Articles & Presentations

A World Reformed to Thrive: Post-Pandemic Choices

The sweeping SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus has changed the lives of this nation, and across the globe, over the past several months. The catastrophic economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtably change the foreseeable future for many families, small businesses, and corporations.

Times like these test us and also provide perspective, dispelling short-sightedness on the impacts of our choices as individuals and a society. While the pandemic has forced a new way of life on people and businesses, coming out of it provides the opportunity for reform of lifestyle and systems that can position us for a healthier and more resilient tomorrow.

Our hope is that lessons from this time of hardship will translate into changes that improve our lives once we “get back” to them – that we will view our choices with a lens adjusted to perceive broader impacts.

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David Conant GillesBuilding Performance Consultant

Resilience: A Personal and Private Endeavor

COVID-19 has taught us the importance of resilience – in our buildings, in our work and home lives, and for our planet and personal health. For the most part, we already know the majority of threats to the vitality of people and the earth we live on, but until this knowledge is incorporated into the way we live, design, and operate, we will continue to meet catastrophe. Like the spread of a virus, a hurricane or security breach may be loosely referred to as a “disaster,” but in truth, these are known “hazards.” They only produce disasters when they are not dealt with properly or if the event is an anomaly, in which case the damage can be mitigated if the threat was planned for and the systems are in place to efficiently engage threats. If there’s a chance a building will face 150 mph winds or people will to try to break into a security system, designing a structure and plan to defend against these threats before they occur prevents or mitigates a disaster. If we do not plan for a known potential threat and try to organize a disaster prevention effort last minute, it will likely result in disaster.

Awareness, planning, and proactivity are our tools to endure in the face of short-and long-term risks in our lives: if we take time to consider threats to sustainability and assess long-term impacts of our decisions, we can build resilience into our lives and designs to keep ourselves and our communities safe, businesses running, and the environment clean.

Dependable, sustainable lifestyles and operations are built by investing in products and services that rely on less energy, water, and other resources; it is important that these also do not deplete the quality of our environment, which in turn threatens human health. In addition, these resilient systems can allow people to outlast stressors from the economy and natural or man-made hazards.

The National Institute of Building Sciences found from 23 years of data that every $1 spent on hazard mitigation grants saved the nation $6 in future disaster costs; these hazard mitigation strategies and those that surpass code minimums prevent deaths, injuries, and emotional disorders, as well as produce long-term jobs and increase utilization of domestic construction materials.

Local organizations and businesses can work to build community resilience by tying their projects to local resilience networks. When a community builds strong and connected health and social services to improve health, wellness, economics, leadership, resource access, and connectivity in their communities, they can also be better leveraged to support resilience when threats arise. Buildings and campuses designed to be effective shelters and care centers may need to be prepared for shift in operations, as well as have the ability to provide for a surge in occupants; this means flexibility in architectural programming, MEP design, and resource dependence. Ability to use real-time weather, building operations data, demand-response, and other intelligent design features allows a building's systems to be designed to operate at peak efficiency and to mitigate energy use, while maintaining capability to increase output in case of emergency Utilizing PV panels for energy reduces operational costs and carbon footprint during regular operations, and provides for independence from the grid if it becomes unavailable.

The Teck Acute Care Centre British Columbia Women’s and Children’s Hospital is an example of resilience put to work in design: the building includes a reversible supply and exhaust system that supports partial building isolation and is sized for a large influx of patients. The system enables shift in pressurization between two parts of the floorplan programmed to serve separate purposes in case of emergency, with a conference room used as an anteroom between the two floor plates transitioning.

Another case study is the University of Texas Medical Branch, which was redesigned after one million square feet of the campus were flooded by six feet of water during Hurricane Ike in 2008; not only was property damage costly, but $180 million in revenue was lost while operations were stalled following the storm. FEMA funding, procured following a resilience and recovery assessment, enabled rebuild and re-engineering of the building to function more efficiently and outlast imminent tropical storms and hurricanes. Facing-off against Category 4 Hurricane Harvey in 2017, full operation was maintained and patients were accepted to the hospital for care throughout the event.

Small business owners must also plan to make their businesses more resilient to continue to support themselves and their community, as the current status quo results in 25% of these never reopening if they close due to a major disaster, or 80% if they’re closed for a month. In addition to more resilient buildings, flexibility in small business operations can allow for adaptation in tough times; businesses have adapted to the pandemic by enabling online ordering, deliveries, and enforcing more hygienic environments – such capabilities may be useful in long-term operations to make a company more resilient.

As global climate changes, weather patterns shift, and urbanization grows, there is an increasing trend in instance and magnitude of disruptive events, both natural and man-made, which is recognized by the insurance industry, government, and marketplace. Knowing trends prevents us from having to make reactionary decisions: The more we use our knowledge to invest in resilience up front, the more prepared we are, the less we pay, the more we thrive.

