The pandemic’s undefined period of time at home and away from office buildings and schools brings to mind thoughts of workers throughout the energy sector – particularly those currently unemployed or underemployed: building and home inspectors and evaluators, HVAC and renewable energy installers, and building code officials.
There hasn’t been another time when the American public has collectively thought as much about architecture. After 9/11, there was some public discourse on architecture, but the tragedy itself overwhelmed widespread thinking about building design. Building safety and structural issues were primarily considered by design and public safety specialists, not the public at large.
In the current COVID-19 era, there is much discourse related to the built environment, from thoughts about the comfort of homes to patterns of interaction in public spaces and retail establishments to how offices may be arranged for social distancing when occupied again. There are already a multitude of changes in the built environment: Arrows at the entrances of structures, lines or X’s to assist social distancing, alternating empty seats and rows in movie theaters, and Plexiglas safety partitions. This is just a small taste of a new landscape. Interaction with and within buildings, their ability to provide comfort, and the affordability of maintaining and operating structures in the age of COVID-19 requires more in-depth thinking.
Got Sick Buildings?
Consider the timeline of COVID-19. It’s hard to tell when it began, but the first cases in the Northeast were reported in early spring 2020, the “shoulder season” that defines the transition away from heating and into cooling. In this season, there are some days that require heating but no additional cooling, especially in larger buildings. With outside temperatures fluctuating over many weeks and the swapping of heating for cooling, the shoulder season is challenging for buildings. During COVID-19, these challenges are exacerbated as buildings sit unoccupied and possibly inoperative. Have these buildings become unhealthy and unsafe? Are they now sick buildings?
Building codes could provide a solution. Codes must ensure there are established protocols to address the return to buildings, with provisions for air quality monitoring, air filtration, ventilation, humidification, and other operational measures. Codes should also be available to assure that standards exist for building recovery during and after emergency and disaster situations. An organization with an understanding of these issues related to reopening buildings is the American Institute of Architects, which offers a building reopening assessment tool. Clear and established guidelines and protocols can also reduce legal liability on the part of building owners/operators.
Before COVID-19, Americans spent 90 percent of their time indoors with air quality 2-5 times worse than outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today, this seems reflective of current patterns. On the other hand, COVID-19 and the summer season invigorated our connection with the outdoors and nature. Theory and some data suggest that COVID-19 doesn’t live at slightly higher humidity levels than most medical facilities and other buildings operate. Will increased humidification begin to drive design?
COVID-19 will change building science and building design related to mechanical systems and indoor air quality. Regardless of the type of shifts, new provisions are needed in the nation’s building codes to address health and safety factors now and in future pandemics and climate-related incidents. Passive house guidelines are a good starting point to address the nexus of energy costs, reducing carbon emissions, and improving indoor air quality. Perhaps there will also be consumer demand for buildings to be more connected to the outdoors/nature. Guidance on connecting the built environment and nature can be found in the Health and Happiness Petal requirements of the Living Building Challenge, a certification program for buildings to utilize regenerative design principles in design and construction.
As states phased the reopening of various businesses, retail establishments, restaurants, offices, and workplaces, they have had to reconfigure physical set-ups to accommodate social distancing, health, and safety. Such reconfiguring may range from merely rearranging seating areas and desk space to more complex issues that could trigger the need for electrical, fire, and HVAC modification permits. The creation of pandemic permitting (expedited permitting) could give priority to the reopening and reconfiguring of buildings per state and local requirements. The same type of expedited consideration could also be considered for zoning-related matters. For example, Northampton, Massachusetts is one of the localities that has narrowed vehicle traffic corridors to allow restaurants to expand sidewalk/outdoor dining space, requiring quick sign-off from various city entities.
The New Normal
It’s possible that many people will continue to work remotely and will only periodically occupy office spaces. The shrinking of centralized work environments could be the catalyst for tenants and building owners to consider more energy-efficient spaces to save on operational costs.
To retain tenants or keep the current size of tenant spaces, building owners could offer energy-saving retrofits. The retrofits will provide a healthier and more secure physical work environment and simultaneously drive down operating costs. With many buildings still mostly empty, now is an excellent time to access and retro-commission building energy efficiency to inform building retrofits.
Virtual Inspections and Electronic Permitting
Ancillary to codes is how to continue to provide utility efficiency retrofit and weatherization programs and code inspections in a time of social distancing. To address these issues, state and municipal guidelines and resources to implement electronic permitting and virtual inspections could be established and implemented. For builders, plan reviewers, inspectors, municipal and state administrators, online permitting, electronic plan review, and inspection requests will streamline and expedite the construction process.
The International Code Council offers guidance for virtual and remote inspections. NEEP recently published a brief on electronic permitting. Additional information can also be found in the report Building Codes for a Carbon-Constrained Era.
Into the Future
In considering the intersectionality of COVID-19 and codes, an old mantra rings true: codes are reactive, often not anticipatory to emerging issues such as pandemics and climate change. COVID-19 reveals the distinct necessity to establish a new track within the current code development and regulatory process for anticipatory code creation. This new path will be vitally important as pandemics, natural or human-made disasters, and the increasing effects of climate change bring forth conditions we don’t clearly see or yet comprehend. Just as Hollywood film directors consult science fiction writers, futurists, and scientists to help write scripts portraying future calamities, the building code community can create anticipatory codes and standards to address unforeseen building science and energy efficiency issues. The establishment of anticipatory codes would address unusual unanticipated situations, drive down energy use, and save lives.