1 Introduction

The outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and has since spread to many countries. While a lot more research is required about the virus and what causes it, medical science and research have confirmed that it is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person or by touching surfaces that are contaminated with the virus and then touching their face. While COVID-19 continues to spread, it is imperative that communities take action to prevent further transmission, reduce the impacts of the outbreak and relook their day-to-day activities. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated changes that were already underway and triggered a radical rethink not just of where we work, but how, where and when.

In an environment where COVID-19 does not differentiate between borders, ethnicities, disability, status, age or gender, the workplace setting should continue to be welcoming, respectful, inclusive, and supportive environments to all. But how does this ‘’new face’’ of office environments look? We find ourselves at a crossroads – where the history of the future of the workspace is full of false hopes, failed reforms, and promises of change that seem never to materialise. The tools to remake the workplace were already available before Covid, and few used them. While at the same time the inertia of the old system is underestimated and workers are yearning for a return to normality after a straining crisis. For the majority of the population who do not fall into the key workers’ category, working from home has taken some getting used to, with many dining tables, couches and even garden sheds converted into an office working environment and office desk.

This article examines the most significant commercial office space questions of the post-pandemic moment. It will look at what the COVID-19 SARS CoV-2 is, how it spreads and how to prevent its spreading by highlighting conceptual and proven ways of combatting transmission through Architectural and Engineering design principles in conventional and new office spaces.

1.1 Topics excluded in this article:

  • Discuss any mental health issues caused by the influence of COVID-19 in the workplace
  • Discuss the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Discuss HVAC systems in technical detail, but only its role in good architectural
  • Study and discuss TB in detail
  • Discuss benefits for workers and employers of flexible/work-from-home office spaces

2 Understanding COVID-19 SARS CoV-2 and how it is spread in the office environment

In response to COVID-19, countries across the world have implemented an array of public health and social measures, such as the limitation on movement, partial or full closure of schools and businesses, quarantine in specific geographic areas and a ban on international travel. As the local epidemiology of the disease changes, countries have adjusted these health and social measures accordingly (i.e. loosen or reinstate). As transmission intensity also declined, some countries began to gradually re-open workplaces to maintain economic activity. This requires establishing protective and preventative measures – all of which to be implemented in the existing, or in some cases new, architectural and engineered designed spaces (www.who.int, n.d.)

On 16 April 2020, WHO published an interim guidance document that aimed to provide advice on adjusting Public Health and Social Measures and offered general guidance for non-healthcare workplaces and workers, while managing the risk of new cases.  According to WHO (www.who.int, n.d.), the risk of work-related exposure to COVID-19 depends on the probability of coming into close (less than 1 metre) or frequent contact with people who may be infected with COVID-19. The WHO further states that the risk of work-related exposure also includes contact with contaminated surfaces and objects. With workplace-environments classified as Medium exposure risk areas, its related jobs or work tasks require close, frequent contact with the general public, or other co-workers, visitors, clients or customers, or contractors, but that does not require contact with people known to be or suspected of being infected with COVID-19.

2.1.  COVID-19 disease: what is it?

Image 1: 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Virus structure. Cold (World Health Organization, 2020).

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus. ‘CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, and ‘D’ for disease and was formerly referred to as ‘2019 novel coronavirus’ or ‘2019-nCoV.’ The COVID-19 virus is a new virus linked to the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and some types of the common cold (World Health Organization, 2020). Symptoms of infected individuals with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without needing special treatment. At the same time, older people and those with underlying medical problems are more likely to develop severe illness.

Based on the current research available, the virus is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person – this can be via coughing, sneezing or touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching their face (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth). Although the COVID-19 virus may survive on surfaces for several hours, it can be killed by simple disinfectants.

