For example, they might have the hooks-ups available for additional emergency generators or medical gas systems. The layout and system set up may be reviewed by healthcare design teams to plan for use as a surge facility.

We might also see a shift from PTAC units (which carry the risk of dirty or moldy filters that don’t get changed frequently enough) to a central system with humidification.

Preparing a building to serve as a surge facility would come at a cost. Perhaps it could be funded via FEMA or through a private-public partnership. For example, in a city like Columbus or Pittsburgh, there might be the need for one surge facility. When building a new hotel, the developer could apply for funding or a tax credit in return for incorporating surge hospital readiness into their facility and making it available in an emergency.

Office layouts will change (The death of the open office)

As a recent study from Buro Happold illustrates, even if a workplace reduces occupancy, people are still too close together to work while maintaining social distance.

Immediate renovations are already occurring so that people can return to the office. Measures include decreasing density, adding screening areas, and re-dividing office spaces. Depending on how extensive the renovations are, the HVAC and lighting may need modifications to accommodate the new layouts.

Moving forward, we’re likely to see social distancing play a role in how spaces are designed, the density of seating, and the allocation of space within the office environment. We may see increased requirements in the code for space per person or other nudges to decrease density in offices.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised important questions about how we design and construct buildings. In the face of catastrophe, we have opportunities to change the built environment for the better.

Dudt James Web

James Dudt

James Dudt is a principal of Karpinski Engineering. He engages with clients through the lifecycle of a project, and he leads KE’s Pittsburgh team.
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Stefanak Mark Web

Mark Stefanak

As a Senior Associate and Director of Mechanical, Mark Stefanak advises Karpinski teams through the life of a project, from initial concepts to quality reviews.
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