November 5, 2020

Adapting Your Building to Be a First Responder

A Round-Up of Resources to Elevate Your Building’s Virus Fighting Status and Plan for the Future

Since the outset of Covid-19, each of us has had to dramatically shift the way we think about and use indoor spaces. For affordable housing developers that has extended to thinking about community spaces, offices and the homes of the people you serve.

While sneeze guards, six-foot markers and limited gathering have become common place, as we enter a longer-term period of coexisting with Covid-19, what more can we or should we do?  How can we put our buildings to work as first responders able to address spikes in the virus or other future hazards?

This post provides a round-up of some of the best thinking, from a variety of industries and a diversity of perspectives, on how design principles can be used to make the spaces we care for and inhabit healthier and safer.

This round-up moves from foundational tools to more specific and technical resources to help you in whatever stage of readiness you are looking to improve upon.  Resources are grouped in the following four areas:

  • 101 - Core concepts for controlling hazards and airborne infections
  • 201 - Best practices for keeping your staff and residents safe
  • 301 - Equitable and effective upgrades to your interventions
  • 401 – Future planning factors to consider  
Your Building As a First Responder

Your Building as a First Responder 101:  Core Concepts

These resources get back to basics on controlling for hazards and airborne infections.  If you are updating your emergency response documents or wanting to zoom-out on your overall approach, this is a great place to start.

  • Hierarchy of Controls, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - This framework is the CDC’s foundational resource for managing occupational hazards. The hierarchy guides you from the most effective to the least effective methods of preventing exposure, moving through the five core approaches: elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE.
  •  “Re-occupancy Assessment Checklist,” American Institute of Architects - This step-by-step checklist is tailored for building owners and breaks down what can be done to secure a building at each step in the CDC’s Hierarchy of Controls (see above).
  • “An Air Filtration Primer for Building Owners and Developers,” Gensler - This article reviews the three ways to mitigate airborne particles; modifications you can make to your existing HVAC system; and design considerations for new buildings.

Your Building as a First Responder 201: Best Practices for Keeping Your Staff and Residents Safe

These resources provide an overview of industry-specific health and safety building modifications, as well as ideas for office space adaptations.

  • “Strategies for Safer Multifamily Housing,” American Institute of Architects - This cornerstone report, tailored to multifamily housing, provides short-term strategies to prevent transmission of Covid-19 for entry, lobby, circulation spaces and residential dwelling units.
  • “Designing for Senior Housing for Safe Interaction: The Role of Architecture in Fighting Covid-19,”  MASS Design Group - This important resource produced by MASS Design Group, walk through how to design senior housing for safe interaction and not social isolation, focusing on the importance of human contact to our health. While focusing on seniors, the response methods are universal. Insights are framed around eight actionable principles for safe interaction and a primer on building thresholds or zones (public, semi-public, semi-private, private) and the mitigation techniques that are appropriate for each zone. The principles are reinforced with a visual case study.  A webinar discussing this resource was hosted by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
  •  Healthy Buildings Program: Relevant Covid-19 Research, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health - This website provides a trove of research-based articles and tools with significant guidance how to reopen school spaces, which could translate to affordable housing, as well as straight-forward guides on topics such as, “How to: Practice Safe Elevator Etiquette.” 
  • Layouts for Offices Post Corona Virus, Dezeen - If you are looking for inspiration on how you might reconsider your office layout, the design firm Woods Bagot offered four different options to meet changing uses for office spaces.  

Your Building as a First Responder 301: Equitable and Effective Upgrades to Your Interventions

You’ve likely already done a lot to adapt your physical space; these resources walk through nuances you may have missed that will have your interventions be equitable and encouraging to staff and residents.

Your Building as a First Responder 401 Master Class:  Future Planning Factors to Consider

As you start to think about your next development project, it’s hard to know what modifications to include. These articles provide some fertile food for thought.

  • Inspiration: “Architectural Design can Change the Indoor Microbiome and Create Healthier Spaces,” University of Oregon’s Institute for Health in the Built Environment - For a shot of inspiration as you take on your next project, this short (three-minute) video digs into a developer’s opportunity to impact resident and employee health as you make project design decisions.
  • Case Making for Healthier Buildings: “Designing for Equity and Well-Being in the Covid-19 Era,” Metropolis - This article, contributed to by the co-founder of the Parson’s Healthy Materials Lab among others, is a good jumping-off point for case-making for investment in healthy housing materials for future projects. In the article, they provide key facts about how the built environment and indoor air quality impact our well-being. This is important as many of us have been/will be confined to our homes during course of the pandemic and are spending more time indoors in general.  
  • Design Trends: “Five Ways Covid-19 will Change Affordable Housing Design,” Affordable Housing Finance - This industry scan provides emerging design trends for the post Covid-19 world, including enhanced outdoor space, a focus on in-building and/or in-unit work from home spaces, better internet and flexible community spaces, touchless fixtures and more. 
  • Big Thinking on Common Spaces: “How will Covid-19 shape hospitality architecture and design.” Gensler - Gleaning insight from the hospitality industry, this article pushes developers to rethink how they design a building’s shared spaces so that those spaces might be used in a future health crisis or natural disaster. For instance, it suggests rethinking how common bathrooms and other shared spaces might be designed for emergency use as wellness centers or healthcare zones. 
  • Other Thoughts: Pulling on resources listed in prior sections, there are suggestions for what to consider when designing your new hvac/air filtration system and ensuring that you are designing for connection and safety in times of isolation.

What have you done to modify your spaces?  What resources have been helpful? Or what do you still need help on?  We would love to hear from you!  Reach out to Carrie Niemy at

(Image Credit: Infographic vector created by freepik -

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