COVID-19 reinforces the importance of low occupancy density and healthy buildings

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Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, April 2020, Volume 3, #104

A healthy building can be defined as an ideal situation when building performance mandates are not compromised or at a condition that will not cause illness, discomfort, injury, or death to occupants. The wellness of the occupants must not be compromised irrespective of their physiology, psychology, social, and economic limit of acceptability of the mandates during, soon, or long after occupying the building.

Building performance mandates include indoor air quality, thermal, acoustic, light or visual, spatial, and building integrity – e.g., ease of maintainability, security, and safety, fire resistance, or utility quality and conservation – conditions.

The idealness of a healthy building means continuous effort will always be needed in an effort to strive towards the healthiness state. The probability of achieving the healthiness state will be lesser if pressure is placed on a building. A high occupancy density is an example of pressure being placed on a building. A study from Harvard University study suggests that an increase in occupancy density would increase the rate of upper respiratory infection in students’ dormitories.

Knowledge gained from the literature suggests that higher occupancy density would increase the tendency of (i) having unhygienic environmental conditions that could aid viability of virus and bacteria (ii) occupants breathing exhaled air of one another more often, (iii) large scale of fomite (surface) and airborne transmission of virus and bacteria because of close contacts of people and limited available surfaces to interact with, and (iv) having high age of air due to poor air circulation in the room.

Thus, if an occupant or more is infected with a virus, the number of people that will be infected with the virus will be very high, especially if the virus is very contagious like SARS-COV-2. No or inadequate ventilation would further contribute to the effective spread of the virus.

A practical example of how high occupancy density could increase the rate of people suffering from a respiratory-related disease, e.g., COVID-19, occurred in Singapore. The surge in the number of COVID-19 cases among workers living in dormitories in Singapore came as a no surprise considering the above highlighted implications of a high occupancy density in a building. The public health problem reinforces the importance of low occupancy density and healthy buildings.

Risk assessment and management effort is essential to create healthy buildings /dormitories and to prevent the re-occurrence of the unfortunate situation for the workers. The vulnerability of the workers living in the dormitories before and after the COVID-19 pandemic should be assessed and managed moving forward. The assessment and management should be based on questions relating to the following:

What measures were taken in the design, construction, maintenance and operations, and the usage of the dormitories before the COVID-19 pandemic that helped the limit the public health problem to what was experienced in the workers’ dormitories? What measures were taken that contributed to the public health problem experienced in the workers’ dormitories? What measures should be taken to prevent the occurrence of such a public health problem again in the workers’ dormitories after the occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic? What measures would be taken after the occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic that could further increase the risk of a major public health problem occurring in the dormitories?

The delivery of healthy buildings should be taken seriously for a healthy life and economy. We should not fail to learn from the expensive life continuing education and training given to us by COVID 19 pandemic.

Do you want to learn more about this topic? Read Laurent et al. (2020), Rudnick and Milton (2003), Spengler et al. (2004), and Sun et al. (2011) papers.

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