3 Transmission routes

The economy-crippling SARS-CoV-2 outbreak has caused many individuals, scientists, health care practitioners, architectural and even engineering designers to revisit their understanding of droplet and airborne transmission. These two primary transmission mechanisms form a continuum, and the following is generally accepted:

  • Infectious particles (<5μm in size) can remain suspended and viable for many hours. These factors contribute significantly to the risk of airborne transmission.
  • Droplet transmission includes larger particles which can also spread through the air, but the range of transmission is generally considered to be less than 2 meters. Outside of the 2m range of transmission, the particles will fall out of the breathing zone. It is important to note and take into consideration that within this 2 m distance, these larger droplets are in principle ‘airborne’. Diluting ventilation systems have little effect on reducing the risk of near-range droplet transmission (www.who.int, n.d.).

3.1 Understanding airborne transmission in the office workplace

Considering the small amount of non-conclusive scientific research and evidence available regarding the long-range airborne transmission in the sense of droplet nucleation, as with TB and measles (Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention, n.d.) the WHO reported on evidence of airborne transmission. And it can be seen in the context of opportunistic long-range droplet spread (Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools, 2020), as reported during The van Doremalen SARS-CoV-2 survival study.

The van Doremalen SARS-CoV-2 survival study (COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses Interim guidance 7 April 2020 Background, n.d.) incorrectly reported to have shown that SARS-CoV-2 can remain viable in the air for extended periods. Which supported the numerous evidence reporting that long-range airborne viability has yet been found outside of lab settings. Correlations between culture viability, particle size and the real world infectious quantum were not described in this study (COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses Interim guidance 7 April 2020 Background, n.d.) as it was not the study’s intention to claim COVID-19 was airborne while similar lab studies have also demonstrated a 3-hour airborne survival for viral strains such as Ebola, that was concluded not to be airborne (PAHO and UNOPS, COVID-19 Measures for prevention in construction, 2020)

3.2 Understanding droplet transmission in the office workplace

The spread of diseases and viruses seldom obey only one means of transmission (obligatory transmission) but often have inclinations (preferential transmission) while occasionally exploiting circumstances which provide rare opportunities for transmission (opportunistic routes). SARS-COV-2 is understood to be preferentially droplet and contact spread (a form of droplet spread where droplets can settle on objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, and furniture). With possible uncommon and opportunistic airborne spread (Operational considerations for COVID-19 management in the accommodation sector Interim guidance 30 April 2020 Background, n.d.).

Droplet transmission precautions include standard safeguards such as PPE, hand washing and physical distancing, while airborne precautions include negative pressure isolation, respiratory protection and special exhaust or filtration regimes.

3.3 Understanding fecal-oral transmission in the office workplace

The faecal-oral route of transmission is acknowledged for COVID-19 and indirectly affects ventilation system design (Preparedness, prevention, and control of coronavirus disease (COVID-19,) for refugees and migrants in non-camp settings Interim guidance 17 April 2020 Background, n.d.). Special consideration should be given to common scenarios where the aerosolisation of contaminated wastewater is a possibility and include areas such as bathrooms where adequate ventilation practises and negative pressure relative to adjacent spaces should be considered.

3.4 Aircraft transmission studies

SARS and COVID-19 outbreaks on commercial aircraft have proven to be unusually rare – mainly due to the high ventilation rates implemented on these aircraft, according to Cirrincione (Cirrincione et al., 2020). Studies tracing contacts and COVID-19 virus spread on flights seem to show multiple cases of very low to zero transmission rates according to WHO (WHO,2020. Considerations for the disinfection of environmental surfaces in the context of COVID-19). The context of this aircraft outbreak findings highlights the essential role ventilation has in creating safe, habitable environments, while also revealing and once again confirming the low-risk levels associated with the airborne transmission of COVID-19.

Studies conducted by the WHO (Considerations for quarantine of individuals in the context of containment for coronavirus disease (COVID-19), n.d.) have found real-world SARS-CoV-2 in air, ducting and on extraction fans. However, they have so far failed to prove that the virus that was found was still viable (www.who.int, n.d.). It has been suggested that high temperature and humidity would reduce the spread of the virus (www.ilo.org, 2020) with temperature ranges (>50°C) beyond what anyone could endure in an ICU while the humidity ranges of between 40-60% are achievable. The high humidity slows the nucleation of the viral droplet and increases its settling speed, reducing its range. It is therefore essential to note that transmission risk in a home will not be the same as in workplaces.

