As the world returns to work, school and university in the wake of the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting to the new need to minimise contact and transmission is key. For many office buildings there are changes that can be introduced to lay out and the way that staff move around the building. However, one of the key challenges is going to be fresh air. Air conditioning has become standard across the board for most offices today but this is something that could be problematic when it comes to minimising rates of transmission and keeping people safe.

How is COVID-19 already changing office fit outs?

Many businesses where staff have already returned to work have introduced significant changes to the way their spaces are being used. For example, in order to meeting social distancing guidelines additional room between desks has become necessary and walls, partitions and screens added to help keep staff separate from one another. However, in many buildings there is likely to be a much more serious problem to contend with: the air conditioning.

How is the air conditioning likely to affect office fit out?

Although coronavirus is still surrounded by a lot of uncertainty it has become clear that transmission doesn’t necessarily have to take place as a result of large droplets being coughed or sneezed onto the skin. Instead, inhalation of even a small amount of the virus can cause infection. This is the result of tiny particles of the virus that can cause infection, which can stay floating in the air for minutes or hours. Where there is an air conditioning system that is recirculating the air there is less opportunity for the virus to actually be removed from the air and that can cause an infection spike.

How do buildings today make it hard?

Modern buildings are designed with climate control in mind, not infection reduction. Cross ventilation was previously the priority. Many office buildings don’t really have windows – especially those that open – because the idea in recent times has been to keep buildings sealed in order to keep them cool. Now, what was previously an attribute in office design has become a flaw, as being able to bring fresh air into buildings is essential. This may mean we see a return to passive cooling systems, which rely on outdoor air and allow for air mixing. Some designers are already creating buildings with more natural access to air and sunlight, bearing in mind that the virus can survive outside for around 30 minutes but only for up to six minutes in direct sunlight. Projects in countries such as Liberia that have had to factor in outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola may drive design change. One for example, used large chimneys positioned across a building, which drove air circulation in a passive way.

Pandemic resilient spaces are becoming the focus in office design today and that may mean returning to designs of the past. Windows that can be opened and spaces that can be retrofitted for virus conditions may be the way forward today.