As we move forward through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have begun to adapt to a new sense of “normalcy” –sanitized environments, an abundance of video conferencing, and a keen ability to measure out six feet with the naked eye quickly.
As we contemplate returning to work, we are faced with what will be an ongoing challenge to adapt our offices into ultra-clean environments that are safe to inhabit with our co-workers again.
As architects and interior designers focused on workplaces, we understand that arriving at a solution will take a layered approach.
The pandemic has provided us all with a common goal–the pursuit of wellness. As we strive to deliver cleaner working environments for our employees, we must remain cognizant of how we are achieving those results, paying particular attention to wellness as a multi-faceted concept achieved through a balance.
In 2014, I began experiencing a series of health concerns that caused my focus to shift towards my overall well-being. As I worked to improve my health, I embarked on a personal journey to understand how environmental factors could be potentially contributing to the symptoms I was experiencing.
As a result of my experiences, I am applying the knowledge base I have developed to help our firm and our clients implement more sustainable best practices and become conscious of material usage–not just within our environment but the environments we create for others.
As we face the implementation of stricter cleaning regimens and the re-focus of design considerations, we should consider that some of the new best practices we will seek to introduce may have harmful effects. These regimes pose a legitimate threat of chemical toxicity exposure and increased “body burden” -the load of environmental chemicals that can be found in the average person as a result of extended exposure to plastics, metals, and toxic cleaning products.
So, the question becomes–how can we provide safe, clean spaces for our employees while utilizing non-toxic choices for both professional and personal applications?
As design industry experts and leaders, we must expand our awareness of harmful substances and assist our colleagues and clients in creating healthier environments. It is our responsibility to promote products and basic responses that can provide equally effective solutions for cleaner workspaces while still being conscious of environmental factors.
Organizations such as the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), The WELL Building Institute, and Fitwel are providing resources and tips to help reduce the risk of contamination by providing educational materials, recommendations for cleaning protocols, and material selections.
Groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and platforms such as Think Dirty are helping to empower and inform consumers about non-toxic personal care products like cleaning solutions, soap, hand sanitizer, lotion, hair, and skincare products.
A hybrid approach of rigorous cleaning methods and safer product selection will be required to combat the virus while helping us concentrate on more permanent building systems and design modifications such as ensuring optimal interior humidity levels, improved natural ventilation, and the selection of naturally anti-microbial products.
I expect as building occupants return to work, our focus on wellness and healthy buildings will become an expectation and not an extra. Design professionals will need to be well versed in new solutions to help their clients achieve these goals in our new normal.
Ultimately, we have been allowed to respond to a problem in a way that will promote lifelong wellness and provides a positive impact on the workplace environment.
As Dr. Marc Cohen, the Founder of the Extreme Wellness Institute Australia, said, “the best response to a global pandemic is to create a wellness epidemic. Our responses to the pandemic can mitigate climate change, reduce the burden of chronic disease, and build a healthy, global community where the wellness industry becomes the dominant industry on earth”.
We must recognize the opportunity that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented to us to help establish better, more effective wellness and health practices for the future.
Courtney Richardson is a senior associate project designer at BOKA Powell.