4 Lessons learnt: Guangzhou Restaurant and South Korea Call Centre Outbreak (2020)

The 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 in a restaurant in Guangzhou raised some important, long overdue questions around the airborne spread of this and other diseases as stated by Belingheri, Paladino, and Riva in their report (Belingheri, Paladino and Riva, 2020). The study conducted on the Guangzhou Restaurant Outbreak (2020) shows that the transmission range of COVID-19 may exceed the generally prescribed separation distance of 1m under certain conditions.

In the Guangzhou restaurant illustrated below, one sick patron infected nine others. In the centre of this history-defying moment, it was found that the air conditioning units cooled different zones, and one unit blew directly over the three tables – the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak. The woman believed to be the index-patient was seated with her family at the middle table. Air flowing from the air conditioning unit may have blown her respiratory droplets over to the table farthest from the AC unit. The air then bounced off the wall and brought those droplets back in the direction of the table on the other side, next to the AC unit.

Image 2: Guangzhou Restaurant COVID-19 outbreak (2020). (Science News, 2020) Y. LI et al./MEDRXIV 2020

This is still considered a critical event in the study of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and supports the widespread caution to be taken with regards to the airborne transmission where similar events are not widespread by now.

The outbreak in a call-centre on the 11th story of a South Korean office block offers some extraordinary insights, specifically considering the significantly reduced number of reported cases in the adjacent room on the same floor. This case cluster provides an example of how COVID-19 can emerge in a bustling open-office setting — and how to intervene and stop transmission. According to the report (Science News, 2020), it appears as if the outbreak followed physical compartmentalisation and not HVAC zoning (although an HVAC plan of the building was not discussed). It is reported that COVID-19 is exceptionally contagious in crowded office settings and that the exposure time correlated with the transmission risk while lobbies and lifts contributed little to the spread of the virus. Employees sat side by side, talking on the phone for long shifts which lead researchers to suspect that prolonged proximity, rather than touching the same surface drove the spread.

Image 3: South Korean call centre-19 outbreak (2020). (Science News, 2020)

Most of the 97 COVID-19 cases in this outbreak were concentrated on the 11th floor with 94 call centre employees testing positive for COVID-19 (workstations of people who got infected shown in blue).

It can be concluded from the two outbreak-scenarios that opportunities for the re-evaluation of the following should be taken advantage of:

  • HVAC zoning or an HVAC plan of existing and new buildings
  • Ratios and design of male and female bathrooms
  • Vertical transport characteristics and vertical air distribution through buildings
  • Assessment of the plumbing system to prevent the re-aerosolisation of contaminated wastewater coming from faulty plumbing systems

4.1 Overcrowded and under ventilated: architecture meets engineering

It is essential to differentiate between ventilation and air-conditioning when discussing indoor contamination. The term ventilation is used to describe any system that induces decontaminated, fresh or outdoor-air to circulate into a space using a supply or extraction system. Diluting ventilation is the most universally used system while other modes of contaminant removal involve displacement and local exhaust ventilation systems, each with its approach to infection control.

In contrast to ventilation, air-conditioning refers to only the mechanical cooling or heating system. In some instances, this is installed directly in a space (Split-AC), to offer thermal comfort and even humidity control. In-room air-conditioning systems that circulate air directly within a space with no or little dilution or extraction offer no reduction in airborne contaminant levels and even assist in the distribution of contaminants in the space serviced by this air-conditioning unit.

Openable windows, sometimes at the expense of indoor comfort, can be considered as a means of ventilation apertures and even offer highly effective ventilation. Encouraging occupants of any office space to open windows will reduce that risk of transmission, even though long-range droplet transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is relatively low in comparison to short-range transmission. Allowing office space occupants to use air-conditioning to either heat or cool a space while the adequately provided windows are open, can improve levels of open window compliance which is preferential over limiting AC use to reduce long-range transmission. Considering additional strategies to both improve open window compliance and reduce AC usage would be to ease strict corporate dress codes as this can contribute to improving thermal comfort levels during hot and humid seasons.

