Germ of an Idea
Anyone who has ever cringed when a coworker sneezes knows that offices are notorious for spreading germs. In fact, sick employees spread more illnesses in the workplace than in the home or even on transit, due to close proximity, lack of ventilation and other factors. In the struggle to maintain a healthy workplace, architects can help by designing spaces that limit the spread of illness.
Architects and designers have already started specifying germ-resistant materials like antimicrobial stainless steel or copper alloy when planning solutions for “germ hot spots” like desks, doorknobs, and communal areas such as break rooms and restrooms. Innovations like self-cleaning glass and super-hydrophobic paint repel water and other liquids that could contain bacteria, and hands-free strategies like automatic doors and voice activated devices limit direct contact and thus the chances of getting sick.
While technology is evolving to prevent the spread of germs on surfaces, airborne pathogens are also being considered. In a TED talk entitled Are we keeping out the wrong microbes? Engineer and Biodiversity Scientist Jessica Green points out that mechanical ventilation systems in hospitals accumulate human-carried pathogens and traps them indoors, yet the diverse microbial mix of outdoor air is much healthier for building inhabitants. Putting this theory into practice, Butaro Hospital in Rawanda was designed to allow for fresh air ventilation using louvred windows and high-volume, low-speed fans, along with other technologies such as germicidal UV lights.
Another strategy to combat the spread of pathogens indoors is humidity control. According to an initiative focused on reducing the prevalence of tuberculosis in Haiti, reducing humidity levels in the home by just 1.5 percent could reduce the lifespan of bacteria and limit the number of people ultimately infected. The solution? Ventilation design. However, windows alone are not enough; understanding air flows within a building takes precise and calculated engineering. As part of the LEED Platinum Sustainability plan for our TELUS Garden office building, operable windows in combination with a complex fresh-air ventilation system have been included in the design.
These solutions are a good start, and could help spark new design approaches that contribute to healthy work environments. As superbugs like H1N1 continue to make headlines, and growing problems like climate change pose additional threats to public health, this area of research is becoming increasingly critical.
[Top image: Butaro Hospital - www.soshl.com]