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How the Built Environment will play a Critical Role in Restoring Economies and Protecting Human Health during the next phase of the COVID 19 Pandemic.

Our jobs, finances and lives have been drastically , and in some unspeakably tragic situations , irrevocably,  altered by the recent viral pandemic.

 Most government responses to the COVID 19 outbreak have employed some variation of a twofold strategy : preventative measures to slow the spread of the virus and limit infection ( think : lockdowns, social distancing) , paired with curative measures  aimed at maximizing the number of people who , if infected , do recover , mostly by ensuring the availability and adequacy of medical staff and resources . Interestingly, the role of the built environment in the fight against the pandemic has so far been relatively overlooked.

So why has sustainability in the built environment been relegated to this rather unremarkable back seat? The answer lies less in the perceived value of sustainable measures, and more in the timing of their deployment in the crisis. The truth is that the lockdown measures have effectively made the Large Commercial Building virtually redundant. It is not that government officials suddenly see sustainability measures as unimportant, frivolous pursuits. Rather, the situation is more that the viral pandemic is unfolding like a two or three act drama, with the Built Environment not making an appearance during Act 1. The question now is, what next for ourselves, our nations and for humankind?

 “Flattening the curve “using social distancing was a great battle won for Humankind. But the ultimate victory in the COVID 19 war , will be in restarting economies, restoring civil liberties, and reuniting families whilst simultaneously protecting human health and well being. In other words , we must be able to restore some semblance of our financial and personal lives whilst still keeping the dreaded  COVID 19 at bay. It is during this phase of our fight against the pandemic , when businesses tentatively reopen, that WELL Buildings and the sustainable measures within them will take center stage in protecting human health and wellbeing  .

The WELL Building standard is a building rating system which focusses exclusively on the health and wellbeing of building occupants. As such, it is meant to work alongside green building rating systems such as BREEAM and LEED which address a building’s overall environmental impact .

The role of WELL measures in the built environment is twofold – first , reducing transmission rates of viral and microbial infections within the building.  Second, to strengthen our main defense against viral infection, the body’s immune system, thus increasing an infected individual’s chance for recovery.

Some of the strategies aimed at strengthening the immune system include promoting fitness and exercise while at work ( think : standing desks, under desk minibikes amongst other measures ) as well as promoting food that supports the immune system. Other measures include the banning of smoking not only within the building ,   but also within 25 ft of all operable windows , openings and fresh air intakes , and promoting use of Low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) materials similar to the LEED rating system to promote the health of the respiratory system.

With respect to reduced transmission rates ( a key objective to almost all governments in both initial and subsequent phases ) The WHO states that COVID 19 virus can survive for up to 72 hours on surfaces. Disinfection & Sterilization are therefore key to reducing transmission rates .  The critical success factors here are ensuring effectiveness , and delivery mechanisms that fulfill the intent by mitigating impact on the immune system. A common misconception is that with sanitization, more is better. The facts are that excessive use of disinfectants on surfaces not only has negative environmental impacts, but can actually adversely affect the immune system of the occupants constantly exposed to those chemicals, thereby defeating the overall intent of the strategy . Effective surface cleaning should therefore effectively suppress microbial build up on surfaces whilst minimizing the use of chemicals. Recommendations for effective sanitization of surfaces in the WELL rating system include :

    1. Ensure your Cleaning Plan considers impacts on the human immune system and the environment by using the minimum amount of sanitizers and detergents needed to maintain environmental impact. WELL recommends following the Green Seal 42 Standard for Commercial and Institutional cleaning services.
    2. Cleaning Protocols should specifically identify and address cleaning requirements for high touch surfaces ( such as : doorknobs, elevator buttons ) as these typically are the most likely surfaces to transmit viral and microbial infections. These surfaces can also be coated with a non-leaching, anti-microbial coating to accelerate the natural rate of microbial cell death , without leaching significant amounts of anti-microbial materials into the surrounding environment .
    3. Ultraviolet devices are used to clean high touch surfaces ( with a recommended capacity of at least 4mW/ cm2 ) .
    4. In areas which recirculate air, it is recommended to utilize active carbon filters  to remove Volatile Organic Compounds . Photocatalytic Oxidation devices or ultraviolet germicidal irradiation devices may be used  to irradiate any bacteria, viruses or mold spores present.  These can either be integrated into the HVAC system or standalone ( such as purifiers with carbon filters )
 
 

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