Environmental Changes Following a World that Stays at Home

Outdoor air pollution is one of the leading risk factors for death in the world, behind cardiovascular disease and cancer, attributed to 6% of global deaths, 3.4 million people annually. Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in air leads to diseases such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia. Ozone exposure harms human respiratory and cardiovascular systems and decreases plant growth and ecosystem composition.

From 2016-2018, nearly 46% of people in the U.S. lived where contaminant levels for at least one of these pollutants are considered “unhealthy,” and 6.4% where ozone. and annual and 24-hour PM2.5, pollution exceed permissible levels. Pollutants don’t have to be produced locally - half of U.S. deaths from air pollution between 2005 and 2018 are linked to out-of-state emissions.

These values are far improved over the past, mainly due to U.S. air quality standards and regulations on vehicle and plant emissions: a joint 2018 study by multiple labs and universities showed that from 1990 to 2010 the U.S. mortality rate from PM2.5 decreased by 38%, and by 27% for ozone.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the limit of travel and the shutdown of many businesses has resulted in improved air quality in the U.S. and around the world. Compared to the first quarter of 2019, the same period in 2020 reportedly saw 3.8% lower energy demand and 5% lower emissions worldwide and 6% lower energy demand and 9% lower emissions in the U.S. (for the U.S., part of this reduction may be due to a milder winter). In the first four weeks in February, carbon emissions reportedly decreased by 24% in China, although the return of demand slowly increased emissions to normal levels by the end of March; emissions in the first quarter of 2020 were cut by 242 million tons of CO2 in China and 207 million tons of CO2 in the U.S., 18% lower than usual levels. In another study, nitrogen dioxide pollution over the northeastern United States is reported to be 30% lower on average than in 2015. These data highlight the significance of human behavior on the quality of the air we breathe.

Environmentalists say these adjustments, while drastic, have given us an opportunity to prevent serious consequences of climate change. While permanent quarantine is clearly not feasible, healthier environmental conditions are achievable through broad application of sustainable solutions.

Will This Lead to a Long-term Sustainable Change?

Other historical economic collapses have led to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but these typically rebound to former levels after the crisis ends.

Making rebound more likely for this pandemic, there has also been substantial uptick in “throwaway culture” use of disposable containers and bags for food as a precaution, as well as relaxation of enforcement and rollback of environmental regulations. To counter this, we can mitigate use of disposables and support reinstatement of pollution control as the pandemic comes to a close, and otherwise use our lifestyles, purchases, investments, and projects in our personal and professional lives to make a healthier population and environment a lasting change.

Climatologists believe that if half of the population continue the best practices that quarantine has instilled – working from home, reducing air travel, limiting and consolidating shopping trips, and reducing food waste – as well as investing in low emissions vehicles and energy sources, we could see measurable long-term results.

Though it doesn’t mean reversal, it does mean a profound decrease. “Regulators in the U.S. have done a pretty good job of hitting the most important thing first, which is power generation, by reducing sulfur dioxide emissions drastically, and there’s been a huge improvement…To make further progress, we should start focusing on road transportation and commercial and residential emissions,” says Steven Barrett, a MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, the leader for a study published in February in the journal Nature.

The ways of the future are unknown, but perhaps the changes we’ve seen in society in the midst of a pandemic prove to be hopeful for climate change. The pandemic demonstrated how much our lifestyles, operations, and choices can impact pollution and resilience.

As economic activity ramps up, individuals and businesses should be motivated to make informed, health-conscious choices based on lessons on health, resilience, and sustainability learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters: businesses should provide resilient, low-environmental-impact solutions, while individuals and businesses, alike, should adopt the following into their lifestyles and management plans:

  • stay home when sick (individuals) and support sick leave (businesses) to prevent spread of illness
  • consider if a remote meeting can appropriately replace an in-person trip to save travel time, energy use, and emissions
  • consume less
  • locate and buy local products and services that do not utilize/produce harmful chemicals, and that do use/waste less resources
  • waste less (remember that “reduce-reuse-recycle” is listed in order of impact; reuse if you can)
  • follow and share fact-checked information on health and sustainability

The CDC details further steps that individuals can take to reduce harm to themselves and others due to lifestyle choices and repercussions from damaging the environment.

In the building design industry, it is likely that screening and design for resilience will gain a stronger foothold, as damage done from lack of preparedness becomes more frequently publicized and more costly for business and building owners. Re-building or going to back to business as usual is not enough; reconstruction should follow “Build Back Better” principles for reconstruction and recovery, as supported by the UNISDR, and World Resources Institute. Expansion of available resources facilitates inclusion of resilience in design, like the Global Resilient Cities Network and case studies of successful resilient buildings; due to planning and investment to mitigate vulnerability to hazards, these buildings exemplify continual service to their communities despite predictable natural hazards and other threats.

The aforementioned efforts don’t just apply to “someone else,” but are for your pursuit, as well. The more we learn about and engage in resilient lifestyles, communities, and businesses, the earlier we will see results, and the longer we will benefit from them.

Note: Further research projects measuring human environmental impacts in the wake of COVID-19 behavior change are in progress, including independent research and research funded by NASA and NOAA.