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.”

Net zero construction nets attention

Interest in renewable energy is growing, particularly among nonprofits such as universities and colleges that are looking to reduce or even eliminate carbon emissions.

A rendering of the net zero building under construction for Sustainable Energy Fund in North Whitehall Township. (Submitted)
A rendering of the net zero building under construction for Sustainable Energy Fund in North Whitehall Township. (Submitted)

That interest could fuel more construction of net zero buildings, so called because they produce as much energy as they consume over the course of a year.

With reports on the global impact of climate change gaining more attention, some say these types of buildings will become more common. Aside from environmental concerns, proponents also cite the benefits of better productivity and a shorter payback time on the investments made by building owners in green technology.

“The number of net zero buildings in the United States is growing dramatically,” said John Costlow, president of Sustainable Energy Fund, a nonprofit in the Schnecksville section of North Whitehall Township.

The fund is developing what many believe to be the first commercial net zero energy building in the Lehigh Valley. It is under construction in North Whitehall Township.

“I believe a building like ours will spur additional buildings in the Lehigh Valley,” Costlow said.

The fund, a nonprofit that formed 20 years ago as part of Pennsylvania’s energy deregulation, is erecting the building on land it bought at 4250 Independence Drive. The nonprofit, known as SEF, plans to occupy part of the 15,000-square-foot office building and lease the remaining offices to local businesses and nonprofits. Construction is expected to wrap up in December.

Costlow said the organization’s goal is to create a net positive building, meaning the building will produce more energy through solar and thermal panels on its roof than it consumes. The excess energy would go back into the power grid.

Costlow said the average daily energy produced by the building should be around 130 percent of what it uses. On a good, sunny day, it could go as high as 200 percent.

The nonprofit invested about $5 million in the project and plans on using the building to host educational sessions about net zero technology, as well as additional sessions on general sustainability.

Among the structure’s features are solar panels designed to maximize energy production, as well as insulation that minimizes air leakage.

The building will also be a research tool.

“We have all kinds of sensors that are slated to be in the space so we know how much energy is being used right down to the individual office,” Costlow said.

‘A teaching tool’

Spillman Farmer Architects of Bethlehem, meanwhile, recently designed a net zero building for Millersville University in Lancaster County.

The $10 million Lombardo Welcome Center was completed in 2018 and is the first building in Pennsylvania to earn net zero energy certification from the International Living Future Institute, a Seattle-based organization that promotes sustainable construction. According to the institute’s website, it also has certified studios, offices labs and retail centers.

The Lombardo center serves as a model for how a net zero building could work, according to members of Spillman Farmer. For example, the building produced 75 percent more energy than it consumed in 2018, more than anticipated, said Russell Pacala, principal at Spillman Farmer Architects.

The project includes $829,000 worth of sustainable features, such as solar panels on the roof, a ground-mounted solar array and 20 geothermal wells outside on the lawn.

The $10 million Lombardo Welcome Center also included costs related to furniture, information technology and audiovisual items, moving costs, permit and approval fees, architectural and engineering fees and other costs.

The building also sports dashboards inside so users can see how the building is performing.

“The whole building is a teaching tool,” Pacala said.

In addition, the architects interviewed the building’s prospective users to determine how they might be comfortable in the space, but also to help educate them on how much energy they were using, said Heather Rizzetto Schmidt, project designer and manager for Spillman Farmer Architects.

By talking to them about what they could do to avoid impacting the energy performance of the building, such as avoiding plugging in space heaters, the architects were able to create a more sustainable building while encouraging end users to adjust their behavior to enhance the energy performance of the building. A more energy efficient building that’s comfortable for employees also enhances productivity, added Rizzetto Schmidt.

Part planning, part technology

In designing a net zero building, several factors come to the forefront.

Designers have to understand who will be working in the building, what technology they need, and when they arrive at work, said Christie Jephson Nicas, director of marketing for Spillman Farmer.

“That initial planning process is so important,” Jephson Nicas said.

But so is technology.

Larry Eighmy, principal at The Stone House Group, a facilities management firm in Bethlehem, said property owners who focus on energy-saving features can make a dramatic impact on their energy costs.

Today, sensors can control the amount of air that escapes; windows can collect solar energy and make it into electricity and new heat pumps help make buildings more efficient.

And those tools can make a difference even in old buildings like South Bethlehem’s Flatiron Building, originally designed in 1910. Stone House Group has been a tenant there for 14 years. Though it’s not a net zero building, it does have some energy-efficient features.

These include smart window blinds the company manipulates as needed, as well as a concentrated solar collector on the roof, and two new high-efficiency natural gas condensing boilers.

“Even with our relatively old building, we’ve been able to reduce our carbon footprint by 80 percent compared to our base year,” Eighmy said.

It makes sense for nonprofits to become early adopters of net zero buildings, particularly as colleges and universities seek to achieve a carbon neutral status and appeal to eco-minded students, he said.

Though net zero buildings could be tougher to erect for manufacturers, hospitals and other large energy users, they are possible.

“Everything is doable, it’s just how much energy you have available,” Rizzetto Schmidt said.

For those property owners concerned about increases in energy costs, a net zero building could be an effective hedge, said Andrew Schuster, principal at Ashley McGraw Architects of Syracuse, New York, the firm that designed the net zero building for SEF.

“Net zero is pretty straightforward, you make more energy than you use,” Schuster said. “A net zero building allows you to reduce your operating expenses by investing it up front in the building costs. Your savings is what you would be spending on utility costs.”

