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By Benedict H. Dubbs, JR., AIA RA, LEED AP

We will go back to work and the classroom and resume participation in social gatherings in restaurants and theaters. But when we do, it will not be business as usual. The office and classrooms will look different, function differently, and be utilized differently. The focus on health, safety, density, security, and location will have entirely new meanings, and high-quality property and facilities management will be more important than ever.

Interaction is a key catalyst for innovation. The physical office and classroom space will continue to facilitate interaction and collaboration and, ultimately, personal health, well-being, and productivity. But it will look different. Flexibility will be critical to accommodate rapid change in these built environments. For some institutions, the Learn/Work from Home (L/WFH) policy will continue. But touchdown points catering to face-to-face or large group meetings promoting connections and collaboration will still be needed. Social connections will remain an important necessity. Beyond indoor spaces, outdoor amenities may rise in significance without daily trips to an office or classroom and the social interaction those experiences bring.

Bringing offices, universities, military, and health institutions back “online” could be vulnerable to the secondary waves of contagion. Those with dining, living, or other spaces that cater to large groups must be reevaluated and ensure adequate social distancing so they can safely function. New automation and voice technology such as Amazon’s Alexa might help eliminate “touch factors” such as doors, lights, and elevators. New space plans mandating social distancing for open offices and common areas will be needed, including every-other-desk occupancies.

Adding sanitation stations in common spaces and documentation of the more frequent cleaning schedules will be required. Staggered workforce and class schedules, limiting the number of people in a space at a certain time, capacity signage, and fewer chairs in meeting rooms or classrooms are quick and easy fixes.

A crucial element of returning to the office or classroom is understanding the occupants’ needs and maintaining communication. Significant collaboration will be needed between building owners, administration, tenants, employees, and governments to address the challenges that lie ahead.

We suggest utilizing our Distancing Design Best Practices, which we call the “Three R’s to Reenter the Built Environment.” They are as follows:

  1. Review
  2. Recommend
  3. Retrofit

Review / Analyze Current Spatial Conditions

Analysis considers safety and any other opportunities for functionality plus full assessment of all building systems, including air and water quality issues, in buildings that have been vacant. HVAC systems should produce healthy indoor environments where pathogens are filtered, diluted, and removed from the occupant breathing zone.

Recommendations for Reentry

Processes, protocols, clear workable agreements, and rules of conduct must put the safety of everyone first. Clear communication and education will ensure a smooth reentry with new guidelines and expectations. We suggest designating a small core team for all company/institution communications to maintain a consistent message for a smooth journey into today’s new normal. Facility managers may want to refer to IFMA (International Facility Management Association) guidelines and protocols for further information.

Workplace layouts and employee densities must be carefully considered to address some forms of social distancing, whether by mandate or preference. Estimating usage, monitoring density and flow, and creating flexibility to adjust protocols will be critical for reentry. New work-flow diagrams will allow people to walk safely through spaces avoiding congestion points.

For example, single way directional flows should be implemented, such as different staircases for ascending and descending traffic. These specific plans should be visually displayed for all inhabitants to utilize properly. Depending on the size of an organization, scheduled lunch or dining shifts can alleviate clustering around kitchens, microwaves, and dishwashers.

Retrofit / Reimagine the Built Environment

While social distancing may seem, hopefully, a temporary action, an eye toward open spaces that enable and encourage people to spread out, may be a better option. While physical barriers will be used in the short term, a more long-term architectural solution can be developed with space planning.

Common areas must ensure adequate space for social distancing between occupants. New furniture with antimicrobial fabric or material may be needed and adapting workstations for all employees to work safely will be required. In addition to these general retrofits, other new building upgrades may be required such as negative air pressure systems to prevent the spread of future infections.

Building occupants can encourage health by installing temperature check stations. Handwashing must be approached as both an infrastructure and a behavioral issue. Water temperature, vigilant refilling of soap dispensers, touchless hand dryers, and dynamic signage should be mandatory in bathrooms.

Implementation of biophilic design principles, which connect occupants to nature, is proven to have an immediate, positive impact on mental health. A living green/plant wall or a nature-based wall covering are two examples of ways to positively improve the human experience in the built environment.

What we do over the next six to 12 months can ensure that our communities get up and running again while protecting against similar
scenarios in the future. We hope that some of these ideas will assist your organization as it transitions into this post COVID-19 era.

Benedict H. Dubbs, Jr. AIA RA, LEED AP

Benedict H. Dubbs, Jr. AIA RA, LEED AP

Murray Associates Architects, P. C.

Benedict H. Dubbs, Jr. AIA RA, LEED AP has been a Principal since 2000 and leads Murray Associates Architects, P. C. with over 30 years’ experience. He is involved in most project phases, with focus on programming, interiors, and sustainable design. Benedict is currently a member of the Corporate Affiliate Working Group for the Association of Independent College and University Association (AICUP), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and Preservation Pennsylvania. For more information, email him at ddubbs@murayassoc.com or visit www.murrayassoc.com.

Featured in Commercial Real Estate Review – Second | Third Quarter 2020