“Resilience is the ability to face internal or external crisis and not only effectively resolve it, but also learn from it, be strengthened by it, emerge transformed by it, individually and as a group.” --Gilbert Brenson-Lazan
Grappling with COVID-19 and its many disruptions to our society and economy has inspired us to reach out to people with insight to share. From addressing the challenges of distance learning to re-examining the relationship between public space and public health, our clients, colleagues, and collaborators share reflections on this moment, what they’re learning, and how they think desgn can be a partner in enabling future solutions. If our future is changing, we must as well.
Let’s design it together.
Tracy Steward is interviewed about WKU's Ogden College Hall, the nation's first WELL certified university lab building.
Tracy Steward, LEED AP, CxA, WELL AP is a principal at CMTA Engineers. CMTA is a unique engineering firm with a culture of innovation and commitment to high performance buildings and zero energy design.
Like VMDO, CMTA pushes for spaces to be amazing for the occupant and the environment. This shared commitment brought VMDO and CMTA together about ten years ago in collaborating on the design of Discovery Elementary School. When the school opened in 2015, it was the largest zero energy building in the world. The school has been a trailblazer, proving that zero energy can be achieved without costing more and while still providing a great learning environment.
At CMTA, Tracy establishes goals for LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and WELL certification. Tracy also collects data, tracks building performance, and advocates for healthy design strategies. Health and wellness has been a personal passion and firm-wide commitment. As a result of Tracy's leadership in this domain, Western Kentucky University's Ogden College Hall became the nation's first WELL certified university lab building in February 2020.
You have been a champion of integrating health and wellness and building design at CMTA. How has COVID-19 changed how you think about wellness in the built environment?
A1: Tracy Steward
Several years ago, Tony Hans [CMTA's National Director of Sustainable Projects] and I were talking about the future of design in the built environment and asked what is that focus going to be? We dove into health and wellness and discussed how the purpose of a place is the people. When we design, we need to maintain our focus on that and that purpose. Health and wellness is ingrained in that mission.
I love this as a design philosophy. When this virus came about, it just made me even more passionate about providing designs that help people come back together. The spaces we need to design now need to be capable of accommodating both the real risks that we have of illness, but also the fears that have been embraced.
If you had to list 5 things that every project can do to reduce transmission and increase occupant health, what would they be?
A2: Tracy Steward
As we start to think about how we want to reduce transmission and its impact on occupant health, the first thing my mind goes to is my background, which is mechanical engineering and designing HVAC systems for buildings.
1. Include UV Lights at Air Handling Units (AHUs)
I start to think about UV lights for heating and air conditioning systems. It's a low cost way to prevent virus circulation. It's used in the healthcare market regularly. It kills bacteria and viruses, and is very common in the industry. My first thought is, if you're going to have air brought into a space through diffusers, use UV light to clean it.
2. Minimize High Touch Surfaces
The next thing that comes to mind when I step back and think about being the administrator for some WELL projects are the high touch surfaces. Not just the cleaning portion ... rather, how do we eliminate them? How do we look at our designs and say, let's go ahead and have sinks and toilets that auto flush. Let's have automatic doors wherever we can place them. Let's have door holders for when people are entering spaces, so less people are opening and closing the doors. Let's use the design in the environment, maybe on pathways to restrooms and even eliminate doors. Another thing to get rid of are hand dryers that blow air throughout a space and instead use paper towels.
3. Increase Ventilation
The third thing I think about, in going back to my world as a HVAC designer, is increased ventilation, especially in classrooms and in conference rooms, or in any place that has a high density of people. I've always been an advocate for [increased ventilation] since I got into understanding health and wellness and how CO2 levels impact cognitive function and student performance. We're going through all this effort right now to bring in more ventilation and to provide fresher air so that we can have better performance. But we're putting masks on now. How can we find a way to get the masks off and provide fresh air so that we can perform?
4. Maximize Daylighting
I don't want to take the focus off lighting design and daylighting. If we start to look at health as a whole, if you're healthier, you're sleeping well, you're stronger, and you have a better immune system. I think we still need to focus on daylighting and getting that to people as well as healthy lighting design.
5. Ensure Air Quality
Finally, I think we need to look at where we use equipment that may recirculate air without going through UV light or good filtration. And try to find ways to eliminate those within the design by moving the return air maybe away from doors where we traditionally put them and pulling the air to the back of the space, more similar to a laboratory in order to keep the air fresh.
If I start to think about five strategies that reduce transmission and make people more comfortable as they go back into their environments, I would say those would be the top five I would look at.
How do you think the design and operations of our buildings will change as a result of this experience?
A3: Tracy Steward
I think the biggest change is going to be the cleaning protocols and the level to which those are used within buildings and their operations. I think I'm going to have to get some probiotics to get some healthy bacteria in me nowadays because we're cleaning so well. Cleaning is a big part of killing the virus. Cleaning protocols are definitely going to have an impact on operations but also on the materials from a design standpoint.
I think we're going to see spacing between individuals grow in the education market. If you think of a classroom, a lecture hall – it's very tight quarters. Those environments may need to be reevaluated based upon this experience that we're having right now.
What have you seen or experienced as a silver lining to the pandemic? What gives you hope as we come out of it?
A4: Tracy Steward
This pandemic has really given us an appreciation for the gift of social interaction. I work in the education market, with higher education and K-12. One of our biggest conversations is always about community. How do we create community? How do we create moments for people to interact so that they can find friendships and they can create connections and have a sense of belonging? That's always a conversation because it's a big part of our mental health and our happiness.
When I start to think about what the silver lining is ... As we move forward, there will probably be less illness because we are putting a bigger focus on not getting sick. We're going to be making different choices and probably distancing ourselves more than we had in the past. And the silver lining I think is that people will get less sick as we move forward. But we need to find ways to make that happen where you still can make those connections and and create that joy in life that we need as human beings through social interaction.