By {{Article.AuthorName}} | {{Article.PublicationDate.slice(6, -2) | date:'EEEE, MMMM d, y'}}
{{TotalFavorites}} Favorite{{TotalFavorites>1? 's' : ''}}

It’s hard to remember now, but prior to March 2020, “co-location” and “collaborative space” were the gold standards of office design. Throughout the 2010s, spurred on by high-profile tech companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook, organizations embraced open floor plans as a way of fostering face-to-face interaction, stimulating creativity and building community.

That’s all gone now, as employers seek to create work environments that alleviate their employees’ pandemic fears and allow for greater flexibility. The future of work is about providing a workplace experience that supports flexibility, reduces friction for employees, fuels engagement and ultimately drives business performance. Rather than being forced to interact, people are now coming together for a purpose.

But offices and other worksites are the least of it. The pandemic has irrevocably changed the nature of design and construction in the United States, and no market has been untouched. In health care, there’s a desire for more adaptive, flexible spaces, a renewed importance on staff work and respite areas and growing use of touchless technologies and automation at nearly every level. Likewise, higher education is seeing an intensified need for healthier spaces, including patterns of nature, lighting and other elements that can positively affect a building’s users, as well as an emphasis on air filtration and meeting the needs of the whole student.

The pandemic has affected not just how projects are designed but how they’re being built. Jeff Butler, senior preconstruction manager in Robins & Morton’s Orlando office, says modular construction is becoming increasingly popular in the health-care market because it reduces the number of workers on a jobsite at one time, which in turn reduces infection risk. “In the past, you’d have six different trades working in an operating room, for example—mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc.,” Butler says. “Now, it’s like an erector set, and what typically took a month to install takes only a week.”

Here are snapshots of four different projects showing how the pandemic is changing design and construction across sectors.


Organizations today are fundamentally rethinking the purpose of office space, with designs that seek to ease the transition between working from home and working in the office. “[Employees] feel safer when they have the option to work together or remotely…and that’s what we’re seeing across the board right now,” says Tom Prasky, head of delivery for Unispace’s Americas work, who is based in Minnesota. “Owners are giving employees options in how they work, whether from home or in an office space. Forcing people to be in a certain environment is almost nonexistent today.”

About 95% of Unispace’s work volume relates to tenant improvement, including a wide variety of life sciences, data center and commercial improvement projects. “Pre-COVID-19, the design was about head counts and synergy between departments and making sure that groups working together were in the same area,” Prasky says. “They’re now focusing on employee wellness, flexibility of working and inclusion. I honestly think that trend is here to stay.”

Perhaps most significantly, the pandemic has raised awareness of indoor air quality (IAQ) and how effective ventilation, improved filtration and the reduction of indoor pollutants can decrease pathogen transmission risk. Owners are increasingly proactive about IAQ; Prasky estimates that it’s part of early discussions on nearly three-quarters of Unispace projects. “Sometimes it’s as simple as changing to a higher-quality air filter,” Prasky. “And in high-rise construction, where you might be sharing HVAC with multiple different office spaces, they’re incorporating bipolar ionization into the air-supply ductwork to retrofit an existing system.”


Perhaps nowhere is public awareness of IAQ—and how effective ventilation, improved filtration and the elimination of pollutant sources can reduce pathogen transmission risk and enhance overall health and wellness—more acute than as relates to the nation’s classrooms. Seattle Public Schools took a practical approach to ensuring the health and safety of its more than 50,000 students in 100 schools by asking the Portland, Oregon–based team of global quality assurance firm Intertek along with Lakewood, Colorado–based facility consulting firm Engineering Economics Inc. (EEI) to perform a comprehensive evaluation of its ventilation systems. Alan Scott, who leads Intertek’s efforts in sustainability, health and wellness and resilience, worked with the team from July to October 2020 to interpret guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State of Washington’s Department of Health, then turn them into specific actions.

In the process, EEI used science-based modeling to develop customized approaches for different types of spaces in schools with varying mechanical systems—with the goal of implementing strategies that were most effective in reducing pathogen transmission risks in each individual space. It was a challenging project. Some of the schools were 80 to 100 years old while others were less than a decade old, with many buildings designed to minimal ventilation standards. Ultimately, the team recommended cost-efficient strategies to guide the appropriate mix of engineering controls for classrooms, cafeterias and other key spaces in each school.

Part of the exercise was to determine where they needed to concentrate their efforts. “The stakes were high,” Scott says. “One of the areas of greatest concern was over cafeterias, because it brought together a lot of kids in one space without face coverings. However, through risk modeling, it was determined that there is a higher dilution of pollutants in such a large space. While the intensity of exposure was there, the duration was short, so the risk was low.”

Conversely, the team found that classrooms posed a bigger threat due to their diminutive size and the duration of exposure that happens there. Scott says: “Classrooms were undoubtedly a higher-risk environment than a cafeteria.” 

