COVID-19 people walking to work illustration

SPECIAL FEATURE: Wondering if buildings can help prevent the spread and impact of COVID-19? You’re not alone, but unfortunately, we’re still learning about the virus so the recommended response for building operators is evolving daily. The Fifth Estate spoke to the experts to see what the latest advice is on keeping buildings safe for occupants.

Organisations such as AIRAH (the Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating) and the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) are fielding countless enquiries about the role of buildings in the prevention and recovery of the novel coronavirus outbreak, as are property managers and indoor environment consultants.

Whether or not the virus can be transmitted through airconditioning systems is a top concern. It’s still too early to make a conclusive call but according to the most up-to-date information from AIRAH, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through air conditioning systems in houses or other buildings.

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Research on the disease is released daily but the World Health Organization’s understanding is that it’s mainly spread through respiratory droplets. Typically, the virus is transmitted by someone with COVID-19 coughing or exhaling droplets on surfaces that are touched by an unaffected person, who then touch their mouth, nose or eyes.

Alternatively, people get the virus by inhaling airborne droplets from someone coughing or exhaling, which is why standing more than a metre away from others is important.

Tony Gleeson

AIRAH chief executive Tony Gleeson says people should follow WHO’s hygiene and social distancing recommendations, such as frequent and comprehensive hand washing, to avoid spreading the disease.

The IWBI, the organisation behind the WELL Building Standard (WELL) for healthy buildings, is also fielding “countless” enquiries about the virus, with most people wanting to know if buildings can play a role in the response and recovery to the health crisis.

IWBI vice president Australia and New Zealand Jack Noonan says that global organisation has seen an influx of enquires since Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote an article for The New York Times a few weeks ago arguing that healthy buildings are “a control strategy that is not getting the attention it deserves.”

Allen writes says that there’s still some debate about how the virus is spread, and that it’s possible that infected people expel small airborne particles called droplet nuclei that linger in the air and are transported around buildings.

While there’s no firm evidence the disease can travel around buildings though airconditioning systems, Allen offers a number of strategies to control its spread if this is indeed the case.

As you’d expect, allowing more fresh external air into buildings with heating and ventilation systems is one suggested tactic. He also says that enhanced filtration can play a role, and that there’s “ample evidence” that viruses do better in low humidity.

How can WELL Certified Building help fight off sicknesses such as coronavirus?

Jack Noonan from IWBI says that WELL Certified spaces “move us in the direction of health at all times” but also help reduce the impact of sicknesses such the novel coronavirus.

“Especially during a time of public health emergency, such as the outbreak of coronavirus, the health-promoting features that are part of the WELL Building Standard can help support the health and well being of all who work, live, learn and entertain there.

“This is no doubt more relevant than ever as we see the rise of coronavirus here in Australia and globally.”

The key components of WELL certification that pertain to managing the spread of the virus include appropriate hand washing facilities to support hygiene and reduce pathogen transmission (big enough sinks, access to soap and hand towels) and cleaning product protocols.

Noonan notes that health authorities, including the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, are recommending washing hands with regular soap and water and only using hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available, and that most of the cleaning products recommended by top agencies already comply with WELL requirements.

As already noted, it’s not yet clear if the disease travels through mechanical air conditioning systems but WELL Certified buildings may be at reduced risk thanks to improved air quality through ventilation and filtration, and operable windows to encourage opening of windows to help dilute high concentrations of indoor air contaminants.

Another commonly overlooked tactic for reducing the damage caused by the disease is to boost the immunity of the population.

Healthy buildings can help keep immunity up to scratch by providing end-of-trip facilities and spaces for no-cost exercise (all boxes ticked on the hygiene front, of course) and access to healthy foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables.

Exercise, sleep and health eating are addressed by the WELL standard but mental and emotional health are also important. A healthy building supports mental wellbeing and stress levels in a number of direct and indirect ways, including through exposure to natural light indoors and biophilic elements such as plants and natural materials.

Noonan says that the IWBI Asia team had a head start addressing coronavirus-related enquiries because the virus first began to spread in China.

As such, the Asia team has hosted numerous webcasts regarding coronavirus, hygiene and the interventions and public health research that appear within WELL that can help mitigate the spread of disease in buildings.

He says the online events have been massively popular, with 120,000 people participating in the webcasts to date.

Building hygiene is a no-brainer

For building operators and owners on the frontline of the crisis, and the consultants who are providing advice, hygiene is the top concern.

Adam Garnys, principal consultant at CETEC, a technical risk management consultancy, was also getting a lot of enquiries when he was contacted by The Fifth Estate last week. He says building managers have a role to play to follow the hygiene advice outlined by health authorities such as regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces such as lift buttons.

He says the big questions at the moment are around clearance certification ­– that is, assurance that a facility with a confirmed or suspected case of the virus has been disinfected and is safe for people to return to.

“The effective cleaning techniques are far beyond a standard clean.”

Another complication is the risk it poses to cleaners, he explains.

