How pandemics affect building design

COVID-19 affected engineers and building professionals’ designs in many ways

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 1, 2021


  • Matt Goss, PE, PMP, CEM, CEA, CDSM, LEEP AP, Senior Vice President – MEP/Energy Practice Leader, CDM Smith, Latham, N.Y.
  • Richard Heim, PE, LEED AP, Project Manager, RMF Engineering, Baltimore
  • Sean Lawler, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Project Manager, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Seattle
  • RA McNutt, PE, Mechanical Engineer, Lockwood Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) Dallas
  • Kevin Miller, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Certus Consulting Engineers, Carrollton, Texas

In the past 12 months, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the design of a building’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems?

Matt Goss: The COVID-19 pandemic is causing building owners to rethink some of their building design requirements and strategies with respect to filtration, ventilation, automation and controls.

Richard Heim: The biggest shift has been to a focus on indoor air quality. Before the pandemic, the focus was often on energy optimization. Now IAQ frequently is the top priority and it is acceptable if energy savings is sacrificed to improve IAQ.

RA McNutt: Many people are scrambling to add ultraviolet lights in air handlers and sometimes in building spaces. If UV lights are not used, most buildings will be upgrading to MERV 13 or higher filtration for the near future as a preventive measure.

Kevin Miller: As health care engineers, the past 12 months have obviously been focused on and influenced by COVID-19. In March and April 2020, the majority of our health care projects were focused on the pandemic. In the months following, as other projects started to come off hold, there has been a major focus on what this pandemic or future pandemics may mean to the scope and goals of all health care projects.

It has also, of course, affected other sectors. In health care, we have been asked to look at higher levels of filtrations, humidification and new technologies in administrative suites or medical office buildings. In some areas or types of buildings where it used to be, code minimum is no longer the norm.

What have past pandemics taught engineers about designing systems in nonresidential buildings?

Matt Goss: That systems need to be operationally flexible, resilient and durable.

Kevin Miller: I believe that past and recent pandemics have taught engineers how to best be engineers. Engineers do not have all of the answers. We know how to ask the right questions and think like engineers to help develop the best solutions for our clients and for the public. COVID-19 is obviously unprecedented, but as we have navigated different pandemics over the past couple of decades, we have learned as engineers what our role necessarily is. We have all learned about medical and technical aspects. Most importantly, we have learned how to ask the right questions and help evaluate the information and technologies available to help the team come to the right solution.

What additional changes should engineers expect in building design as it relates to pandemics?

Matt Goss: Engineers should continue to expect to include new technologies related to building wellness, safety and monitoring.

Richard Heim: I believe there will be continued development of air cleaning technologies. With further development, there potentially will be more air monitoring equipment, providing direct feedback to building occupants about the quality of the air inside their building.

Sean Lawler: Building air filtration systems and percent of outdoor seem to be the most common discussion point. Engineers should expect owners to request that systems be designed with capabilities of higher levels of filtration and outdoor air if the need arises.

RA McNutt: I expect every air handling unit will be designed and installed with UV light capabilities. It should be noted that while the air handling unit is not the best place for UV lights, it is the most cost-effective solution. I also see every unit being capable of handling MERV 13 filters whether they are installed or not.

Kevin Miller: In health care, there will definitely be continuing discussion on specialty pandemic environments. However, pending code and licensure regulation changes in the near future, in most states, the provisions for switchable pressure rooms will be limited or prohibited. Hospitals cannot build rooms that will sit empty or that may compromise a patient when in normal use.

What will come out of this, as we are already seeing, is hospitals looking for solutions that can be relatively quickly reimplemented in a new surge or reoccurrence.

We expect to continue to see more interaction between engineering consultant partners, the authorities having jurisdiction and the hospital operations (administration, clinical, infection prevention, environment of care, facilities) so that the collective team can react quickly as needed.

What are professionals doing to ensure such projects (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

RA McNutt: I think first and foremost, they are advising the owner against knee-jerk reactions. Today’s emergencies may not be tomorrow’s emergency. We can design in basic changes like UV lights in the space and MERV 13 filters, but to go beyond that to design for future issues similar to COVID-19 might not be worth spending the money.

Matt Goss: Professionals are working to be flexible to account for additional space, electrical and infrastructure requirements.

Richard Heim: Emerging technologies are always challenging as you want to make sure they are proven and reliable before specifying them for an application. One of the advantages of the pandemic is much of the learning and training that would take place in the office or at an event has been brought directly into your home through virtual trainings and meetings. Although it certainly has its drawbacks, this has allowed professionals to stay in tune with emerging technologies and shifts in the industry.

In what ways are you working with information technology experts to meet the needs and goals of a building to meet post-COVID needs?

Matt Goss: We are working with IT professionals to expand monitoring, analysis and analytical capabilities — and to ensure they are secure.

