The impact of COVID-19 is bringing the interconnected relationship between the built, natural, and social environments closer to home than anything we've seen yet, through the risk it poses to our health. Even before COVID-19, the emergence of new sustainability metrics for the built environment, such as WELL and Living Building Challenge, reflect the evolution from the early building-centric approaches to a more holistic approach that is concerned about the wellbeing of people. Indeed, it is now imperative that we address the influence of the built environment on wellness, especially in consideration of vulnerable sub-groups such as individuals with underlying health conditions or the elderly.

Now that our collective awareness is acutely attuned to the health implications in how any multistory building, whether commercial or residential in use, handles air, water, sunlight, and interior materials impacts the spread of infectious disease, widespread adoption of sustainability practices offer solutions to keep us all healthier and safer. Workplaces will be among the early adopters with consumer-facing retail and service businesses quick to follow.

For example, air purification systems, zoned HVAC systems, humidification, and fresh air exchange significantly reduces how long a microbe remains in the air. Water purification and re-use systems protect the water supply and conserve the resource. Integrating access to the outdoors – whether on or above ground – help to maintain a connection to nature. Designing buildings to maximize access to the sun allows the UV rays of sunlight to naturally disinfect air and surfaces in addition to supporting our mental health, especially important when spending so much time indoors.

Take it a step further, equip buildings with UV-based devices for individual use as an alternative to harsh, chemical-based disinfectants, such as chlorine bleach and alcohol-based sanitizers that can leave toxic residue or result in resistant microbes as has occurred in healthcare settings. A focus on materials innovation in our paints that go beyond low VOC to limiting how long microbes can survive, and fabrics that are non-toxic, yet durable enough to endure disinfecting practices, can make a significant contribution to health and environment. Additionally, bringing back naturally antimicrobial materials, such as copper and brass, on high-touch surfaces is another option. More widespread adoption of touchless features for doors, bathroom fixtures, lights, and air-conditioning minimize the need to touch otherwise high-touch surfaces as well as reducing the need to continuously disinfect those surfaces, especially with toxic chemicals.

Design buildings with an entry mudroom or clean room, with lockers to change from outdoor shoes to indoor shoes, sinks to wash your hands, and possibly a dry spray for your clothes, all at a social distance. Restrooms should have wipes or cleaner available at all sinks and stalls, and everything from the elevator controls to the door controls touchless – wave a hand to open a door, show phone code to get to your floor, or use a fob. Changes in space planning that incorporate multiple pathways through a space and more convenient stair options (with disposable gloves for the railing) as an alternative to elevators support social distancing protocols when those are in place.

As the country prepares to ease shelter-in-place restrictions, incorporating sustainability practices into the protocols of our after COVID-19 reality, is an important investment in human resiliency as well as the preservation of our collective home, earth.

Additional resources:

Three Most Common Sustainability Rating Systems

Multifamily Design Trends for Maintaining Healthy Lifestyles

Webinar: How the Pandemic May Change Future Home Design