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Measuring a pandemic’s impact on the built environment

Pandemics have had an historic tragic impact on cities, including the architecture and city planning of the built environment. The bubonic plague wiped out at least a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century and helped inspire the radical urban improvements of the Renaissance. 

Cities cleared filthy and overcrowded living spaces, expanded their borders, developed early quarantine facilities, created larger and more open public spaces and deployed professionals with specialized expertise, including surveyors, engineers and architects.

Yellow fever and smallpox outbreaks in the 18th and 19th centuries helped drive innovations like broad boulevards, city-wide sewer systems, indoor plumbing, disease mapping and the early suburbs. 

Tuberculosis, typhoid, polio and Spanish flu breakouts in the 20th century prompted urban planning, slum clearance, tenement reform, waste management and, Modernism itself with airy spaces, single-use zoning (separating residential and industrial areas, for instance), cleaner surfaces and emphasis on sterility.

The current pandemic – COVID-19 – is having an intense effect on our built environment. We are looking at a “new tomorrow” – a “new abnormal” – and a “business as unusual.” What impacts will result from this pandemic? Here are a few thoughts.

Speed of Design and Construction

This pandemic has created the need for speed in design and construction. Creative and innovative solutions were needed to rapidly meet the critical needs for emergency facilities, quarantine centers, testing sites and temporary housing. Non-traditional methods were needed and one great example is modular construction – meaning prefabrication of standardized components off-site and then assembling them on-site. Modular construction benefits were dramatically shown in the construction of the 1000 bed hospital space in Wuhan, China in about 2 weeks. 

Modular construction offers customization in addition to speed. Flexible components like movable walls help buildings adapt to needs. A hospital, for example, can shift or enlarge treatment and quarantine spaces, or open up new spaces to accommodate ICU beds. The temporary 2900 bed hospital at Javits Center in New York demonstrates this flexibility.

Adaptive reuse 

The use of existing buildings to serve newly relevant purposes is a strategic way to speed up the creation of needed space. Adaptive reuse has been gaining popularity even before COVID-19. It is regarded as a sensitive, sustainable approach for our aging built environment. It has now proven to be the most efficient way to create emergency facilities.  

Dramatic adaptive reuse examples are seen in the New Orleans Convention Center as a 3,000-bed facility, and Chicago’s McCormick Place as a 3,000-bed complex. Less conventional conversions include: FEMA converting a Wall Street high-rise into additional bed space; the Navy deploying supertankers converted into floating hospitals, to New York and Los Angeles, respectively; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers converting hotels, dormitories, sports arenas and other buildings into temporary hospitals.

The Healthy Building

We spend 90% of our life indoors. People under Stay at Home orders feel trapped at home during quarantine. People have become acutely aware of the shortcomings of their indoor environments. This awareness is increasing as people contemplate returning to work in buildings for their jobs. Building owners and facility managers will be challenged by higher expectations of building occupants for a healthy building.  

The healthy building movement is gaining additional support due to the pandemic. There will be many new strategies to improve health through greater natural light, improved ventilation, fewer toxic substances and the incorporation of plants and other natural materials. 

Ventilation standards were originally based upon infectious diseases. However, this changed when more emphasis was placed on energy savings and the focus shifted to energy efficiency. The most valuable healthy building technology during the pandemic has been advanced ventilation, particularly in hospitals. These technologies include negative air pressure (which keeps pathogens from spreading to other parts of a hospital), displacement ventilation (in which cooler air enters from below and lifts contaminants), clean air ventilation (which brings in fresh air, rather than recirculating existing air), and various filtration and humidity systems.

Telecommuting enhanced via virtual meeting platforms

Working remotely using collaborative virtual meeting platforms has been enhanced during this pandemic. People are keeping their “physical distance” while maintaining “social” connections through the use of Zoom, GoTo Meetings, Skype, Team, etc. Working remotely has become the standard during this pandemic. A big question is how much of our changed human behavior will stay with us and for how long?

Increased investment in technology and innovation of building systems

Skilled labor shortages in construction will increase if the physical-distancing measures and restrictions on cross-border movement continue.  Stronger technologies such as 4D simulation, digital workflow management real-time progress tracking and advanced schedule optimization must be used to increase productivity.

R & D expenditures will increase to develop new standardized building systems to speed up and automate elements of design and construction. More automation of on-site and back-office processes is expected.

We are becoming more interconnected and must embrace a new set of skills and tools that are more flexible, holistic and responsive. NOW is the time for architects, engineers and constructors to take a new look at our built environment to address the complex contemporary challenges through innovation. We cannot wait to take action until after the next pandemic.

Glenn Ebersole is a professional engineer and is the Business Development Manager for CVM and CVMNEXT Construction in King of Prussia. He can be reached at [email protected] or 610-964-2800, ext. 155.

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