5 Institutional guidelines

The WHO’s advice regarding SARS-CoV-2 transmission during clinical interventions is as follows:

“In the context of COVID-19, airborne transmission may be possible in specific circumstances and settings in which procedures or support treatments that generate aerosols are performed. I.e., endotracheal intubation, bronchoscopy, open suctioning, administration of nebulised treatment, manual ventilation before intubation, turning the patient to the prone position, disconnecting the patient from the ventilator, non-invasive positive-pressure ventilation, tracheostomy, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.” – WHO 2020, (In the face of a pandemic: Ensuring Safety and Health at Work can save lives Safety and health at work, n.d.)

While the WHO’s position acknowledges the increased risk of transmission in crowded and under-ventilated spaces, their proposed appropriate response is not to increase prescribed general ventilation rates, but rather to avoid overcrowding and ensure that existing and new ventilation systems are maintained correctly.

The CDC’s advice regarding SARS-CoV-2 transmission is almost identical to its control measures for SARS-CoV-1:

The primary transmission of COVID-19 is from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. These droplets are released when someone with COVID-19 sneezes or coughs. COVID-19 can also be spread when you are in close contact with someone who is sick (e.g., shaking hands or talking). A physical distance of at least 1 meter (3ft) between persons is suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO) to avoid infection, although some WHO member states have recommended maintaining greater distances whenever possible.  Respiratory droplets can land on objects or surfaces around the person when they cough or talk, and people can then become infected with COVID-19 from touching these objects or surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Recent data suggests that there can be transmission of COVID-19 through droplets of those with mild symptoms or those who do not feel ill” (CDC, 2020).

While the US-CDC and WHO maintains that the airborne transmission of the COVID-19 disease is not of primary concern, ASHRAE (being an association dedicated to ventilation engineering) focuses on the airborne component.

“Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes to building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems, can reduce airborne exposures“(CDC, 2020).

REHVA’s temporary guidance document is unfortunately limited to commercial and public buildings REHVA (REHVA,2020), but similar to ASHRAE, REHVA focusses on engineering controls for airborne transmission. REHVA acknowledges the importance of droplet-spread precautions and the lack of quality evidence for airborne transmission.

Image 3-4: (REHVA’s temporary guidance (REHVA,2020)).

The IUSS Building Engineering Services Guidelines (Building Engineering Services, 2020) which is mandated for new buildings by provincial departments of health by reference in Government Notice R116, describes risk-based ventilation criteria which is in its basic understanding applicable to COVID-19, but excessive. This guideline was developed with control measures for the ongoing TB epidemic in mind. It would be more than appropriate for most workspaces and therefore, suspected confirmed COVID-19 patients should only be treated in negative pressurised rooms that comply with the guidelines.

The 2011 edition of the SANS 10400 Part O is often criticised for overprescribing ventilation rates when compared with international best practice. The mechanical ventilation criteria of this standard prioritise indoor air quality over the energy efficiency of a building and take a strict approach to ventilation in many spaces. The 10 ACH standard and more is typical for areas with any risk of airborne contamination but provides insufficient performance guidance for naturally ventilated spaces.

While the SANS 10400-O:2011 demands unprecedently high ventilation rates and offers little supporting evidence with the criteria, it should be considered better than many international standards for use in general settings where airborne contamination is a risk. Unfortunately, the SANS 10400-O:2011 does not permit the simultaneous use of natural ventilation and air-conditioning which can lead to many architectural and engineering designers to erroneously conclude that windows in air-conditioned spaces should not be opened/openable.