To help prevent transmission, occupants are now asking cleaning contractors to present COVID-10 policies that show they are taking the necessary steps to prevent infection entering the building.

Indeed, property management company BGIS has escalated its cleaning schedule since the virus started to spread globally. BGIS national HSE operations manager Gavin Sansom told The Fifth Estate last week that in its facilities around the world where there had been confirmed and suspected cases, specialist vendors had been employed to do special “forensic-type” cleans using alcohol-based cleaning products.

He said the cleaning process targeted all possible places the infected person might have visited, including common areas, with the buildings entirely shut down until the clean was complete.

To prevent infections spreading, Sansom says that the company is going through the cleaning methodology of all its cleaning contractors with a fine tooth comb to ensure they meet all requirements.

It’s not the only property company leaving no stone unturned on hygiene. Since the end of January, Dexus has ramped up its cleaning services across “high touch points” such as bathrooms and lifts, as well as more comprehensive cleans across its office.

The other responsibility from a building management standpoint is educating tenants about hygiene.

“Hand hygiene is especially important, it’s the way a lot of the germs are transferred,” Gavin Sansom from BGIS explains.

A number of organisations have now issued strict working-from-home policies but at the time of writing, a number of people in Australia were still going to work, school and university.

The potential contradiction between green buildings and healthy buildings can be managed

There’s already been a shift away from lift buttons and doorways that people physically touch that can spread contagious illnesses from person to person, but Sansom suspects uptake of touchless technologies and devices could accelerate.

With some health experts predicting the disease will become endemic (that is, just another disease like the flu we’re going to have to live with) Garnys wonders what this would mean for the built environment long term.

One option for a more hygiene-focused future might be that building could resemble the design of hospitals, with greater segregation between floors and buildings to prevent any cross-contamination of air, and greater filtration. This could lead to increased maintenance, and heightened demand for retrofitting along these lines.

There’s a chance an enhanced focus on hygiene could even set the green building movement back. For example, there might be more water used because people are washing their hands for longer, or more energy might be used to store water at a higher temperature to reduce microbial risk. However, new technologies such as ultra violet light to disinfect surfaces might counter over use of water.

Green building designers are already wrapping their heads around designing buildings that are not only environmentally sustainable but promote human health and wellbeing as well.

While the criteria can seem to be contradictory (having enough windows for generous natural light can be a challenge for energy efficiency, for example), it’s been proved possible to achieve the “holy grail” of both high Green Star/NABERS ratings and WELL ratings.

Noonan from IWBI says the organisation is also thinking about what the outbreak will mean for WELL certification going forward, and how it might need to adapt.

Working from home might become more common

One item under consideration is supporting remote working environments, on which it has already performed an in-house trial last year.

“We did this not only to support a flexibility outcome for staff, but to also track the resilience and connectedness of the organisation during a time of growth with new staff members in many new locations across the world

“We are now seeing organisations across Australia (and the world) starting to implement ‘work from home’ policies, so this has become particularly pertinent.”

Noonan also expects the global crisis to drive momentum behind the healthy building movement.

“Buildings are where we live our lives, and they can help, or they can hinder. A greater focus on ventilation, fresh air, filtration, and handwashing support should be seen across our industry.

“Further, organisational policies and practices have the potential to help mitigate the spread of the disease, as well as influence the mental health of employees during a time like this.”

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  1. Yet another reason why shopping Centers need air con systems inspected is because even systematic carriers can pass the virus by breath without coughing. More reason why one should use a filtered p2 face mask when shopping.

  2. My experience with air conditioning filtration around the world is that it is generally extremely poor.Panel filters are used considerably and there is a lot of by-pass around the filters and dust particles just pass through the filtration system and are spread through the ducting and are expelled through the air grilles.The split systems we have everywhere have the poorest filtration of them all.It should be determined as soon as possible the impact of poor air conditioning filtration on the safety of persons.

  3. To address the need for cleaner safer buildings, the introduction of technology that can ward off risk is paramount. Conventional cleaning and a change to its methodology is long overdue, chemicals produce VOC’S that are airborne and will travel and go deep into the lungs. Who will address the pulmonary issues that poorly trained cleaners or building occupants will know doubt face long after this current virus diminishes. Clean air is vital and everyone that either owns a building, manages it, works or lives in one so change, make it mandatory for the inclusion of purified air to protect us all.

  4. Perhaps the most important thing is to redesign our HVAC system. We will need to have more open space environments to deal with diseases infection. Our old system was designed fifty years ago when diseases like SARS and H1N1 were not known. We now have Covid-19 and perhaps many more to come. So we need a new system like “intelligent spot air-conditioning” to stave of these virulent diseases. In this new system, the conditioned air is delivered by a series of articulated nozzles that are able to track where the demand is in real time. Works automatically like a robot and also designed to save fuel by at least 40%. The system is also Industry 4.0 ready. Well, it is also an out of the box solution for our HVAC needs.

    Terry Yap