Our dwellings should be optimised so that they mitigate the spread of viruses like COVID-19.
As the deadly novel coronavirus (COVID-19) takes its toll and causes a near-global lockdown, the debate about its impact – on the way we live, work, and design our cities to reduce contact and increase social distances – has started. This conversation has also raised questions about the way we are designing homes and office buildings, and if that is aiding in spreading the scourge further.
Our experience has thrown up several lessons that are relevant for pandemic and post-pandemic times. They reinforce the need for designing buildings and neighbourhoods from the point of livability, thermal comfort and resource efficiency.
While planning for improved energy efficiency in buildings, it is essential to aim for improved thermal comfort through material choices, designs and orientation. The design of buildings and material choices can impact livability, daylighting, ventilation and thermal comfort, as well as the cost of living. The orientation of mass housing can maximise daylighting and ventilation. Compact forms can reduce built footprint on the land, increase the efficiency of common services by reducing space needed for distribution, and facilitate mutual shading, thus enabling increased cost saving.
If we continue to design thermally uncomfortable buildings with poor ventilation, inadequate shading and high heat loads on structures, the number of days and hours of mechanical cooling or air-conditioning will increase. Most Indian homes are naturally ventilated, and occupants can control wind and sun with windows, openings and shading. When these are shut off to make the air-conditioners work, ventilation gets reduced. Closed windows in naturally ventilated buildings increase indoor air concentration and pollutants, and the air-conditioning system itself becomes a source of microbial contaminants.
The logic seems simple. If we do not design buildings for improved thermal comfort and to reduce air-conditioned hours, the higher dependence on cooling can create another trap for us – safe havens for deadly viruses. So, design spaces to reduce the heat load on built structures and improve thermal comfort.
This approach goes much beyond the narrow scope of just adopting energy-efficient technologies and insulation systems. It includes a broader, comprehensive combination of urban planning, architectural design and technology, to enhance thermal comfort during the year and reduce dependence on mechanical cooling. India’s diverse climatic conditions allow that flexibility and opportunity. It is possible to reduce the use of air-conditioners by designing to take advantage of microclimates.
In middle-class Indian families usually comprising of 4-5 members, the appreciation for an additional room is increasing. This room can be used as an isolation space with toilet, private meditation/gym yoga space, or home office/study. Even if the bedrooms become smaller, there appear enough reasons for valuing this additional separate room. This means there is a real need for private space inside the house to work from home in quiet and concentration effectively.
A useful technique for keeping pollution and infection out is the creation of an anteroom at the entrance of homes. This architectural element is presently compromised or not provided in the middle economic segment dwellings in India. The anteroom is meant to enable the occupant to remove shoes, leave dirty baggage and discard dirty clothing, and sanitise before entering the main living area. Besides, it also acts as a thermal block, as it prevents the cold air from escaping when the main door is opened for people to enter.
Dense urban living may be more environment-friendly and energy-efficient. But if the price to be paid is people living in smaller homes that preclude flexible working and living and encourage the transmission of viruses, the answer is to not rush towards vertical micro-apartment living. Instead, we need to think about how we can use design to provide meaningful personal space, apart from one another.
We have been told to stay at least six feet away from people outside our own home, but few elevators permit such distancing. Likewise, if you live in a high-rise building, whenever you come and go from your unit, the likelihood of brushing past one or more individuals is exceptionally high. While social distancing is a great idea and may work for people who live in single-family homes, for many urbanites, social distancing guidelines are tough to practice.
“Buildings have to be the secret weapon in the future to combat infectious diseases.”
Recirculated and inadequately filtrated air is a culprit in the spread of diseases and could be a factor in the spread of COVID-19, though there have been no conclusive studies on this yet. Portable air purifiers can also help. Raising humidity levels is another strategy since viruses are known to survive better in low humidity. The most effective way to deal with potentially bad air, however, is simply to open windows and keep them open at least a crack at all times.
The most likely cause of viral spread in any high-rise building is high-touch surfaces. In this case, the evidence is indisputable. For high-rise dwellers, this can be challenging. If you live in a single-family home and put your garbage out for curbside pick-up, you can easily do so without touching surfaces that have been touched by other people. If you live in a high-rise building, this is impossible since this simple task, which you may do several times each day, requires touching multiple high-touch surfaces. Disposing of trash is just one challenge. Using a high-rise building’s elevator also means engaging with a high-touch surface. In the face of COVID-19, buildings have increased their cleaning of high-touch surfaces. Still, even with increased precautions, as a high-rise resident, one must assume that all surfaces outside their unit are potential sources of contamination.
Can we build pandemic-proof buildings?
This raises a rather obvious question and one that architects around the world are likely already contemplating – could we design pandemic proof buildings? While we may not be able to prevent future pandemics through design, there are many things architects and designers can already do to mitigate the spread of viruses in buildings, promote social distancing, and even detect viruses.
At least a few fixes are simple, ensuring a building’s plumbing is up to code, improving air quality by installing higher-quality filters, and adjusting humidity levels. It could also be possible to reduce the number of high-touch surfaces in buildings by installing voice or motion-activated interfaces on elevators and in other high-touch areas. Low-tech solutions, such as installing handwashing stations outside all elevators and other high-touch areas, could also help reduce the spread of viruses. In China, some buildings have already been rewired for detection purposes. Many buildings measure people’s body temperatures as they enter, using either an infrared thermometer or thermal imaging.
The impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic are still being understood, but it does seem clear that this crisis will make a mark on cities, physically and socially, that will echo for generations. However, in a post-COVID-19 era, public attitudes on health and building design both seem bound to undergo a radical change. These changes have sparked a debate about how cities should be built and, perhaps more importantly, how they can better respond to current and future crises.
About the authors
Ar Ponni Concessao and Ar Oscar Concessao, the founders of award-winning firm Oscar & Ponni Architects, have won 131 international, national and state awards for architecture & interior design.