5.1 Prescriptive precautions and criteria for workplace disease control

Universal measures for the prevention in the transmission of COVID-19 apply to all workplaces in a medium-risk environment and all people at the workplace, such as employers, managers, workers, contractors, customers and visitors. Regular and thorough handwashing with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand-rub should be encouraged at all hand hygiene stations. Respiratory etiquette and policies must be promoted and adhered to by all employees and visitors at the workplace while wearing medical face masks.

Measures to keep a physical distance of at least 1 metre between people and avoiding direct physical contact with other employees must be introduced and enforced in the workplace. The reduced density of people in the building/office area (no more than 1 person per every 10 square metres), spacing at least 1 metre apart for work stations and shared spaces, such as entrances/exits, lifts, pantries/canteens, stairs, where queuing of employees or visitors/clients might occur will also contribute to a healthy, COVID-19 conscious workplace.

The need for physical meetings must be minimised, and the avoidance of crowding by staggering working hours to reduce congregation of employees at common spaces such as entrances or exits is highly advisable. As an alternative, shift or split-team arrangements, or teleworking can be implemented/enhanced.

Cleaning of all surfaces, using soap or a neutral detergent, water, and mechanical action (brushing, scrubbing) should be done at hourly intervals, followed by disinfection to inactivate (i.e. kill) pathogens and other microorganisms on surfaces after surface cleaning. High-frequency-touch surfaces should be identified for priority disinfection (commonly used areas, door and window handles, light switches, kitchen and food preparation areas, bathroom surfaces, toilets and taps, touchscreen personal devices, personal computer keyboards, and work surfaces).

Indoor spraying or fogging is not recommended, along with the spraying of people with disinfectants (such as in a tunnel, cabinet, or chamber). Face-to-face and skin-to-skin contacts must be minimised and avoided completely where possible, arranging workers’ workspaces to work side-by-side or facing away from each other. Assigning staff to the same shift teams can also contribute to limiting social interaction. Plexiglass barriers at all points of regular interaction can be installed and cleaned regularly. Most importantly, an increased ventilation rate, through natural aeration or artificial ventilation, preferably without re-circulation of the air, is advisable.

6 Architectural and Engineered post-COVID design approaches

With many companies now looking to re-evaluate what ‘’return to work’’ might look like once the COVID-19 wave of infection has decreased and a sense of normality returns, integrating working from home into a working week will become a long-term way of working. As an immediate result of this, one vital consideration springs to mind: what type of space will businesses require for their office staff?

The ‘hub and spoke’ approach to office spaces is a model that could become more popular and involves having a main office (the ‘hub’) and lots of smaller branch offices (the ‘spokes’), which are often closer to employees’ homes. The post COVID-19 transition period accommodates this model quite seamlessly and ultimately makes a lot of sense. It would reduce the need for employees to use public transport and offer an effective working environment. The predicted need for flexible suburban offices in the short-term is still to be seen, as in the long-term too, as a portion of workers might have the capacity and aspiration to make these working arrangements more permanent. This ultimately creates a more flexible and local working culture.

Currently, many existing and newly designed office buildings and workplace-settings follow the model of the cube or open-plan arrangement and are designed to enhance and promote collaboration and efficiency – sometimes leading to the opposite results due to poor implementation. Interior designers, architects and scientists alike recommend reflecting the company’s values through office design while leaving room for growth and installing features that facilitate both collaborative and individual work that will contribute to a successful cube or open-plan office arrangement.

The proliferation of open-plan offices has allowed for much research on which elements serve to increase productivity, happiness and most importantly in a post-COVID time, physical health and disease control. So, what have we learned about office environments in the past that we can use to improve upon the model in a post-COVID-19 era?

6.1 Innovative Engineering Design

The ventilation culture and overall engineered guidance justifiably bear the risk of being biased toward over-prescribing solutions over which they have the greatest understanding and control. By revamping existing ventilation systems in resource-constrained workplace settings to meet undeniably, overly-cautious guidance and control measures, should not be conducted without the informed design method and rationale of a mechanical engineer.