Describe a project in which you designed an aspect of the building’s engineered systems to address COVID-19 issues. What were its unique demands and how did you achieve them?

Matt Goss: We are currently supporting multiple projects in which HVAC systems are being modified to support COVID-19 mitigation measures. Specifically, increased filtration, UV and plasma-type systems.

RA McNutt: For a recent project, the client asked us to address COVID-19 issues. We did some research and found that Trane had a system they could install in the factory and ship out with the units. The system is interesting as it not only treats the air for viruses similar to COVID-19, but it also goes a step further and creates free hydroxyl radicals of oxygen and hydrogen molecules that oxidize gaseous organic compounds and volatile organic compounds. The free radicals are created using the UV lights and a wire mesh in a photocatalytic oxidation process. The wire mesh also has a very low pressure drop in the unit and Trane states it should last 15 years, which made this an attractive choice for the project.

Kevin Miller: We designed dozens of rooms, suites and wards, in multiple hospitals, dedicated to COVID-19 patients. Every one had unique demands. In fact, many of these were redesigned and/or modified multiple times on the fly as new information came in or as the hospital continued to adapt their operations. What I think was unique to all designs as we navigated this pandemic with our hospital partners was the unknown and the need for both the process and the design itself to be flexible and nimble. We were often on calls between clinical staff, administration, infection prevention and facilities. We were there to listen and understand their needs. Our role was much more than designing for the proper filtration or directional airflow. Each one was unique in needs for ante or buffer spaces, donning and doffing areas, cohorting and personal protective equipment requirements, etc.

Based on your experience, how prepared do you think product manufacturers are to offer products and systems to meet the COVID-19 needs of building owners as they request products/systems for new or existing buildings?

Richard Heim: There are a variety of products in the industry that prove useful — with varying degrees of effectiveness. It is important for the engineer to apply the proper product to the specific building system or situation to optimize its performance. Oftentimes, more than one product could meet the needs of a building and with some creativity, products used in tandem with each other can provide further enhancements.

Sean Lawler: In terms of air filtration, many products (MERV 13, HEPA, UVGI, ionization) were already developed and have been used for years depending on the building type. Over the past year of COVID-19, these products have been expanded into the planning and design discussions with a more diverse group of buildings making the products more widely known.

RA McNutt: In March 2020, product manufacturers were falling behind on preparedness as most UV bulbs and fixtures were bought up and warehouse inventories disappeared overnight. There was a long wait time of six months or more if you needed anything related to UV light. Now, the manufacturers are producing as fast as they can to meet the demands as purchases are made. But they have not caught up with satisfying the current demand and I expect it will take six months to a year before they even begin to build up warehouse inventory on anything related to UV light.

Kevin Miller: As consulting engineers, we apply technologies and products. Manufacturers were very prepared to test and market their products to meet the COVID-19 challenges. We all rely on those manufactures as experts in their respective products and technologies. They were reacting as fast as the rest of us in these unprecedented times. Nobody, including manufacturers, was prepared for this. The manufacturers that said they had it all figured out did not. Through this pandemic, we have all been able to find the manufacturers that were upfront and functioned as true partners in working through the challenges together.

Matt Goss: Product manufacturers are eager to provide solutions; however, they need to be evaluated for application and effectiveness.

What are some of the biggest drawbacks when specifying new products or systems in an effort to reduce the transmission of COVID-19?

Matt Goss: Not all products available are certified or have been tested by an independent laboratory. Designers and owners need to be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Richard Heim: How long will they be used? One of the biggest concerns is will they be abandoned once the pandemic is over and simply create an increased energy usage with no IAQ benefit? The other concern with new products is how will they hold up and/or how quickly will certain technologies become obsolete.

Sean Lawler: The biggest drawback for specifying product or systems to reduce COVID-19 are the unknowns about how much further into the future those products or systems will be needed. The life of the building will likely (and hopefully) outlast COVID-19, so future flexibility should be considered for any specific design aspects pursued now.

RA McNutt: One of the biggest drawbacks we have faced in specifying systems for COVID-19 is educating owners and contractors that the air handler is not the best location for the UV light location. Multiple UV lights scattered around a space can treat the air more effectively and can be done while occupants work in a building, contrary to most people’s understanding of UV light usage. We have all seen the small light up high that does not seem to provide any light to the room and wonder why that was there. Well, that is a UV light killing viruses and other contaminants in the air. Those UV lights provide the simplest way to decontaminate viruses.

Kevin Miller: The easy answer is that there was not enough testing. There was not time or standards to test technology or systems to the level to be proven. Early in the pandemic, technology was being implemented without being tested on COVID-19 because the actual virus was not available for lab testing.

The biggest challenge moving forward as engineers is learning how to make sound engineering recommendations on best practices without prescriptive code requirement or a basis of a known virus or pandemic.