How architects are redesigning office space to protect workers

The reopening of businesses, colleges and other institutions in the midst of a global pandemic obviously creates unique challenges. Architects are being called upon to address these in ways that maximize health and safety, while allowing for as much normalcy as possible.     

Josh Millman, vice president at NuTec Design Associates, York, is a team leader on the American Institute of Architects’ national initiative developing best practices to reopen facilities from COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The trick is to come up with solutions that don’t cost any money, and can be quick,” Millman said. “We all need something to rely on; this is dangerous stuff.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus was on surface transmission. But it’s impossible to control every surface people touch, so frequent hand-washing is still strongly recommended. The major concern now is aerosol transmission and the key is avoiding systems where people face each other, Millman said. It may take longer to get around, but it’s a matter of health, he said.

So, the first order of business: get rid of vestibules. “They’re almost as bad as elevators,” he said. Next: keep separate entrances and exits, if possible, and make corridors one way only. The goal is to avoid convergence. 

Don’t share tools. Don’t swap work stations.

Then there are environments where it’s not safe to wear masks, and that presents more challenges, Millman said. The rule of thumb he uses is 6 feet of social distancing with a mask, 12 feet without.

“It’ll be Interesting to see if this becomes our new normal,” he said. “How will people permanently adapt?” 

Office and manufacturing

Millman wrote a blog post on the company’s website that identified five ways to protect manufacturing sites: building entry and exit, break/lunch room, other employee support facilities, production areas, and infection response.

There are numerous recommendations. Among them:

Rearrange tables to put six feet between diners in lunch/break rooms. Some suggest giving each diner have a separate, small table. Also, offer outside eating opportunities.

If possible, have multiple one-person restrooms and one-way corridors. Sinks, toilets, dryers, tissue and towel dispensers should be hands free. If smoking is allowed outside, tables and benches should promote social distancing.

Create a holding room for an employee who starts showing symptoms. Have this near a secondary exit so the person can be moved with minimum contact with others. Keep records of who was in the building so people who may have been exposed can be notified and self-quarantine.

In a blog post on the company’s website Christa Duelberg-Kraftician, a principal at Spillman Farmer Architects, Bethlehem, recommended replacing ductwork filters with MERV 13 filters and installing virus-killing UV lights, adding signs reminding workers the space is hands free, and making hand-sanitizing stations highly visible.

“Reconfiguring office layouts to accommodate six-feet separations while employees are seated at their workstation/offices and maneuvering through the space is vital,” she wrote. Adopt circular traffic patterns marked with directional arrows or other indicators.

And there are other recommendations: Remove guest chairs at desks, and keep aisles kept as wide as possible. If workstations are too close together, install dividers or have employees work in shifts so every other work station is occupied.

Don’t stand in groups around the copier or in the kitchen.

Encourage virtual meetings instead of in-person conference room gatherings, Duelberg-Kraftician wrote. In conference rooms, reduce the number of chairs by half and place remaining chairs 6 feet apart. Keep cleaning supplies on hand to wipe down seats, tables, remote controllers and speaker phones.

Colleges and schools

Duelberg-Kraftician has also worked with colleges on COVID-19 redesign.

She helps them meet social distance requirements, such as how many tables and chairs and where they should be arranged. And again she emphasized the importance of circular movement patterns, so students and others don’t pass each other.

When students enter a lecture, they should take the seats from back to front, and start in the middle of a row, so no one has to walk across or by anyone else, she said. And, if possible, “don’t go back out way you came in,” Duelberg-Kraftician said. 

Some colleges will mix virtual and in-person learning, so there aren’t as many students in a classroom. “There are a lot of different models out there,” she said, and each college adopts a plan unique to its situation. “It’s a challenge.”

One conceptual design by Spillman Farmer for a college accommodated 22 students – each one in a 24.4-square-foot hexagonal space – and a lecturer in a 690-square-feet classroom.

Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates, Mechanicsburg, contributed its expertise to the report A Clearing House of Resources to Aid in Reopening Schools, to help educators nationwide in reducing the risks of COVID-19 transmission and mitigating potential outbreaks.

The focus is how to repurpose buildings for social distancing, said John Beddia, principal/managing partner/director of operations. That also applies to projects in the planning stages. “Safety and security are hugely important,” he said.

This is about now and the long term, Beddia said. The challenge for school boards for future projects is accommodating the possible need for social distancing without doubling the square footage, he said.

One way the current need is being handled, for example, is to have kids eat lunch at their desks and not in a crowded cafeteria. Instead, the cafeteria becomes an instructional space, Beddia said.

School districts already use flexible furniture, and that helps create social distance, said Tracy Rohrbaugh, principal/partner/director of design and human resources.

Technology also plays a big role, including regulating indoor air quality, Beddia said.

Then there are the additional challenges. What do you do when only 25 members of the school band are allowed in one room at practice? Other accommodations have to be made.

Another sensitive issue is maintaining social distancing for students with special needs, said Larry Levato, a principal at Crabtree, Rohrbaugh.

Bethlehem’s Alloy5, which does branding as well as design, works with a wide variety of clients, including schools and colleges, businesses, restaurants and municipalities, said Bekah Rusnock, director of development.

 “We’re helping our neighbors and local businesses – all have different needs and circumstances,” Said Randy Galiotto, founding principal. 

Right now, the company is reprogramming buildings for social distancing, “as a way to keep everyone safe,” Rusnock said. For example, many k-12 schools don’t have original floor plans handy, and Alloy5 creates floor plans for them to sketch in what they want it do in the space they have, she said. “We can provide the visual; there’s a lot of value in that.”

The firm will also help communicate to the public what’s being done, Rusnock said.

Senior living and health care

RLPS Architects, Lancaster, works with senior living communities nationwide. Eric McRoberts, partner and lead designer, was one of the experts who contributed to the “AIA Guide for Safer Senior Living Communities.”

McRoberts said his mother, who moved into a retirement community right before COVID-19, and she wasn’t even allowed to go out when it hit. She was starting to regret the decision to live there, he said. “It was really tough.”

Senior living facilities are figuring out how to reopen common areas, such as dining rooms, while taking precautions. That means fewer people at a time, no buffets or salad bars – “a no-touch environment,” McRoberts said.

Smaller areas also can be converted to dining spaces, said Jodi Kreider, a partner in RLPS.

Retirement communities with a marketplace dining system, featuring made to order and grab and go offerings, have been well positioned to still be able to provide meal options during the pandemic, McRoberts said.

Those without it should consider this bistro-style setup, he said, because it provides flexibility.

The pandemic also has reinforced the value of private rooms, Kreider said.

The firm has developed a prototype of a private room with more space in the foyer for visitors. A glass door works as a partition to allow visitors to see the patient while being protected. But more space means more cost. Senior care communities have to decide if they want to build for the worst-case scenario, McRoberts said.

Health care facilities in the design stages are being adapted for pandemic realities and social distancing, said Jessica Klocek, director of health care design at MKSD Architects, Allentown. For example, telemedicine is becoming popular, and there will be spaces set up privately for physicians and others to visit remotely with patients, she said.

Work pods will also allow people to segregate, Klocek said.

Silvia Hoffman, founding partner of MKSD, said we could see a situation where one hospital in an area takes all the COVID-19 patients and another handles elective surgeries and other non-covid cases.

In addition, UV lighting kills viruses, and “we’re going to see a lot more of that” in health care settings, she said.

“People are learning quickly.”