Image 5: NASA sustainable development base in Moffett Field, California

For workplace, medium-risk spaces it might be sensible to implement temporary measures to limit transmission and include engineering interventions such as:

  1. decongest indoor spaces to the minimum occupancy level
  2. open windows to the outside when occupational health, safety and security are not compromised
  3. increase HVAC fresh air rates to the maximum possible levels
  4. reduce HVAC re-circulation levels to the minimum possible levels
  5. flush buildings with fresh air before and after daily occupancy

So now that we as architects are also looking ahead, we face the question of how to increase indoor ventilation without accelerating energy consumption. One solution currently found on the European market is a different type of window design that has a mechanical heat-exchange system concealed inside the window sill. Allowing outside air to be warmed or cooled as it enters the building is what truly makes this revolutionary in a time of post-COVID office spaces with the name of the game being flexibility – a point in time where creativity and engineering can meet. Alternatively, the complex system of displacement ventilation can be considered in newly engineered, architectural office spaces. This system entails placing vents at the top of a room that pulls out a cloud of exhaled air and filters air to be delivered in vents along the floor – limiting the amount of viral material circulating in the shared air.

So what do these new, innovative, engineered-design concepts mean for the existing open-plan office arrangement? Simple. The open plan is here to stay — with more nature.

Sealing employees into individual hard-walled rooms is undoubtedly not the answer to disease control in office spaces, but rather preserving the benefits of open-plan offices by installing airflow systems that filter and reduce the amount of exhaled air from other people that employees inhale. The traditional air-handling system where fans push filtered air into a room via large overhead ducts can easily be forgotten along with what 2020 and COVID brought with it. But like in 2020, the problem with this scenario is very real and cannot be avoided.

The warm air we exhale typically rises and accumulates at the top of a room forcing the newly filtered air to fight its way through the cloud of virus particles exhaled by everyone sitting nearby before it can reach an employee’s desk.

Shifting the focus of this scenario, we look to the skies and nature for help. Providing opportunities for employees to come in contact with the natural world is called “biophilic design” and can boost productivity and physical health. Installing “living walls” instead of bland partitions, incorporating circadian-friendly lighting that brightens and dims across the workday, using high-performance natural construction materials, such as cross-laminated timber, rather than concrete, will offer employees a happy, safe and healthy office environment and create a more inviting office that is also environmentally sustainable. This living wall in the Danielle N. Ripich Commons at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, is one such approach.

Image 8: Living wall, Danielle N. Ripich Commons, University of New England, Biddeford, Maine. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

6.2 Innovative Architectural Design

  • Spatial planning and human movement

The shift to home-based work in 2020 has given employers a look at which tasks can be completed from home and which are better accomplished in person. Organisational psychologist Cristina Banks says that workers will be drawn to in-person/office work only when the office addresses psychological needs that the pandemic undercut. Banks is the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, a global research centre at the University of California, Berkeley. Safety, belonging, and self-sufficiency are three of the primary drivers of an individual’s sense of well-being, that have been “obliterated” by the pandemic.

  • Workspaces

Translating this into architectural design and spatial planning, the 6 Feet Office concept was developed. It’s a way of transforming existing offices that were not adhering to the COVID-19 workplace spatial standards, into places where the six-feet distance rule can be observed. The Six Feet Office space includes imperceptibly marked-out zones to keep office users separated at a safe distance and encourages workers to navigate the workspace in a clockwise direction.

Image 9: 6 Feet Office concept. (World Economic Forum, n.d.)

Even the office furniture of the post-COVID office space will see a radical reshape and decline in area consumption, with the office desk already shrunk from 1.8m to 1.4m and less.

New social safety concerns in the workplace will require a hybrid of the open office with some version of its former self. A happy medium with reasonable accommodations for privacy and sterility without stuffy, high-walled -cubicles, will take shape. Open offices with new privacy panels in place and workstations at a reasonable distance apart will satisfy social constructs. People’s expectations will be higher around opportunities to wash and sanitise their hands. We, as architects, must plan for the infrastructure that allows people in public spaces, corporate spaces, and restaurants to have that opportunity.

