Embracing clean design: how thoughtful design choices can slow the spread of disease

As the design world responds in real time to the coronavirus pandemic, a surge of “clean” design recommendations is suddenly available. These suggestions describe everything from how to integrate antimicrobial materials to how to improve air quality, implement sensor technologies, and approach space planning in the workplace to incorporate social distancing measures. While some of these are short-term strategies, many hint at a larger movement toward “clean design”—a series of design choices rooted in the need to protect public health long-term.

Just as environmentalism inspired comprehensive building standards—such as LEED and WELL—the recent design trends inspired by disease prevention will soon coalesce into a more established series of guidelines and best practices. These standards will place new responsibility on building ownership to make their buildings feel safe to tenants who have become more aware of how their surroundings can impact their health.

As we begin to envision the increased sensitivity of office design in the wake of COVID-19, there is also a more cautionary lesson to learn from the environmental movement. Many have noted that the growing public awareness of sustainability and “green” design also gave rise to “greenwashing”—the use of vague environmental shortcuts in the interest of marketing a product or building as environmentally friendly. If designers, manufacturers, and building owners fail to make conscientious choices in the wake of COVID-19, the move towards “clean” environments could provoke a new era of “cleanwashing.”

While the responsibility for preventing direct person-to-person disease transmission falls largely on the individual, building owners and landlords will be expected to become more cognizant of potentially hazardous elements within a space such as poor ventilation, densely crowded areas, and high-touch surfaces. Although the CDC currently states that surface transmission is not a primary means of contracting COVID-19, the research is ever-evolving; a person may still be able to contract the disease by touching their face after touching an infected surface. According to a recent study, a cluster of COVID-19 cases originating in a shopping mall in Wenzhou, China, may have been connected through contact with a contaminated object.

Developing intensive cleaning practices, encouraging social distancing, and designing with hygiene in mind will not only mitigate the spread of disease but also convey to tenants that the building’s owner is committed to ensuring their safety. Conversely, a building that does not appear to be following recommendations for cleanliness and social distancing stands to make people feel unsafe and drive away business. Working with architects and designers to implement a set of “clean” design practices will create a building that offers a feeling of safety to occupants while providing effective long-term preventative measures.

Here are some ways to ensure you take adequate measures in working with your architect to ensure your building tenants thrive.