How Architecture Can Defend us from Germs, Bacteria, and Viruses like COVID-19

By Bea Spolidoro, AIA, WELL AP

Our homes and work environments have a huge impact on our physical and psychological health and in the past few years a number of certifications and standards like the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel -among others- have been developed to spread awareness and to foster the building of more so-called “healthy buildings”.

The United States is slowly taking precautionary measures to fight the spreading of COVID-19. Many Universities are already teaching online only, and some public events involving crowds are being cancelled or postponed.  We are learning from other affected Countries like Italy that the best thing to do is to stay home, in particular if you are sick. The goal is to contain the spread of the virus by reducing contacts among people.

Designing for Germs and Bacteria control

While it is very important to keep a safe distance from sick people, the question is always, “How safe is the environment inhabited by sick people.” According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses can survive on surfaces for a few hours up to several days. This may vary under different conditions (e.g. type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment).  The number one recommendation against the COVID-19 is to regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or to wash them with soap and water. This kills viruses that may be on your hands.

What we can do as Architects is to be smart about the surfaces that we choose and the detailing we include in our projects. We can learn a lot from hospital design and from the food industry. 

The most important thing to do is to facilitate any cleaning process: avoid areas difficult to reach or tight corners, reduce seams in countertops and make sure nothing can easily fall behind built-in cabinetry. Also, avoid overly-complicated designs in high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, handles, buttons, operating parts, railings: A flat, smooth surface is easier to clean. To facilitate operation of parts by people with limited mobility, just make sure their functioning doesn’t require tight grasp or complicated twisting.

Choosing materials easy to clean and non-porous surfaces is also recommended. Granite and other natural stone countertop surfaces are porous and allow for moisture, food particles, and microbial spores to accumulate. Surfaces like steel, quartz or Corian are non-porous and easier to sanitize.  Porous materials, such as rugs, textiles, upholstery, certain wallpapers, towels, bedding and curtains require special care in cleaning, particularly from dust mites that might cause allergies. 

Interestingly, research led by Perkins+Will reported that,

“Antimicrobials were frequently used in soaps until the FDA banned them in 2016, but they are increasingly popular in building materials, including countertops, paints, and doorknobs. Some antimicrobials are endocrine disruptors, and have been shown to impair learning and weaken muscle function. Antimicrobials are often used as a preservative in building materials but the health benefits of their use have not been established.” 

Also, being over exposed to chemicals for sanitization can lead to hypersensitivity disorders and autoimmune diseases. 

Some materials are naturally antimicrobial. Copper and its alloys (brasses, bronzes, cupronickel, copper-nickel-zinc, and others) have intrinsic properties to destroy a wide range of microorganisms. As well described by Wikipedia “EPA-approved antimicrobial copper products include bedrails, handrails, over-bed tables, sinks, faucets, door knobs, toilet hardware, intravenous poles, computer keyboards…health club equipment, elevator equipment, shopping cart handles…kitchen surfaces, footboards, door push plates, towel bars, toilet hardware, wall tiles.”  While silver can be an expensive material to build with, antimicrobial activity can be applied to a surface as a coating containing antimicrobial agents such as silver nanoparticles. Photoactive pigments have been used on glass, ceramic, and steel substrates for self-cleaning and antimicrobial purposes. 

People interested in biomimicry might be happy to learn that the company “Sharklet” is the world’s first technology to inhibit bacterial growth through pattern alone. According to their website,

 “The Sharklet surface consists of millions of microscopic features arranged in a distinct diamond pattern. The structure of the pattern alone inhibits bacteria from attaching, colonizing and forming biofilms. Sharklet contains no toxic additives or chemicals, and uses no antibiotics or antimicrobials. Sharklet draws inspiration from the shape and pattern of the dermal denticles of sharkskin.”

Going back to more traditional architecture practices, particular attention should be given to lobbies and entryways, using rollout mats that can be cleaned also on the underside. This is where infected people and pollutants can come in at any time during regular operations. 

Lastly, being able to do maintenance on and be able to replace any high-use surface or operation part is very useful. Personally, I am always concerned by the use of touch-screens in a public setting. While the old-style dials are certainly worse in terms of germs collection, the hope is that in the future more can be done without touching, maybe with the use of a personal smartphone, or by means of vocal commands

Smart Water features

The WELL standard is particularly concerned with the quality of the water delivered to a building, recommending the use of ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) sanitization methods, carbon filters and sediment filters for suspended solids. In addition to these precautions, a prerequisite for any organization applying for the WELL Certification requires that organization to put in place a standard to control the potential spread of Legionella.  A word to the wise: In certain hospitals and even in their offices, ice-makers and any water delivery systems that cannot be replaced or serviced easily are banned…

In order to fight the spread of disease, the WELL Standard recommends also to provide buildings with large sinks and a column of water of at least ten inches tall to prevent any contamination of the fresh water by the dirty one. This “optimization” goes hand-in-hand with making it easy for people to wash their hands by providing fragrance-free hand soap placed in dispensers with disposable and sealed soap cartridges. They also recommend using paper towels in lieu of air-dryers, as paper towels are more effective in removing bacteria (while being less environmentally friendly, unfortunately).

In regard to the use of anti-microbial soap, the FDA has reported that it is not more effective than regular soap and proper hand washing. “Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere,” says Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products. “We can’t advise this enough. It’s simple, and it works.”

Your Buildings Systems

The term “healthy buildings” was first used in the 1990s in the context of the “Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)” public discussion. It referred to the symptoms primarily caused by buildings tightly built, with insufficient air changes per hour. This led to poor indoor air quality and not only issues like sensory irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat, but also nausea and headache. In the ensuing decades, research has made progress and started isolating a variety of causes for any building-related symptoms. Many health problems come from the generation of mold and fungi in the HVAC system. UV filters in heating and cooling equipment have been developed to combat this problem, together with scheduled maintenance and filter replacement. All major HVAC manufacturers now offer this kind of UV filters.

Proper ventilation quality should always be prioritized not only to reduce the spread of bacteria, but also to reduce the accumulation of pollutants from inside and outside the building, which can negatively affect people with asthma or other respiratory problems.  In particular, great attention should be given to the levels of Particulate Matter PM 2.5 and PM 10 (caused also by heavy demolition or construction and diesel-powered equipment); Carbon monoxide (produced when a combustion appliance, such as a boiler, heater, oven, and so on, does not completely burn a carbon-based fuel); and Ozone and Nitrogen dioxide. 

There are many indoor-air quality monitors on sale which can help you track the levels of many pollutants. You can also find outdoor-air quality monitors that can warn you when you should close windows you may have left open. 

Final design considerations

Our health is very delicate and any imbalance in our living and working environment affects it. This article has not discussed the effect of proper lighting, noise control, thermal comfort, “fitness” in the building, and the benefits of promoting healthy food habits in any facility. These topics will be discussed in future articles published on and on our Fisher ARCHitecture social media.

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