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The Role of Buildings in Combating COVID-19

As information on how to address the potential spread of COVID-19 via airborne aerosol emissions is hard to find, contradictory, and minimal at best, a group of industry leaders launch a petition to the World Health Organization to work with built environment experts to develop much-needed indoor environment guidance.

By Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, LEED Fellow & Joyce Lee, FAIA, WELL AP, LEED Fellow
August 20, 2020

Like many other architects, we were very concerned after seeing the news in early July about the potential of COVID-19 infection through airborne aerosol emissions, not just larger droplets. This meant that buildings can and should play a major role in mitigating COVID-19 spread, something that built environment experts can do something about. It’s in our realm of influence.


But the guidance on how to address this potential spread is hard to find, contradictory, and minimal at best. As sustainability design professionals, we also had concerns about the energy impact of maximizing outside air flow without understanding the amount or context within which to do so. And with the amount of increased time that will be spent indoors in the northern hemisphere as schools and workplaces potentially open, the timing is urgent.


A small group of leaders in architecture, engineering, and interior design decided to see how many others in our world would be interested in supporting an effort to address this gap. We decided to create a petition to the World Health Organization, which would be in the best position to work with built environment experts to develop much-needed indoor environment guidance. This will enable built environment and health professionals to work together more seamlessly to improve indoor environments and for the public to be better informed. 


The petition was delivered to World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday, August 3.


The full petition can be found here.


The response has been overwhelming! As of today, we have received almost 800 signatures of built environment experts from 53 countries. It’s been truly a grassroots effort that demonstrates the power of our disciplines coming together in a common and urgent cause. The petition was organized by the two of us, along with Kay Sargent, ASID, IIDA, CID, LEED AP, MCR.w, WELL AP; Pauline Souza, FAIA, LEED Fellow, WELL AP; Luke Leung, PE, LEED Fellow, P Eng; and William P. Bahnfleth, Ph.D., PE, FASHRAE, FASME, FISIAQ 


In addition to hundreds of signatures, we were very pleased to have support from international associations that are focused on creating a healthy, resilient, equitable, and sustainable built world. This includes statements from: the International Union of Architects (UIA); the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI); the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC); the International Living Future Institute (ILFI); the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IFI); and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).


UIA President Thomas Vonier said: “The UIA – the sole global body representing the world's 3.2 million architects – joins in calling for further research focused on the role of indoor air in the spread and aerosolization of pathogens, and collaboration on developing design guidelines and solutions that are supported by scientific evidence. The WHO could have pivotal influence in developing and promulgating building-based solutions that help to thwart the spread of COVID-19.”


Support from other associations can be found in the full press release here.


This is just the beginning of getting the word out about the urgency of addressing indoor environments to mitigate COVID-19. With the recent surges in the U.S. and many other countries, it’s clear that this condition is not going away and will have a major impact on building design for a long time.


The role of buildings needs to be in the frontline of defense, along with social distancing, face masks, and other protocols. Discuss with building owners and operators the need to increase outside air through natural ventilation wherever possible, or mechanically and filter all return air with MERV-13 filters. See the latest ASHRAE and AIA COVID-19 mitigation guidance. Please help spread the word in your community and social media by urging public health leaders to adopt and advance indoor environment best practices. We stand ready to work together!



Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, LEED Fellow, co-leads Cameron MacAllister Group’s sustainability consulting efforts working with design firms to accelerate their sustainable and resilient design outcomes. Lazarus is an architect with over 35 years of experience, serving as Firmwide Director of Sustainable Design at HOK, and one of the founders of the firm’s sustainable design initiative. She is a co-author on the seminal HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design, 2nd Edition. In addition, she served as the Resident Fellow on Sustainability at the American Institute of Architects, and authored the AIA’s Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan addressing how architects can expand their impact through sustainability. Lazarus has been active in the green building movement for more than two decades as an author, national lecturer, community advocate, and volunteer at the local and national levels. She served as 2017 Chair of the AIA’s Committee on the Environment Advisory Group. She also sits on the USGBC Resilience Steering Committee Group, and serves on the Advisory Board of the Resilient Design Institute. Lazarus is an Adjunct Faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, and serves as Coordinator for the Sustainability Program at WashU’s University College. 


Joyce Lee, FAIA, WELL AP, LEED Fellow, is president of IndigoJLD, providing green health, design, benchmarking, and planning services for exemplary projects and communities. She became one of 350 LEED Fellows worldwide while on the board of trustees of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Lee is also on adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania focusing on building healthy places, and serves on the board of the French American Chamber of Commerce PHL. She has been a Fellow at the National Leadership Academy for Public Health after serving as Chief Architect at the New York City Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. During her tenure, the program grew more than 25%. She was then the first Active Design Director, with a focus on design excellence and human health, in New York City. Lee co-authored the Active Design Guidelines, which won recognition from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as well as the Sustainable Building Industry Council. Lee is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Health and Human Services Good Neighbor Award, Platinum Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies; the President's Award from the American Institute of Architects New York State; and the Aga Khan Award from Harvard/MIT.



(click on pictures to enlarge)


Ng Teng Fong General Hospital by HOK (COTE Top Ten Award winner, 2017): 70% of the facility is naturally ventilated, and provides every patient with an adjacent operable window. The building uses 38% less energy than a typical Singaporean hospital, and 69% less than a typical U.S. hospital.