By Eric Booth, president of Desmone Architects. The firm’s headquarters at Doughboy Square recently earned WELL Gold Certification, the first building in Pittsburgh to earn the distinction. 

A friend of mine is CEO of a property management company. He and I planned for months to build a new multifamily apartment building. We discussed design, location, features, everything — he wanted the works. But when it came to health and wellness, he shared the same mindset as many leaders: he saw them as perks, worthwhile only as far as they helped him market the building.

That feels like a lifetime ago.

In some ways, the world of building design changed more in the past month than in the past decade. New practices will impact anyone who wants to ensure their organization is alive and healthy in twelve months. Every single customer, employee, tenant, student, parent — everyone — now thinks about the way spaces impact our work and life.

Last week my friend called and asked, “How can we take what we know now about coronavirus and make our apartment building safer?”

He’s not alone in wondering. In recent weeks many of our clients have asked how to incorporate public health into their designs.

Eric Booth, president of Desmone Architects.

There is a plan

The coronavirus is new, but the science of communicable disease is not. The same scientists who predicted the threat of pandemics also developed strategies to keep us safer from them. Experts have identified clear ways that smart building design reduces the spread of pathogens. I know, because our firm incorporated those strategies into our recent office expansion.

Desmone is an architecture and interior design firm, and we wanted a headquarters we would be proud of. We believed our office at Doughboy Square should reflect the very best of our capabilities and the best practices of our industry.

In 2017, we decided to adopt the standard set by the International WELL Building Institute™ because it is the world’s premiere authority on the subject. We incorporated a scientific understanding of health and wellness from this comprehensive standard, guiding our decisions on everything from lighting to airflow to sound, and much more. We were proud to become the first building in Pittsburgh to earn WELL Certified™ Gold.

Based on the experts and on our experience, here’s what will change about building design in the post-coronavirus world:

The new normal

  • People will be very conscious of space. Close your eyes and visualize the morning you walk back into your office for the first time. You open the door, pass the reception desk, press a button on the elevator, and take a deep breath. Now picture an apartment building. You get a notification that your groceries have been delivered. Are they sitting outside the front door? Or are they crowded into the mailroom, sharing space with deliveries and packages for all of your neighbors who, like you, are now shopping from home? Things that wouldn’t have warranted a second thought before, now feel risky.
  • We’ll design spaces to make us healthier. One of the first questions for any planner is, how much space do you really need? It goes without saying that every office will need to consider teleworking. Physical space and physical barriers between employees will also increase. At entryways, you’ll see fewer handles and more automatic doors. Residential buildings will expand mail areas to receive — and separate — deliveries.
  • We’ll use smarter materials. Every single high-touch surface in our office, including handles, bathroom fixtures and tabletops, is made from nonporous material that can be cleaned with a single swipe. No more design elements that create nooks for germs. We designed our sinks to make hand washing easier and more sanitary and moved from bulk refill soap dispensers to ones with individual packets.
  • Cleaning protocol will take center stage. Our WELL Certification is not permanent; we need to apply to renew it every three years. Part of the renewal is a review of our building’s cleaning process. We’re responsible down to the minute details including method, frequency and products used. All must comply with CDC guidelines. Especially high-touch surfaces — like door handles and elevator buttons — which receive extra sanitization with an ultraviolet light wand.
  • Mechanical systems are out of sight, but not out of mind. The coronavirus sparked a national conversation about air. Specifically, how it is filtered and recycled through small spaces like cruise ships and airplanes — and buildings. New projects will have higher-quality air filtration systems, with strict monitoring of air particulates. The same goes for water filtration. Heating and cooling systems will be easy to access and easy to clean, to prevent microbes and bacteria like Legionnaires’ disease.
  • Emotional wellness is a priority. Right now, most of our focus is on physical safety. But it will be clear once we return to work that things will be different. Many of us will long for the way things were. The new normal may feel lonely, impersonal, or too sterile. We must consider the whole person — mind, body and spirit. Forward-thinking design can bring us closer to the things that give us comfort and connect us back to nature, such as an abundance of natural light, meaningful objects or artwork, rich plant life, and more. Company policies that address the whole person can complement physical spaces to create an environment of wellness.

How do you want to live and work?

This question guides every project. It is the bridge that connects your vision for a space with an architect’s expertise and creativity to design it. It lets us understand how clients want and need to use a building. It empowers you to see assumptions you don’t know you’ve made and possibilities you haven’t considered.

It’s clear that building design will adapt to better prioritize public health. The concept of wellness is no longer a mere consideration; it should be baked into every plan from the outset. But while the practice of architecture will change, our philosophy will not: we create spaces that allow people to thrive.