Based on the continually evolving data and recommendations, the efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while pursuing a more normalized personal and professional life has focused on separation, isolation, and decontamination. As things currently stand, it appears that the only potential remedy to return to a pre-COVID-19 environment is the development of a vaccine. In the meantime, business owners and professionals are faced with living with less than ideal situations. Some wish to persist with maximum isolation and separation; however, it appears that the majority have deemed the consequences of shutting down all interactions beyond a household as untenable, and have demanded that measures be developed to support an acceptable level of social and professional interaction. What is acceptable? Well, that is a matter of individual choice.
To help provide some insight on what options exist for businesses to re-open their doors to employees and the public we asked Matt Luttrell, Partner at ThYNK Design LLC, to weigh in. ThYNK Design, LLC is a modern architectural firm pursuing a better way to develop, deliver, and celebrate the immense value of good design. Given his experience and background, Matt shares some valuable information to help frame and evaluate some of the inherent issues in the built environment that conflict with the proposed social distancing guidelines. Here’s how he responded when Omni Realty Group asked him several key questions.
Omni: What industries are likely to be most impacted by the proposed revised building code distancing guidelines?
ML: The restaurant industry may face the greatest short-term and long-term challenges. The proposed social distancing guidelines directly conflict with historic planning principles as well as the industry’s business model. However, each restaurant, business, and building should be evaluated to determine what resources are available to develop an effective mitigation plan.
Omni: How will the introduction of new social distancing constraints impact the long-term viability of most existing buildings?
ML: With the recognition that the design and development of the built environment is in response to many considerations, including; user needs, business models, and building code requirements, the introduction of new constraints that directly conflict with established practices will challenge the long-term viability of most buildings. These challenges focus on developing an environment that effectively manages occupant density, frequency, and duration of interactions, surface contaminants, and air quality. To effectively manage these challenges, an inventory and understanding of the available resources and building configuration are required. These can include: building area, sizes of rooms, type, and capacity of HVAC system, operable windows, number of entry/ exit points from a space or building, quantity, and location of shared facilities (toilet rooms, break rooms, waiting areas) and flex spaces.
Each resource can impact the effectiveness of a mitigation plan and should be carefully considered, but the most significant challenge is how to overcome the area requirements per person. Expanding a building, reconfiguring interior spaces, and adding entry and exit points are not readily done. In addition to the expense, the required time frame for approvals and construction is prohibitive.
Omni: Can you provide more information to paint a picture of the potential magnitude of the problem you’re describing?
ML: The proposed social-distancing guidelines recommend a density of 1 person per 113 SF (area of circle with a 6′ radius) whereas standard planning practices include densities that are 2x to 10x higher.
Following are the maximum area allowances, per the 2015 International Building Code, for several of the more common functions included in buildings:
- -with concentrated chairs (lecture halls, waiting rooms, etc.):
- One occupant per 7 SF
- -standing room (lobbies, areas holding events such as cocktail hours):
- One occupant per 5 SF
- -unconcentrated chairs and tables (restaurants, breakrooms, open office)
- One occupant per 15 SF
Business areas: One occupant per 100 SF
Classroom: One occupant per 20 SF
Exercise rooms: One occupant per 50 SF
Retail: One occupant per 60 SF
Compared to the recommended 113 SF (area of a circle with a 6 radius) per occupant you begin to see the potential implications. As an example, a worst-case analysis would provide the following reductions:
Example 1: For a restaurant with a dining area design occupancy of 100 (15 SF per occupant) the occupancy would be potentially reduced to 13 occupants at 113 SF per occupant. This is a worst case and does not consider that you may have a family grouped so that they are separated from other family groupings.
Example 2: A classroom designed for 25 occupants could have a reduced occupancy of 5.
As indicated by these examples, if we want to remain economically viable, then social distancing cannot be the only criteria for determining the use of a space.
Omni: How do commercial HAVC systems currently play into the issue, whether standing to hurt or help air sanitization and circulation in shared commercial spaces?
