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The Built Environment - How Building Design Can Reduce Viral Transmissions

Grace Li

June. 9/2020

"This image showcases an effective way buildings can reduce viral transmission within a building--opening windows"

As the world slowly opens up amidst the ongoing pandemic and people return to their daily lives, the risk of a second wave begins to loom over everyone’s heads. For many architects and engineers, this learning experience sprouts a question as to how building design could help do its part in reducing viral transmission and flatten the curve once and for all.

COVID-19 is an infectious virus that can travel from person to person, as well as through surfaces and the air. With this in mind, buildings should improve air circulation and use materials that can mitigate the transmission of viruses. In the case of COVID-19, the viral particles are too small to be filtered through HEPA and MERV air filters. However, opening windows in buildings can dilute the amount of viral particles trapped indoors while also giving people fresh air and sunlight. Additionally, the air must be at a survivable humidity in order for viruses to travel through it effectively. Studies have shown that increasing the relative humidity of a room to 80-90% for 30 minutes can render the virus noninfectious through the air, as viruses rely on low air humidity to travel around. However, as humidity increases, so does the concern for mold growth, so levels should be controlled to keep both under control. Building designers should emphasize the importance of windows, air circulation within the building, and access to fresh air from the outside.

Using the right materials on commonly touched surfaces can also make a big impact on the transmission of viruses and bacteria. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, SARS-CoV-2 (the formal name for COVID-19) is able to survive up to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel, but only up to 4 hours on copper and its alloys. Copper has been used in the past to slow the spread of other respiratory infections as well, such as MERS and SARS, the current virus’ predecessors. Using copper for surfaces in buildings as opposed to stainless steel and plastic could prove to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and any viruses to come.

Another solution to reduce surface transmission is using antimicrobial coatings, which can eliminate viral and bacterial pathogens before they can spread. These coatings are made in forms ranging from paint to nanocoatings and can be applied to frequently used surfaces in buildings, such as tables, doorknobs, and elevator buttons. Nanocoatings in particular have been extremely effective, showing up to 99.9998% effectiveness against mold, viruses, and bacteria. Recently, researchers at Hong Kong University have developed a coating that is effective against COVID-19 called MAP-1. This coating is made up of millions of nanocapsules and can remain active on surfaces for 90 days. Other coatings that could work include ones containing copper—which had its usefulness previously explained—and organosilanes, which form an abrasive surface that tears viruses and bacteria apart.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world, and changes in all fields are only inevitable after all that has happened. In the building industry, designers and engineers must take this momentous event into account when building future workplaces, public buildings, and homes to ensure the safety of our citizens and the prevention of another widespread disaster.

About the author, Grace Li:

Grace Li is a Grade 11 student attending Nelson High School in Burlington, Ontario. She hopes to one day work in architecture or structural engineering.


Image Source:

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University of Southampton. (2015, November 10). Using copper to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 9, 2020 from

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