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Building Guidance in the Time of COVID-19

By now, the measures recommended to keep yourself and others safe during our global pandemic are well known: wear a mask, wash hands frequently, practice social distancing, and stay home as much as possible.


The question experts are now attempting to answer is "How can our buildings actually help us in the fight against COVID-19?"


Some of the most well-respected institutions (WHO, OSHA, ASHRAE, CDC, EPA), authorities responsible for setting health, safety, and environmental standards, are now offering guidance to minimize transmission and prevent a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus. Professional and academic organizations, like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, have also stepped up to guide buildings in preparation and prevention efforts.


There is no shortage of information right now, but who is saying what and why? Let’s take a look at the leading sources for COVID-19 occupant safety guidance.



The World Health Organization (WHO) first provided information about COVID-19 in January and, by April, published "interim guidance" on considerations for adjusting public health and social measures (PHSM) related to COVID-19, and more recently published specific guidance for schools and the workplace.


The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets standards and regulations that employers must follow to assure safe and healthy working conditions. Their recent publication, "Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19," creates no new legal obligations, but provides recommendations on steps employers can take to reduce worker's risk of exposure to SAR-CoV-2, including development of an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan.


Similarly, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), a leader in the HVAC industry, is in the business of establishing code for standards related to thermal comfort, adequate ventilation, energy savings, and overall sustainability in building systems. ANSI/ASHRAE Standards 62.1 and 62.2 are the national and most widely used standards for ventilation and indoor air quality and aim to minimize adverse health effects for building occupants. Their COVID-19 Response resources page specifies that ASHRAE guidance does not conflict with guidance from the CDC or WHO. Also included is ASHRAE's Position Document on Infectious Aerosols, which explains that facilities should, at the very least, abide by the latest standards and guidelines. The newly formed ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force offers guidance on COVID-19 building readiness and reopening, which emphasizes safe operation and maintenance of building HVAC and water management systems.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) focus on recommendations for planning, policy and PPE and offer printable materials, such as informational graphics and posters, that can be downloaded and posted throughout buildings. In addition to "Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers," the CDC provides information for both non-healthcare and healthcare facilities. So extensive is their network that guidance documents can be filtered by type, which includes businesses, schools, universities, and healthcare facilities. The "Resuming Business Toolkit," specifically for non-healthcare business settings, includes a readiness checklist, work protection information, and a returning to work infographic.


While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not published a formal set of guidelines for building operations and occupant health, they suggest steps to improve indoor air quality for residential and non-residential buildings. The EPA and CDC jointly published, “Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes.” The EPA recommends adherence to best practices provided by the CDC, and defers to ASHRAE for specifics on ventilation, filtration, and other HVAC-related matters.


The American Institute of Architects (AIA) initiative, "Reopening America: Strategies for Safer Buildings," has resulted in the development of numerous resources aimed at facilitating safe re-entry. In addition to the "Risk Management Plan for Buildings" and "Re-Occupancy Assessment Tool," the AIA has published guidance for specific building types, including senior living communities, schools, and offices.


In June, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Healthy Buildings program published "Schools for Health: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools," which offers guidance for building operations that aim to minimize viral transmission. The document covers strategies for healthy classrooms, buildings, policies, schedules, and activities.


Building standards, such as LEED, WELL, and Fitwel are also developing materials in response to COVID-19 with WELL and Fitwel rolling out a "Health-Safety Rating" and "Viral Response Module," respectively, for facilities interested in demonstrating their achievement of relevant measures.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system is the most widely recognized green building rating system and is employed in projects throughout the world. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has released six "Safety First" pilot credits aimed at informing and improving safe re-entry. These credits are designed to support health-related elements within the existing rating system.


The WELL Building Standard may be considered the human-centered complement to the environmentally focused LEED certification system. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) recently established a "WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management," which recognizes the implementation of additional health and safety measures related to COVID-19. To achieve the rating and certify your building for one year, 15 of the 21 proposed measures must be achieved. Even though the rating system just launched this summer, both RMZ Corp and Yankee Stadium already achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating.


Fitwel, the "World's Leading Certification System Committed to Building Health for All," is the brainchild of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the General Services Administration (GSA). Operated by the Center for Active Design, Fitwel established specific guidance for the pandemic: "Research to Action: Building Health for All in the Face of COVID-19." This new guidance series, in conjunction with industry leaders and academic advisors, informs the "Fitwel Viral Response” module, which certifies projects that implement strategies to enhance the indoor environment, encourage behavioral change, and build occupant trust. With the module released just days ago, Fitwel is offering introductory pricing on certification fees now through November 1.


As businesses develop and enhance plans to safely operate their properties, the WELL Health-Safety Rating and Fitwel Viral Response module will set the industry standard for optimizing buildings in response to COVID-19, and provide companies with evidence-based, cost-effective recognition regarding their commitment to creating a healthy, engaged, and resilient environment for all occupants.


We know that’s a lot of information to digest and sift through, especially when our understanding of this pandemic continues to evolve rapidly. In the weeks to come, we will continue to provide analysis and discuss key issues on behalf of building professionals, owners, and occupants. Reach out to our team today and discover what solution might work best for your project or business.

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