Adapting Resilient Design to a Pandemic

By Joe Bryant, Managing Director

Adapting Resilient Design to a Pandemic

The Resilient Design Institute says that resilient design is to be prepared for the unpredictable with the “intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in order to respond to natural and manmade disasters and disturbances.” In the wake of COVID-19, architects and designers are working on a novel offshoot of this field: how to design resiliently for this current and future pandemics. We’re already seeing promising new designs and technology.

The world of architecture and design is, however, one populated by understandably meticulous planners who know that it only takes one tiny miscalculation or oversight to derail a project. Before organizations get too deep into their pandemic redesign plans, they need to review their standard contracts and prepare for the new exposures and liabilities that accompany innovation.

What's in Your Plan?

The pandemic is accelerating the demise of a longtime specialty for architects and engineers – retail. As retailers focus more on e-commerce, their physical storefronts are becoming less and less relevant. But as work on those retail spaces diminishes, demand from office spaces seeking to renovate and retrofit traditional spaces for employees is increasing.

Rethinking office design is presenting a slew of new challenges and opportunities for the industry. There’s a lot more to it than simply pushing desks farther apart. Office spaces, schools and other public buildings are being entirely reconfigured. Allowing for social distancing with accessibility is important, but so are temperature-check stations, touch-less entryways, and access to hand-washing stations. People are also concerned about airflow and microorganism growth, and are looking to upgrade or replace their HVAC systems. They want to design their spaces to be as sanitary and safe as possible, while making provisions for evolving tech.

Office buildings must look and function differently to accommodate the new normal. People are looking beyond short-term fixes and are trying to future-proof their buildings against tomorrow’s pandemic. The biggest challenge is the need for more personal space which, unfortunately, is a difficult fix if your existing building lacks the necessary square footage. Staggered work shifts may help address the issue, but may create unintended, costly consequences. If you now have a day shift and a night shift, what are the climate change, energy consumption and maintenance implications of having heating and cooling systems run for twenty hours a day instead of ten?

Inadvertent costs are a big concern with implementing these new designs. Whenever new technology is implemented, it becomes paramount from the design professionals’ perspective that both parties have a clear understanding of the risks involved from the outset.

What's at Risk?

Post-pandemic design plans, like any plans, do not come with guarantees. It’s why we stress that clients scrutinize contracts closely. Even before COVID-19, designers were incorporating new technologies, such as fire-suppression systems, into projects to make buildings safer. Incorporating those systems, however, doesn’t make buildings 100% fire-proof. If your contract neglects to state that clearly, you could be exposed. In the case of pandemic design, you need to be just as diligent. If an employee, student or customer contracts the virus, will they fault the engineer and/or architect who designed the building?

Designers must be wary about mitigating potential future liability claims, and the premium increases that inevitably follow, when working on these contracts. The key is to manage client expectations from the start. Make sure the contract plainly defines the scope of the project, communicates the risk involved and doesn’t guarantee outcomes. As promising as new technology or new approaches are, it’s impossible to assure that no one gets infected. With standards of care varying more than ever by region and sector, it is paramount to include a clearly-defined standard of care which emphasizes that services shall be provided “consistent with and limited to . . . the professional skill and care ordinarily provided by consultants practicing in the same locality under the same or similar circumstances.”

This pandemic has presented a slew of new challenges for architects and engineers, but in another sense, it’s not really a new situation. Fifteen years ago we were having the same conversations about sustainable design in the environmental space. People wanted to be sure that their investments in green technology would reduce their carbon footprint, presenting new risks for architects and designers who couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) make predictions about untested technologies. As challenging as that period of transition was, we are able to work through it, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to navigate this uncertain period as well. In fact, this could be a time for great change and collaboration across the industry, provided we all move forward with clarity and transparency.

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