  • Meeting spaces

Pre-in-office meeting chatter at the coffee station is no longer the biggest concern in the workplace, but rather if there will be any people at the next in-office meeting. Asynchronous collaboration has become the preferred means of communication by tech-enabled employees, which enables them to work together in concept but not be together in their physical presence. It is that reason why large conference rooms in the post-COVID-19 workplace will be replaced by additional smaller meeting rooms of varying sizes and more open meeting spaces that can adapt in its occupancy. The popular client conference room adjacent to the reception area may be on its way out and replaced by smaller flexible meeting spaces equipped with powerful software.

  • Office kitchens and bathrooms

As the COVID-19 pandemic shift our focus on cleanliness and hygiene, employees have become more conscious of their interaction with spaces such as office kitchens. To ease the conscience of employees worried about virus spread in the office space, employers need COVID-19 protocols for workplace bathrooms and kitchens.

Shared public bathrooms have always been a potential danger zone for health, and with the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the risk of germ spread has further increased. The significant challenges we face when designing and equipping a public bathroom is to find innovative ways to reduce splashing, reduce touching of bathroom surfaces, and avoid residual stagnant water. Aquablade is a flushing technology that is cleaner, quieter and smarter and uses discrete slots to channel a sharp flow of water across the toilet bowl to provide splash-free flushing. Infrared and capacitive flush actuation then ensures a touch-free flushing experience to prevent infections and disease-spread in bathrooms effectively.

The introduction of technologies like touchless faucets, sensor flushes, wall mounted ceramic products, automatic soap dispensers and many more is done to improve cleanliness by reducing touchpoints on highly trafficked places.

Urinal systems are equipped with an anti-Covid protection screen in glass and a BMS (Bathroom Management Systems) to notify cleaning staff on his/her mobile of a possible clogging in a particular urinal or toilet, even before the clogging appears. Advanced self-flushing technologies can be combined with this BMS to flush the urinal or toilet automatically in case it is unused for a long time.

By reimagining thresholds, other touchpoints can be eliminated using smart architectural design and space planning. Doorless entries to bathrooms are created — similar to the labyrinth of privacy walls commonly seen at the entrances to public bathrooms in airports and stadiums.

  • Touchless use of office equipment

Reducing the opportunities for surface-to-person transmission of disease going forward, office designers are trying to eliminate shared touch points wherever possible. ‘’Touchless switches” where doors are opened by waving at a sensor rather than by pushing a button, specifically to mitigate viral transmission is one of the many innovative technologies developed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease in the office environment.

No-touch hardware may become a focal point of basic design to prevent the spreading of germs. Door handles, drawer pulls, and cabinet handles are some of the biggest criminals when assessing the amount of shared contact and contamination. New alternative solutions to this problem will allow for ‘hands-free’ operation that will be influenced by the healthcare sector into office spaces. Antimicrobial finishes will aid surfaces to kill germs on contact when instances, where alternative solutions are unavailable and shared touching, is simply unavoidable.

  • Innovative Technologies

From QR codes to biometric access systems, automatic blinds, air-con systems, and AV displays – all usually relying on remote controls and are handled by the masses. Touchscreen hygiene is a longstanding issue, and one we must address in the age of COVID-19. The solution? Sound recognition technologies and building control apps. From using voice-enabled commands to instruct your office blinds to lower or increase the temperature of your office to controlling your office environment with the swipe of a smartphone – a handful of apps already exist to allow office space users to control workspace HVAC systems, elevators and lighting, photocopiers and vending machines through a smartphone. Your smartphone could even aid in practising social distancing. Made by the United Nations, the 1point5 app notifies users when someone enters their 1.5-metre radius with some being retro-fitted with social distancing management and monitoring technologies.

Workplace access is another area where touchless technologies can provide office members and visitors with a digitally managed experience by allowing individuals to navigate through checkpoints using a QR code or another mobile-based access keys.

