How COVID-19 is affecting air quality, smart buildings

Arup’s Mark Walsh-Cooke shared tools to help engineers stay better informed about HVAC systems, air quality, smart buildings and technology

By Mark Walsh-Cooke July 28, 2020

Mark Walsh-Cooke, PE, LEED AP BD+C, a principal in Arup’s Boston office, provides insights on how COVID-19 is affecting his work, and how his engineering team is addressing the issues.

Question: Have building owners or clients approached you to assist with changes or updates to their building to help protect against COVID-19? What services has your firm offered?

Walsh-Cooke: Arup is providing guidance to a number of existing clients on best practices for safely reoccupying buildings and how to make future buildings more resilient to pandemics and other shocks and stressors. We have also been hired to help clients develop and implement COVID-19 prevention strategies.

Arup’s Foresight team has also worked with our clients to make some informed projections about how the pandemic could reshape the future of offices. We recently published a report — The future of offices in a post-pandemic world — outlining our findings.

As a multidisciplinary engineering, consulting and planning firm, our COVID-19-related services range from HVAC design to health and wellness consulting to integrated planning.

Question: For hospitals and health care facilities, do you anticipate increased demand for engineering services? What else is changing in these buildings?

Walsh-Cooke: We are still in the middle of the pandemic, so it’s difficult to gauge its long-term consequences. What I can say with certainty is that some hospitals and health care facilities have already felt the worst of effects of the pandemic and have responded by rapidly implementing changes to better protect their patients and improve their resilience to COVID-19 and similar future threats. We are currently helping several owners revamp older buildings to reinforce social distancing and align their HVAC systems with the current ASHRAE COVID-transmission reduction standards.

Most modern hospitals and health care facilities are already relatively robust when it comes preventing contagion. For those equipped with enhanced HVAC systems and prevention technologies, like ultraviolet irradiation and increased air change rates, long-term changes may not be necessary. They may be required to limit air recirculation or run systems overnight to flush a space to reduce the likelihood of contagion during a crisis, but they are unlikely to require major overhauls.

Question: How do you keep your engineers and subject matter experts updated on the latest technologies and tools? How will these professionals enhance their engineering skills in the “new business world”

Walsh-Cooke: Technical excellence and innovation are central tenants of the Arup culture, because those were two of the values that our founder Ove Arup really stressed from the beginning. The result is that we have a lot of knowledge portals available to our staff. Arup University is an in-house educational resource that promotes ongoing learning via our skills network; we have an entrepreneurial arm that provides funding to our staff who are interested in exploring new areas of research or developing new products; and we have Arup’s Foresight team, which is wholly focused on tracking new and emerging trends with the potential to reshape industry practices. We encourage information sharing and managers are expected to foster the on-going learning and development of their team members.

Question: To help improve indoor air quality, what tools, products or systems are you recommending for clients?

Walsh-Cooke: We are using our in-house modeling program to help analyze how people move through lobbies, offices and large-volume spaces in order to understand where enhanced cleaning or ventilation may be required. We are also investigating air-cleaning technologies, such as bipolar ionization and photocatalytic oxidation, to determine their viability within the HVAC system.

Some of the HVAC strategies that help combat COVID-19, such as disabling demand-controlled ventilation and economizers, have serious energy use implications and shouldn’t be viewed as long-term solutions. We are leveraging our energy modelling tools to help clients find the most effective, energy-efficient COVID-19 prevention solutions for their space, based on size, location, budget, density and a range of other factors.

Question: Do you think the demand for smart building technologies will change over the next six months? If so, how will you meet this increased demand? If not, how will you continue to work with clients to stay connected to their buildings and engineered systems?

Walsh-Cooke: Demand is already changing and will continue to.

The benefits provided by smart building systems became obvious this past spring when office buildings emptied out. Those buildings equipped with these systems were able to dial back HVAC settings, sometimes remotely, which helped owners save substantial energy and money. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more interest among Class B building owners in implementing these types of systems in the wake of COVID-19.

During this crisis, many of us working in the smart building systems arena have recognized their potential for further development as well. Providing users with assurance that they are entering healthy spaces will be critical as we transition out of crisis. Smart building technologies can help building owners do that, because they are designed to collect data on environmental conditions inside the building.

I also believe we will see these systems expanded to include new features, such as thermal scanning, asset tracking and enhanced monitoring of indoor air quality. My sense is that there will be a greater demand for healthy buildings even after the imminent threat of COVID-19 is over, because the pandemic has underscored the links between our health and the quality of our indoor environments.

Author Bio: Mark Walsh-Cooke, PE, LEED AP BD+C, principal, Arup.