As we settle into an undefined period of time at home and away from our offices, my thoughts turn to colleagues and associates throughout the energy sector – particularly those currently unemployed or underemployed: energy raters, HVAC and renewable energy installers, and code officials.
I cannot recall another time when we, the American public, have collectively thought as much about architecture. During 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, it seems everyone has some ideas related to the built environment, from thoughts about the comfort of our homes to how we interact in public spaces and retail establishments or how our offices may be arranged for social distancing when we return. We can observe a multitude of changes in our built environment. Lines or X's at the entrances of structures to help us social distance, empty seats and rows in movie theaters, and Plexiglas safety partitions. This is just a small taste of our new landscape. How we interact with and within buildings, their ability to keep us comfortable, and the affordability of maintaining and operating structures in the age of COVID-19 requires more in-depth thinking.
Got Sick Buildings?
Let's consider the timeline of COVID-19. It’s hard to tell when it began, but the first cases in our area were reported in early spring, the spring “shoulder season”. The “shoulder season” is where we transition away from heating and into cooling. We have some days that require heating but no additional cooling, especially in larger buildings. The outside temperatures fluctuate for many weeks. During this time, which is challenging for buildings to begin with, were they sitting unoccupied and possibly unoperated? Did they become unhealthy and unsafe? Does this mean we are looking at the possibility of returning to work, dine, and workout in hundreds of sick buildings?
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 will also reduce legal liability on the part of building owners/operators.
Before COVID-19, Americans spent 90 percent of their time indoors with, according to the USEPA, air quality 2-5 times worse than outdoor air. Today, this seems reflective of our current patterns. On the other hand, it seems – from my recent difficult quest to procure bikes and a basketball hoop for the kids – that COVID-19 and the summer season are invigorating 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 IAQ. Regardless of the type of shifts we will see, new provisions are needed in the nation's building codes to address health and safety factors facing us 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 we will also see a 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 phase in the opening of various businesses, retail establishments, restaurants, offices, and workplaces, they will need to be reconfigured 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) should be established to give priority to the reopening and reconfiguring of buildings as per state and local requirements. The same type of expedited consideration should also be considered for zoning-related matters. For example, Northampton, Massachusetts 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 of us will continue to work remotely and will only periodically occupy physical 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 should offer energy retrofits. The retrofits will provide a healthier and more secure physical work environment and simultaneously drive down operating costs. With many buildings 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 should 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. This fall, NEEP will publish a brief on electronic permitting, and information can currently be found in the report Building Codes for a Carbon-Constrained Era.
Into the Future
In considering the intersectionality of COVID-19 and codes, my thoughts turn to an old mantra: 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 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.
Let us know how your buildings and communities are responding to COVID-19. We welcome your ideas on proactively preparing codes and standards for unforeseen circumstances. Send your thoughts to Darren Port.