Will a pandemic change building codes?

COVID-19 is forcing engineers to think differently about a building’s engineered systems

By Amara Rozgus June 24, 2020

The focus of Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s June coverage was thrown out the window a couple of months ago as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, hitting the United States especially hard. While energy efficiency, chilled water and other technical topics are important to engineers and building professionals, a few other things moved up the priority list.

Hospitals and health care facilities bubble to the top of nearly every conversation I’ve had with engineers lately. Whether it’s an article about modifying convention centers and stadiums to treat COVID-19 patients en masse or a Q&A about how engineering firms are changing their workforce to be fully virtual, the topic of the coronavirus takes over the discussion.

Some firms and their hospital experts are just now coming up for air, after months of assisting clients with pandemic-related design challenges. While the pressurization needs of a hospital are not new to mechanical engineers, the immediate need of modifying existing buildings or designing isolation tents impressed upon me the dedication of these building experts. The urgency of the matter and the commitment of consultants, manufacturers, contractors and others creating these facilities showed the world how building experts can really shine in tough situations.

It also put a spotlight on the issue of codes and standards, such as NFPA 99: Health Care Facilities Code. While several articles in June focus on the updates to NFPA 99, ensuring a hospital still functions during construction and other pertinent issues, let’s look ahead to what will happen in the future.

Hospitals are complex structures with stringent codes already, so codes and standards may not need to shift as dramatically as they would for other buildings. Based on conversations I’m having right now, other building types may see extreme changes in the next code cycle. Code cycles typically are on a three-year timeline, so knee-jerk reactions likely will not happen. Ongoing research and new technology will drive the discussions — and possibly some arguments.

Major employers already have told their workforce that employees will not be returning to the office any time soon, and some will never return to an office. This shift in how business is done may change the face of engineering; according to research done by Consulting-Specifying Engineer, office buildings are the No. 1 building type engineers design or retrofit.

Herd immunity and a vaccination will allow life to return to pseudo-normal, however that will take time, so K-12 and higher education administrators will have to consider their students’ safety in the short term. This demands a shift for some schools, such as renovations in large auditoriums or new technologies added to enhance indoor air quality.

Until then, please share your knowledge and understanding of products and systems that, with verified information, can improve buildings now and change codes or standards in the future.

Author Bio: Amara Rozgus is the Editor-in-Chief/Content Strategy Leader