Smart buildings: How a virus might lead to healthier buildings

Health threats like COVID-19 require specific mitigations, including the challenge of ongoing social distancing within workplace and social environments.

By Tony Lam April 5, 2021

Across the built environment, the Coronavirus pandemic is leading to an understandable focus on healthy indoor environments, particularly in social locations and workplaces. As organizations across society attempt to adjust and adapt to the post-virus, pre-vaccine phase, we have formulated a four-step strategy for indoor environmental improvements, one that safeguards the health and wellbeing of occupants.

Any successful strategy must meet public concerns and build confidence among occupants and visitors alike, and our approach comprises health assessments, ongoing monitoring, data-driven analytics and wider advisory support. There are a few key questions facing us now:

Assessing building health

Just like our bodies, buildings also require regular check-ups or physical examinations to identify problems or issues that need to be addressed. A quick health assessment can identify all potential high-touch surfaces or areas and rank them in conjunction with location priority setting.

In addition, on-site assessments, computational modeling and simulations can quickly identify high-risk areas, such as poor ventilation. This allows operators to recognize the sources of pollution and optimizes the building’s operation and management.

Indoor air quality

The virus moves more easily through enclosed spaces, so building confidence will require better air quality monitoring. Based on the findings from the health assessment, sensors can be installed in high-risk areas and sensitive zones to continuously monitor air quality, as well as the thermal, visual and auditory comfort of occupants.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) data can transform what we know about the indoor environment. Sensors can capture levels of pollutants, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5/PM10), carbon dioxide (CO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), brought together to compile scores that can further be used to formulate an action plan, track progress and assess mitigation effectiveness.

Can you quickly turn data in to insights?

With the virus outbreak still a developing issue, being able to turn data into actionable responses is pivotal. In future, a digital platform like our Neuron building management platform can provide a detailed real-time picture of how a building or facility is operating, and what kind of experience its occupants are having.

The system can sense the body temperature of occupants and visitors, measure fine particulate matters, VOC, etc to predict or monitor high-risk conditions, as well as to allow for more ventilation, UV light or air purification to improve the indoor air quality. Its AI capabilities mean it can suggest the most valuable mitigation measures, drawing insights from historical data, predicting likely pollution levels before they arise. The system also makes sure that relevant actions are taken based on occupant behavior, building type and other potential risks.

Platforms like Neuron help building managers to answer tougher questions. They can help establish if you need to install better ventilation or find ways to improve the indoor air quality, such as using less carpeting or ducts and high-quality paints with low volatile organic compounds or VOCs. The powerful combination of sensors, data, and AI enables facilities managers to move beyond analogue surveys, outdated reports and “gut feel” about various measures, and really improve the condition of a built environment.

Systems that can bring this level of live intelligence to building operations will build confidence for all users.

Can buildings adapt quickly to health challenges?

Health threats like COVID-19 require specific mitigations, including the challenge of ongoing social distancing within workplace and social environments. We already know that applying an anti-viral coating to frequently contacted surfaces such as door handles and installing air purifiers may serve as a quick fix. Implementing automated touchless technologies in other commonly touched surfaces, such as light switches, faucets, lift buttons, doors and gates, in public spaces can help mitigate against contagion in the long run.

Given the airborne nature of the current pandemic, there will likely be renewed focus on buildings’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. For example, high-performance air filters, as well as UV-sterilization and moisture controls, can be installed to alleviate airborne transmission and prevent cross-infections between individuals. Once more: without sensors, data and real-time insights, organizations will struggle to operate with confidence.

Does your building meet new WELL standards?

New standards are another implication of the pandemic. International bodies like the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) are already exploring what adaptation to the virus means for the future design of buildings, and their own WELL standard. While the specifics are still unclear, this is a developing agenda that developers, landlords and owners of any public building must support.

Data-driven: buildings of tomorrow

The virus has many lessons for the built environment, both adapting existing buildings and rethinking our approach to new ones. One thing is clear though. Investing in data-driven assets will lead to healthier experiences for everyone. The additional level of insight and control offered by these systems is not only environmentally responsible and resource/energy efficient but will also lead to more resilient and sustainable real estate, ready for the challenges of tomorrow.

This article originally appeared on Arup’s websiteArup is a CFE Media content partner. 

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Tony Lam, East Asia building performance and systems leader, Arup