ML: For most people, the quality of a HVAC system is based on the system’s ability to control the temperature of a space. Only in the relatively recent past (10-20 years) has the industry focused on delivering improved air quality, increased fresh air, controlled humidity, and energy conservation within the typical system. Each of these four items should be evaluated as a potential resource or barrier for developing a mitigation plan. In the current environment, an incorrect understanding or use could potentially have disastrous consequences and it is highly recommended that a contractor or engineer be consulted to determine the full capability of your system.
Omni: Could you give a bit deeper into the impact of air quality on comfort and health?
ML: Air quality may be one of the more challenging issues when it comes to controlling a virus. One of the more prevalent components for managing air quality is the filter. The systems air-filter is rated according to the level of filtration needed/ desired for a given environment. According to Grainger.com, “What Is MERV Rating? Air Filter Rating Chart,” most commercial and residential buildings will have filters that range from a MERV 5 to MERV 12. A MERV 5 rating filters particles down to a 10.0 micron level and a 12 filters down to 1.0 micron level. A MERV 12 or higher, which is not very common outside of critical healthcare and clean-room environments, effectively filters pollen, dust mites, mold, and even cement dust.
However, according to various publications, the coronavirus average size is 0.125 microns. While this is substantially smaller than the particles that are filtered, it does not mean that these particles freely pass. This is due to a variety of reasons, but one of them has to do with humidity. Dry air allows particles to float freely/ unattached, while humid air promotes particles binding together. The larger particles are more readily filtered or trapped. A similar concept applies to our lungs. When we breathe air that is too dry it reduces the amount of mucus within our bodies; thus, part of our human filtration system is compromised.
Omni: Is there any research to back this up?
ML: A study conducted in Sydney, Australia indicates that the reduced humidity conditions associated with winter weather can lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases. The researchers identified that a 1% decrease in humidity could lead to a 6% increase in cases. So, what is the ideal relative humidity? In this case, it appears that the industry recommended RH of 40% to 60% corresponds with the current recommendations for mitigating COVID-19. Too little humidity and the filtration system is compromised, too much humidity and mold growth is supported.
Omni: So then, how is indoor humidity controlled?
ML: A/C systems are primarily designed for thermal control. Thus, most A/C systems control humidity by circulating warm, moist air over cold coils, which leads to condensation, which is collected and drained away. The key here is ensuring that the AC cycles the proper amount of time to allow the warm air to be adequately circulated over the coils and the moisture removed. This process relies on the A/C unit being correctly sized. This involves a variety of factors, including the number of people in a facility.
In essence, if a system is sized to provide cooling for 100 people, it accounts for the amount of energy/ heat and moisture generated by 100 people. Accordingly, it will work to get the temperature where it needs to be while accounting for the amount of humidity that needs to be removed. If the occupant load is reduced to 50, then the system is effectively oversized and will get the air to the desired temperature before it has a chance to remove the humidity. This leads to RH levels that can far exceed the recommended upper level of 60%.
Omni: What connection do you see between fresh air and healthier work spaces?
ML: Fresh air, or air that is not recycled, has become an integral component in the development of an HVAC system that supports overall occupant health. Sick building syndrome (SBS) developed following efforts to close-up buildings to establish greater energy efficiency, and a quick search will indicate that the SBS symptoms are frighteningly similar to COVID-19. The introduction of fresh air into a HVAC system does two things: it dilutes the air and pollutants, and it helps to pressurize a building. Diluting air is readily understood, but proper pressurization is equally as important. If a building is not properly pressurized, then air can start to stratify and pockets of dead-air form. This can allow areas of a building or room to be filled with contaminated air that can promote the spread of a virus. Most new systems include fresh air as required by the building code, but many older systems do not. A professional should be consulted to determine if your system incorporates fresh air or if it can be modified to do so. Simply put, a properly sized HVAC system that incorporates fresh air is a critical component in supporting occupant health.
As we move forward in this new environment, we seem to come across unforeseen challenges every day. But the response to all challenges is the same: assess, move-forward, reassess, move-forward… The one certainty is that we must be persistent in creatively evaluating the situation and developing solutions based on available resources. Stay tuned for Part II where Matt presents us with even more information on your topic!
Do you own or work in a commercial space – office, retail, or industrial? How do you feel like impact of COVID-19 will require changes be made to the configuration and functionality of your space? Please offer your comments or experiences in the comment section below.