The payback period for those savings to make up for the extra costs is about 10 to 15 years. But the window has been getting shorter.

SEF is expecting a payback in less than 10 years, Schuster said.

Indoor air quality is nothing to sneeze at for small businesses

It’s spring in eastern and Central Pennsylvania, which means that the region’s notoriously high pollen count is likely aggravating even the toughest of sinuses.

The sound of sneezes are echoing through the offices of most businesses, large and small this time of year.

Seasonal allergies can cause misery anywhere, but what if the workplace is making it even worse?

And what if it isn’t even seasonal allergies that are causing those blowing noses and itchy eyes that coworkers are complaining about?

Poor indoor air quality can be causing many of the most common health complaints employees have on the job, and small businesses are often the most vulnerable to the problem.

The majority of office buildings being constructed today, especially by those seeking green building certifications, put a strong emphasis on indoor air quality, making sure systems are in place to maintain proper oxygen levels, temperature and humidity and to keep mold, pollens and other particles out of the air.

But smaller offices, where there may be 10 to 20 employees, can’t always afford Class A office space in a new high rise. They are often in older office buildings that don’t have those built-in protections. And small-business owners and managers often don’t even know there’s a potential health problem brewing in the air ducts.

Indoor air quality should be on the minds of all small businesses, especially if they’re in older buildings with less-efficient heating ventilation and air conditioning systems.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, cites a number of health problems related to poor indoor air quality.

“Poor indoor air quality has been tied to symptoms like headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Also, some specific diseases have been linked to specific air contaminants or indoor environments, like asthma with damp indoor environments,” OSHA stated on its website.

Even some cancers have been linked to air contaminants, it said.

“Air quality has to do with employee wellness,” said Christa Kraftician, principal with Spillman Farmer Architects in Bethlehem. “With health care costs what they are you have to be thinking ‘how do we keep people healthy?’”

She said air-quality issues ranging from mold in duct work to particulates, volatile organic compound vapors, germs and pollen in the air can lead to serious health problems.

And it’s not just about dusty ducts.

Even high carbon dioxide or low oxygen levels can impact the overall health of the office.

“Productivity is high when oxygen levels are high,” Kraftician said. And conversely, if ventilation is insufficient and enough fresh air isn’t getting into a building, it can cause drowsiness leading to a work “slump” during times of poor air quality.

Spotting the problem

But the signs aren’t always obvious, said Tim Miller, co-owner of Air Care & Restoration Co. of Bethlehem.

“These can often be overlooked for a long period of time,” Miller said.

Often, he said the first indicator of a problem is complaints coming from employees.

Individuals may say their allergies are worse in the office, that they feel drowsy at work, or it could just be that they seem to keep passing the same viruses around.

There are a number of HVAC-related problems that could be causing such issues.

Equipment check

Miller said one of the most common causes is malfunctioning or inadequate equipment.

An aging system may not provide enough heat or cooling, but it may also not be pushing enough fresh air in from the outside to maintain proper oxygen levels inside.

“We exhale carbon dioxide when we breathe. You want to have outside replacement air circulating to counter that,” he said.

Otherwise, over the course of the day, the simple act of employees’ breathing can deplete the oxygen in the office, making everyone gradually sleepier as the afternoon wears on.

Bill Myers, operations manager for Essig Plumbing and Heating in Reading, said all too often the problem in small-business offices is that the HVAC system in place isn’t powerful enough for an office setting.

Because of the size of the office, the HVAC may be scaled down to the size of what would be used in a traditional home setting.

“But businesses likely have more people in a space than in a home so it’s not scaled properly,” Myers said.

Sometimes a system needs to be repaired, upgraded or replaced.

For example, if an HVAC system is not properly functioning it could cause the buildup of excess humidity in air ducts and mold can develop.

“People have gotten pretty sick because of mold problems,” Kraftician noted.

Often the solution is much simpler, Myers said. For a small office, a good duct cleaning and/or adding proper filters to an HVAC system can drastically reduce problems with allergens, viruses, chemical fumes and molds.

Who controls the controls?

Small businesses often rent their office space and need a building’s owner or property manager to address the problem.

What if those in charge of the office’s HVAC system aren’t willing to acknowledge that poor air quality is a problem or pay to remediate it?

Determining if those employee health complaints are directly related to air quality, and getting a building owner to address it, can be tricky.

OSHA does not set indoor air quality standards. It does, however, have standards about ventilation and on some of the air contaminants involved in indoor air-quality problems.

The first step, said Kraftician, is to have professional testing done to see if there is any problem with molds, allergens or particles in the air.

Sam Cohen, a partner with Gross McGinley LLP in Allentown, said proof is an important tool to get a landlord to take action.

If poor air quality is found, and it can be correlated to employee health concerns – with, for example, a doctor’s note – an office tenant would have more footing to demand the landlord take action.

“It can be a gray area,” he said. An office manager should check the language of the lease to see if there are any provisions with regard to quality of life that would require a landlord to act.

Otherwise, the air quality may have to be poor enough to constitute a more serious health and safety issue to force action.

Worth it?

Addressing the cause of such ailments should make a small office function better, said Myers.

Offices that have improved their air quality, in his experience, have found lower absenteeism and employees that just feel generally more alert on the job, which increases productivity. That makes the upgrade a value to the bottom line, as well as to employee wellness.