Preparing for the New Normal?

Everyone is probably tired of hearing how unprecedented these times are and how the picture of what the “new normal” will look like seems to change on a daily basis. Beyond all of that, we will get back to some sense of normalcy and, when we do, we need to be ready.

So what does that mean? We believe that being ready for a return to the workplace, educational campuses or outpatient health facilities will involve both short term and longer-range planning and adjustments. We see this as a three-phase process: Re-starting, planning and, finally, maintaining the new normal.

Re-starting involves shorter term considerations for your building’s mechanical systems which may include the following:

  • Flush or treat existing water systems (hot and cold) to mitigate accumulation of Legionella in systems or areas of buildings that experienced an extended period of unoccupancy and stagnant water.
  • Evaluate the building’s HVAC system. If it was operating in a set-back mode, or worse yet, not operating at all, during the duration of unoccupancy, the moisture content of the air in the building and air systems could be high enough to propagate mold growth on surfaces including ductwork, coils and filters. Duct and coil cleaning and filter replacement may be necessary.

The planning phase, in addition to developing cleaning and disinfecting protocols, includes evaluation of your building’s mechanical systems. Now is also the time to evaluate operational or equipment changes that may be beneficial in reducing the risks of cross infection between people within your facilities. Considerations may include:

  • Filtration studies including utilizing higher MERV rated filters in the HVAC system.
  • Integrating UVGI technology in HVAC systems or upper room applications.
  • Isolation and ventilation studies.

Finally, the new normal will vary based on specific building types and uses as well as outside guidelines and regulatory requirements. All types of facilities will need to focus on solutions specific to common restrooms or locker room facilities. Considerations for these areas may include:

  • Improving cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
  • Periodic flushing of air systems.
  • Increasing and monitoring overall ventilation rates.

Schools and universities with on-campus health centers may have additional items to think about including:

  • Considering Improvements to infrastructure and processes to implement tele-triage to determine if students are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 so they can be directed to a hospital in lieu of the campus center to minimize the risk of exposure to other students, faculty and health providers.
  • Consider designing waiting and triage areas in student health centers similar to the same spaces in hospital emergency departments. This involves exhausting all of the air and maintaining the spaces under a negative pressure to minimize the risk of airborne infections spreading beyond the initial patient.

Hospitals and other health facilities may require different considerations and planning as well including:

  • Appropriate quantity and distribution of airborne infectious isolation rooms in the facility.
  • Identify “flex” ICU level care spaces to be used in future surge events and evaluate electrical and medical gas infrastructure to support higher acuity patients.
  • Designing HVAC systems to allow isolation of individual wings or sections of facilities to reduce the impact of airborne contaminant spread.

As we move forward and begin planning for new buildings, the list of lessons learned and best practices to minimize the impacts of a future pandemic will continue to grow. As design professionals, it is our job to help owners understand the available technologies, systems and applications including their benefits as well as their drawbacks so that they can make an informed decision. The goal is ultimately to invest in the most appropriate solutions for each situation and application and not simply react to the current issues at hand.

Over the next couple of weeks, Barton Associates will be providing resources to help make informed decisions through the process of re-starting, planning, and maintaining the new normal. Sound decisions will provide both immediate and long-term value for building owners and occupants. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Jonathan B. Slagel, PE at 717-817-2277 or jbs@ba-inc.com.