Covid & Buildings Q&A: HKS’ Upali Nanda sees an end to ‘single-sector’ buildings

Upali Nanda

The suddenly very real threat of viral pandemics is certain to change the way we design buildings. But how?

To get an early jump on the many possible answers to that question, I’m asking leaders in healthcare architecture, healthy buildings, sustainable design, ventilation, material safety and other specialties. For the first in a series interviews on covid-19 and green buildings, I exchanged emails with Upali Nanda. Nanda serves as research director for the global architecture firm HKS, associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan and executive director of the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation. She’s widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on healthcare design as well as healthy buildings.

How might the approach to healthy buildings change in light of the coronavirus?
Fundamentally. At the root of infectious disease spread is our public health infrastructure, which includes our buildings. Buildings that are well ventilated, have good airflow and have adequate sunlight are less likely to be beds of infection.
Additionally, healthy buildings would provide support for healthy habits, and improved mental health.
Architects are, first and foremost, public health workers. And our homes and workplaces should be the first thresholds for health.

Energy-efficient and healthy buildings already put an emphasis on airflow and natural light. Are you saying these are two practices that need to be adopted more broadly? More aggressively in different ways?
I am. First, we have moved a long way from natural ventilation. It’s something that we may have to look at long and hard again. Similarly in highly dense environments like New York, natural light within living and working environments is difficult. As we see how pandemics rage through highly dense environments we have to consider how healthy our buildings in urban city centers are.

I can’t help but wonder about potentially profound ramifications, such as remote working and the physical nature of offices. Any thoughts on how or whether building designs will be pushed in one direction or another in some fundamental ways?
In many ways, all of our buildings just became the fourth place — a place other than home, work or a public “third place.” The implications for buildings are huge. Here are three that I can think of immediately:

  1. We will no longer see single-sector buildings – all typologies will be some kind of mixed-use, and the lines between typologies will blur.
  2. We will see a fundamental shift in the future of work. We are capturing data on this right now which should reveal some interesting results. This will mean that offices will really flip the paradigm [by implementing] flex work policies, and [will] have to provide choice and amenities to make it a destination that people “choose” to come to build [a] work community.
  3. Hyper-flexibility and agility will be the call of the day for all building typologies – planning for ebb & flow, and exploring what it means to be in a truly hybrid digital & physical world

Do you see either promise or false hope from treated antimicrobial surfaces … or both? I’m trying to get a better handle on the tension between such high-tech, product-oriented approaches as antimicrobial coated surfaces, and more naturalistic approaches such as getting people to wash their hands more often.
I believe this is absolutely key. We are having a person and process based conversation, but this virus spreads by droplets. It spreads because it stays on surfaces. And surfaces matter. The risk is that all kinds of antimicrobial products will suddenly come to the surface (literally) and we have to follow the science.

Nanda also passed the above question to Deborah Wingler, health research lead at HKS, who offered the following answer:
False Hope: Using antimicrobial surfaces to kill pathogens is similar to using antibiotics to kill a virus: Pathogens are smart and they have an incredible ability to morph to render either the antimicrobial surfaces or medication used to kill the pathogen (and therefore the infections it causes) ineffective. Pathogens basically become antimicrobial resistant over time. So, once that pathogen morphs, the antimicrobial surface is basically worthless as an intervention for stopping the spread of the pathogen.

If I’m not mistaken, you’ve specialized in healthcare design. If so, do you see any early lessons to be drawn from covid-19 related to the design of hospitals and other healthcare facilities?
That is correct. While I oversee multiple sectors now I grew up in Health. Early lessons:

  1. Designing for flow: Air flow, people flow and resource flow, in both normal and EID [emerging infectious disease] outbreak circumstances.
  2. Designing for flex: Rapid flexibility in terms of versatile, modifiable, convertible and scalable spaces will be the call of the day. We are working on a special contagion issue of Flexx now (EDITOR’S NOTE: Flexx is a series of open source documents created by CADRE), but we also have to think of the long-term effects on what happens when this surge slows down: How will facilities go back to normal operations? How will the new typologies we converted to hospitals [and] containment centers respond? What will happen to services that moved to telehealth and might stay there? We will need short-term and long-term responses to flexibility in the buildings we design. This means designing for the Footprint and Cloud-print — constantly being aware of what can move to the cloud, and what can move back.
  3. Designing for Safety: Physical and psychological. When our health workers feel as threatened as patients — when they are as much at risk as a patient — the entire dynamic changes. Our spaces have to be more empathetic to the needs of physical and psychological safety- of all humans.

PHOTO: Upali Nanda, research director at the architectural firm HKS. Courtesy Udali Nanda.