Augmented reality (AR) is also an alternative route to the touchless office through removing keyboards and other workstation-based germ magnets from the office entirely and installing futuristic desk set-ups where virtual, custom screens float in the air while virtual avatars of other employees enhance social interactions in the virtual realm.

Ultimately, a dynamic virtual work environment anchored by genuine social presence and powered by next-generation devices would give people infinite workspaces with configurable virtual screens, whiteboards, and other visionary tools. Employees can choose to work alone or collaborate in a meeting room filled with virtual, remote co-workers.

Looking at the headquarters of the Bee’ah waste management company in Sharjah, UAE, a true sense of the term ‘’touchless office’’ is seen. According to recent reports in The Guardian (Archilovers, n.d.), ‘’the building has been designed around “contactless pathways” where employees don’t need to touch a surface as they walk around the space. Facial recognition technology automatically opens doors for occupants.

Image 10: Bee’ah Headquarters, Sharjah, UAE, 2020. (Archilovers, n.d.)

Lifts, blinds, lighting, and ventilation call all be operated with a smartphone, and you can even order a coffee using one.’’ For example, the building will have standard energy efficiency measures controlling the lighting and cooling and be linked to a staff management system, automatically detecting an occupant’s preferred settings. “The full building is aware. So anywhere you are in the building, you can talk to it, assuming there is a microphone or speaker nearby,” says Tayara (Archilovers, n.d.). “It is like having an assistant with you all the time.” There are undoubtedly privacy concerns around such technologies. Tayara says that the ability to record meeting minutes is opt-in, and employees were briefed about the facial recognition systems and informed each individual why their movements would be tracked in the building.

Image 11: Bee’ah Headquarters, Sharjah, UAE, 2020. (Archilovers, n.d.)

While the Bee-ah HQ is a mesmerising and captivating prospect, the touchless office seems far away, and the prospect of the paperless office for most workspaces even more. Humans are still creatures of habit and, particularly after the isolation of lockdown, we’re going to need some human interaction from our workspaces now, more than ever.

But a 100% touchless office may also not be feasible for all employers. Although there are already some examples of fully contactless offices around the world, not all employers will want to consider this route. This is mainly due to the costs of implementation, maintenance and running of the system, and for many people, the charm of office workspaces is the opportunity for human interaction.

7 Conclusion

Most architects have to consider the reasons people want to build, and that means addressing their values. The ‘why’ of design should be the greatest motivation and end reward in doing what designers do, which is solving a problem. Architecture and engineering, being a deeply inspired practical art of composition and problem-solving, should not question itself in this post-Covid world. However, it may be solving different problems due to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic that will undeniably continue to be felt for several months to come as we all get to terms with the new measures the pandemic has brought with it. Physical distancing, only going out when it’s essential, continually washing and sanitising hands and surfaces and walking back to your car or into your home to fetch your PPE face mask. The current pandemic will be a catalyst for people and companies to reassess current practices, the way they work, where they work and when they work – all of these considerations will be a big part of our post-COVID-19 working environment.

Amidst the pandemic-imposed disruptions, architect Leonard Wyeth sees continuity as he describes the role of the architects as “Our role of interpreting how we occupy space, interact, gather, entertain, amuse and comfort each other has not changed. The ability of an environment to help us feel secure, to lift our spirits, to reach outward, look inward, to engage nature, to be inspired by awe, all are still fundamental to our role. Performance is a baseline. Values and motivation are fundamental to the art of architecture. Success requires that they remain inseparable.”

But the one thing that was changed by the pandemic, profoundly, is everyday life. The value we add to that of objects and celebrity worship, the architectural world’s fascination with novelty and invented aesthetics, all suddenly appear trivial when millions are worried about survival. In this time of intense change, the pre-Covid mindset allowed for the execution of buildings as a faceless transaction, a commodity exchange. Now, we stand more than half a year later, rethinking that approach. In a world forced into rapid transformation in all its spheres, where everyone is forced to rethink all they have come to know, architecture is not immune from introspection and seeing beyond itself. Let’s rethink if we need to, relook what we missed, reboot our thinking and pivot where we should.