They then analyzed how different scenarios could affect ventilation in each environment. Ultimately, the solutions revolved around increased filtration in the mechanical systems, the optimization of ventilation available within those systems and the addition of portable air cleaners. In the process, the team tested IAQ parameters for carbon dioxide and particulate matter—both indicators of adequate ventilation and filtration. “Even though the schools were occupied, we were able to identify that the interventions were working as intended,” Scott says. “CO2 and particulate concentrations were well below standards of optimal indoor air quality. And when we discovered higher concentrations in a particular location, we looked at those spaces to find opportunities for improvements.”

Many HVAC units were converted to 100-percent outside air. “Some of them had the ability to ramp up ventilation rates and others had limitations,” Scott says. “While there wasn’t time to analyze every single room at every single school, EEI came up with a model that looked at the different types and ages of systems and evaluated that risk profile for different types of spaces.”

While the team leaned heavily on additional filtering, there was a recognition that portable air cleaners wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term, “so one of the things this pandemic has brought forward is an awareness about the importance of high-quality ventilation and how poor ventilation is in many of our buildings,” Scott says. Looking ahead, he expects discussions to focus on long-term design changes, especially with regard to mechanical systems. “The most universal impact will be on the mechanical side of things,” he says, “but one of the other key things will be the thermal and moisture performance of the envelope.”


Multifamily developers in Los Angeles are balancing the need for COVID-19-safe spaces with a persistent housing shortage. The end result, according to Brandon Hance, owner of design-build firm Inhance Construction in Los Angeles, has been a boom in smaller multifamily units in the city’s suburban areas, many of which have been retrofitted from existing single-family dwellings.

The trend, which began a few years back, has only accelerated during the pandemic. Hance’s company currently has more than 30 multifamily developments in the pipeline. “In the past, a majority of the institutional capital was going to large, Class A buildings,” he says. “That trendline has reversed itself. Today’s renter is more focused on privacy, security and lifestyle. It’s conducive for that young professional looking for that safe, clean place to live, but they’re traveling, working and socializing, so they’re looking for a more affordable option while not sacrificing privacy and security.”

The pandemic has also affected the design of those spaces, chiefly through the addition of enhanced ventilation and air-quality systems, digital points of entry and greater access to outdoor spaces. They also come with private garages and rooftop decks. “We’ve done quite a bit with our HVAC systems to ensure higher quality of air,” Hance says. “All of the buildings are also now wired for solar power and electric car vehicles.”

While these buildings have been popular with renters, Hance faces some inherent regional challenges. Banks and private investors, for example, “are naturally conservative and much more inclined to invest in ‘traditional’ properties rather than new, innovative concepts, even if a project is truly viable and there’s proof of concept.”

Additionally, the permitting process is excruciatingly slow in Los Angeles, Hance says, and many existing residents aren’t keen on having multifamily dwellings in their neighborhood. “We all understand that there’s a housing crisis, and we love the idea of transforming homes into apartment buildings,” he says, “but it still has to be approved by a discretionary board on a neighborhood council, and that can be difficult to overcome.”


Infectious disease control has always been critically important in the health-care construction market. But some owners in Florida are going a step further—particularly during renovation or expansion projects—by requiring dedicated exterior elevators and material hoists to avoid any interaction between construction crews and the existing hospital. That can result in significant additional job costs, Robins & Morton’s Butler says, “because you’re now quoting them for the material hoist or exterior elevator, along with the creation of an exterior opening into the building.”

Owners are also requiring that many systems be assembled using offsite modular construction to further reduce crew sizes, which requires contractors to get involved earlier in the design process, so that can more easily incorporate modularization into their project planning. “That’s becoming more of the norm these days,” Butler says. “We’re actually being integrated into the design process, where it’s more of a continuing process from the start to the end. We’re pricing options, looking at different ways to get the project into budget, looking at different options to do things differently. We’re actually sitting in the room with the user group and answering questions.”

When contractors are involved earlier, they can provide real-time information about materials pricing and availability, which is important during the current supply-chain disruptions. “Without us being on board earlier, they wouldn’t know that a generator is a year out, for example,” Butler says. “At some point, you have to order the generator, and without that knowledge, they wouldn’t have that figured into their deadline.”

Even permitting and inspection processes have changed. At a Robins & Morton jobsite at Marathon Key in Florida, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration went to all-virtual inspections during a hospital replacement. “One of our project engineers would walk around with an iPad, and the inspectors would say, ‘Go here and here, open up this electrical panel etc.,’” Butler says. “I could see more inspections utilizing the virtual option or some aspects of that.” 


 Comments ({{Comments.length}})

  • {{comment.Name}}


    {{comment.DateCreated.slice(6, -2) | date: 'MMM d, y h:mm:ss a'}}

Leave a comment

Required! Not valid email!