Design experts: These office solutions will slow Covid’s spread

Common-sense approach to architecture can tame infectious disease

With businesses beginning to reopen following a decline in Covid-19 cases, restrictions on the use of shared spaces will remain necessary to limit spread of the coronavirus. But they will also have to evolve as our knowledge of the virus does, design experts say.

Common-sense practices and good design can help restore activity to public spaces, whether that’s entering a building, getting through airport security or returning to an office, three professionals said in a TRD Talks Live session this week.

A good first step toward slowing the spread, according to designer Joanna Frank, president and CEO of the Center for Active Design, is taking people’s temperature before they enter a building. Although that won’t stop all viral transmission, she said, it will help rebuild public trust in communal spaces by letting people know that “we are doing everything to mitigate this disease.”

To reduce surface-to-person transmission, keyless and touchless entry systems can be installed so more doors open automatically and fewer people touch the same surface, such as a keypad or elevator buttons. Research is underway, said architect Eran Chen, founder of the architectural firm ODA, into new building materials that viruses won’t cling to as easily. At airports, Chen believes Covid-19 will hasten the adoption of facial recognition technology to minimize physical interactions and help automate security procedures.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends improving ventilation inside office buildings through use of HVAC and air filtration. However, that is not a perfect solution, according to developer Dan Hollander, managing principal of DHA Capital, especially for buildings that lack similar technology and can’t be retrofitted.

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What’s needed, said Chen, is common sense and basic design: “If you open a window, you get fresh air.” Frank, also advocating for simplicity over costly technology, noted that many of New York City’s outdoor pedestrian spaces were created with nothing more than paint and large potted plants. Social distancing might be encouraged through similarly low-tech means.

While some technology companies, including Twitter, have told employees they can work from home, Hollander doesn’t expect offices to vanish. He cited statistics saying only 25 percent to 30 percent of people want to work more frequently from a home office, and commented that if the remaining 75 percent still want a daytime office, that’s a very healthy market for property developers.

Ultimately, urban design that helps prevent viral transmission is good for people in general. More walkable neighborhoods with more robust local communities would ease pressure on public transportation, and apartments with personal outdoor space are known to improve inhabitants’ mental wellbeing.

Those perks, however, come at a cost, and more regulatory incentives are needed to encourage their construction, said Hollander. The spread of Covid has magnified social inequalities; wealthier individuals are less likely to catch the virus, and they receive better medical care if they do. “We’re watching the fruits of an inequitable society come back to haunt us,” Hollander said.

Good design is no panacea, the experts said, but if more people had access to it, the office world would move in a better direction.

Contact Orion Jones at