Office designers are scrambling now to try to get more members of the workforce safely back to their desks. Clear plastic sneeze guards have become familiar, as have floors taped off at 6-foot increments. But by 2025 or so, after the immediate threat of the coronavirus has likely passed, which short-term fixes will be part of the new normal? And what other design changes could be coming our way?
While the scale of the current pandemic is new, the need for architects to prioritize human health is not, says Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director of the Institute for Health in the Built Environment. "We've designed buildings for 100-year floods," he says. "Now we have to learn to design for the 100-year flu."
"There will be another epidemic or another pandemic — or there might just be another flu season," says Eve Edelstein, co-founder of the research-based design consultancy Clinicians for Design. "Let's go ahead and design for that reality."
NPR spoke with five experts on workplace design to hear what they think small offices as well as high-rises will look like in five years.
Easy and breezy is beautiful
Public health officials agree that one of the simplest ways to prevent the indoor spread of any contagious respiratory virus is to increase the volume of outside air that comes into our buildings. The simple act of cracking a window can meaningfully dilute the concentration of infectious particles in the air.
But in many current American office buildings, the windows aren't operable — and for good reason. Creating a tight air seal in a building is one of the main strategies used to make buildings more energy efficient. So architects looking ahead are now grappling with how to increase outdoor ventilation without accelerating energy consumption.
One solution, according to Van Den Wymelenberg, is a different type of window design, already on the market in Europe, that has a mechanical heat-exchange system concealed inside the sill. This allows outside air to be warmed or cooled, as needed, as it enters the building.
He adds the caveat that any design that allows fresh air to enter a building needs to have the ability to be manually overridden. When outdoor air quality is worse than the indoor air — as it is right now, for example, in Western regions inundated with smoke from wildfires — the building's occupants should have the ability to keep the bad air out. "The name of the game is flexibility," Van Den Wymelenberg says. "This is where creativity and engineering can come together."
More water stations
Frequent hand-washing is one of the biggest ways to mitigate disease transmission, notes Reena Agarwal, chief operating officer at the Center for Active Design. But in many office buildings, the only sinks are inside bathrooms, which tend to be out of the way. By introducing self-contained hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers in high-traffic areas, designers can help make the healthy choice the easy choice.
Many of the solutions to pandemic proofing the office have been promoted by proponents of healthy building design for a decade or more, she says. "The difference is that now we're not just talking about comfort, but safety."
"Building owners, managers and developers who considered health more of a touchy-feely subject or didn't think they had control over it — the pandemic has forced them to think about it and the multitude of ways they do have control over it," she says.
Open plan is here to stay — with more nature
Some designers think the pandemic will bring about the end of the open-plan office, which eliminated many inside walls and partitions and reduced the amount of private space for each worker. Critics of the open-plan office say that the large volume of shared air and the lack of physical barriers between desks facilitate disease transmission.
"That's a knee-jerk reaction and one we should avoid," says Van Den Wymelenberg. "There's a lot of benefit to spending time near daylight and fresh air, and an open plan facilitates that." He points out that while tall plexiglass dividers can keep employees from getting sprayed by someone else's cough or sneeze, any exhaled air that hits the divider still ends up dispersing into the rest of the room.
Rather than seal employees into individual hard-walled rooms, he says, office designers can preserve the benefits of open-plan offices by installing airflow systems that filter and reduce the amount of exhaled air from other people that employees inhale.
Imagine a traditional air-handling system, where fans push filtered air into a room via large overhead ducts. The problem with this scenario, Van Den Wymelenberg says, is that the warm air we exhale typically rises and accumulates at the top of a room. So before any newly filtered air can reach your desk, it has to fight its way through the cloud of virus particles exhaled by everyone sitting nearby.
A more intelligent system, Van Den Wymelenberg says, is for the vents at the top of the room to pull out the cloud of exhaled air and for filtered air to be delivered in vents along the floor. This design, known as displacement ventilation, is more complex to set up, but he says it can significantly lower the amount of viral material circulating in shared air.
Let the outside in
Each expert we spoke to for this story told us that a key strategy for promoting health in office buildings is to provide opportunities for employees to come in contact with the natural world. This type of "biophilic design" can boost productivity and physical health. Our panel cited strategies such as installing "living walls" instead of bland partitions and incorporating circadian-friendly lighting that brightens and dims across the workday. Asheshh Saheba, managing partner at the San Francisco office of the architecture firm Steinberg Hart, advises using high-performance natural construction materials, such as cross-laminated timber, rather than concrete, to create a more inviting office that is also environmentally sustainable.
Saheba also says that more thoughtfully carving up a building's footprint can, quite literally, brighten up the workday. People who sit toward the center of large buildings can feel like they work inside a cave, Saheba says. His firm recently completed the design of an upcoming office tower in San Jose, Calif., that incorporates a large central light well to maximize the amount of natural light that will reach all parts of each floor.
Take a hands-off approach
To reduce opportunities for surface-to-person transmission of disease going forward, office designers will likely try to eliminate shared touch points wherever possible. Agarwal says she is aware of several buildings that have already installed "touchless switches," where doors are opened by waving at a sensor rather than by pushing a button, specifically to mitigate viral transmission.
Other touch points can be eliminated by reimagining thresholds. Agarwal says doorless bathroom entry systems — similar to the labyrinth of privacy walls commonly seen at the entrances to public bathrooms in airports and stadiums — may work for some office buildings too. "I imagine new high-occupancy buildings may adopt this approach," she says.
Design for flexibility
While some employers are eager to get employees back to an on-site, 9-to-6 workday, others are imagining a future where employees go into the office only as needed. It turns out that some employees are happier working from home and are just as productive or even more productive there. Saheba says shifting to a hybrid model of in-person and at-home work for each employee could push companies to dedicate more square footage to collaborative spaces and less to individual workstations.
The shift to home-based work in 2020 is giving employers a look at which tasks can be done well from home and which are better accomplished in person. Edelstein says her research suggests that individual work has always suffered in the traditional workplace, with its abundant distractions.
"Let's let offices become team spaces," she says. "Take those rows and rows of desks and turn them into carefully controlled spaces that people feel comfortable being in."
This might take some creativity with the calendar, and it might not be feasible for all industries. But Edelstein says employers can't expect workers who have accomplished most of their work well and comfortably at home for the duration of the pandemic to return to full-time office work without a good reason.
Organizational psychologist Cristina Banks says that workers will be drawn to in-person work only to the extent that the office addresses psychological needs that the pandemic undercut. Banks is the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, a global research center at the University of California, Berkeley. Safety, belonging and autonomy are three of the primary drivers of an individual's sense of well-being, she says, and all three have been "obliterated" by the pandemic.
An employer can contribute to workers' sense of autonomy, Banks says, by giving them control over when, where and how they perform their key tasks. As for safety, she says it's crucial for employers to visibly indicate that their employees' health and well-being are a primary indicator of success.
"Employers have to make investments in a healthy workplace in a holistic manner," she says. That can mean everything from offering paid sick leave and flexible work arrangements for employees who are also caregivers, to ensuring that the workplace is free from toxic materials.
Prioritize public health
What all these changes have in common is that they'll happen only if the public continues to prioritize indoor health after the acute crisis of the pandemic has passed.
As Van Den Wymelenberg notes, America has faced public health scares before. While interventions that kill pathogens are crucial, he says, that's only one piece of the puzzle. "In the long run, what's perhaps even more important is making holistic environments that support human immune function."
The real question for 2025, he says, is, "is our collective memory going to be better this time? I'll look back at the end of my career and be able to better tell. I hope so."
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