Sustainable Design in a Post-COVID World

By Jessyca Henderson, Esq., Owner, The Law Office of Jessyca L. Henderson LLC

May 20, 2022

It is perhaps optimistic to say “post-COVID,” as the virus that shut down the world for two years will likely be a permanent, ongoing presence. In this new reality, and on the bright side, certain sustainable design concepts are also likely here to stay.

A Focus on Indoor Air and Environmental Quality

Adequate ventilation and access to fresh air have long been tenets of sustainable design, but these issues came into sharp focus as we tried to control the spread of microbes during the pandemic. Once airborne transmission was pinpointed as the main vector for COVID-19, mechanical systems were scrutinized and rethought. Past is prologue, as access to fresh air and sunlight was pushed for treatment of illness during the 1918 flu pandemic that claimed between 50 and 100 million lives over the course of two years.

Decentralized Workplaces

The hybrid workplace is likely here to stay. A significant proportion of office workers, after two years of working from home, have no intention of going back. If employers want to attract and keep top talent, they must adjust to this reality and continue to install and improve the technology they use.  Many corporations have declared permanent ‘work from home…or anywhere else’ policies.  In terms of sustainable design, this means less concentration of the workforce in offices, spreading out energy demands. Older buildings that sit empty with the lights on may need to be decommissioned or repurposed.  University of Pennsylvania Wharton School economist and professor Joseph Gyourko predicts a shift to higher quality buildings as commercial real estate adjusts to post-pandemic demand and typical five- to seven-year leases begin to expire.

Architecture for Health and Wellness

There is both a boom in demand and a sense of urgency in design for health and wellness. Hospital owners are under pressure to not only respond to the ongoing pandemic as it evolves, but to also plan for future pandemics with unknown characteristics (and an aging population).  As hospital owner-operators seek to ‘future proof’ their facilities, the design industry is responding with decentralized facilities and adaptive reuse, along with one of the key components of sustainable design: flexibility.  Design firms will continue to be called upon to collaborate with professionals in the medical field on designs that address problems extrapolated from experiences with COVID-19.

Social Change and Climate Justice

The literal and figurative space between us was thrust front and center, ironically as social distancing became the norm.  People have become more distanced by necessity, due to social and political catalysts coinciding with, and in some cases fueled by, the pandemic. In a tenser population now accustomed to keeping their distance, changes in occupancy requirements, as well as the rise of violent behaviors in the public realm, seem to have tracked with the pandemic itself. How the public interacts with one another was fundamentally changed by and during the pandemic, with social distancing and mask-wearing having untold effects (especially on children and the elderly).

Design for social distancing – and social interaction – continues to require a multidisciplinary understanding of the technical and psychological aspects of design.  How design can bring people together, address public safety, and promote access to clean air, water, and cultural value presents a unique challenge for the design community — one that holds much promise in uncertain times.

Jessyca Henderson is an attorney and architect based in Maryland, providing legal services and consulting to design professionals, corporations and government related to sustainable design, building science, and environment.

E204-2017 Sustainable Projects Exhibit , has been developed for use on a wide variety of sustainable projects, including those in which the Sustainable Objective includes obtaining a Sustainability Certification, such as LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), or those in which the Sustainable Objective is based on incorporation of performance-based sustainable design or construction elements. E204–2017 addresses the risks, responsibilities and opportunities unique to projects involving substantial elements of sustainable design and construction (sustainable projects). E204–2017 is not a stand-alone document, but is intended to be attached as an exhibit to an existing agreement on a project that includes a Sustainable Objective. E204–2017 is intended to replace the Sustainable Projects documents included in the Conventional (A201) family of AIA Contract Documents.

AIA Contract Documents has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind. This article is also not intended to provide guidance as to how project parties should interpret their specific contracts or resolve contract disputes, as those decisions will need to be made in consultation with legal counsel, insurance counsel, and other professionals, and based upon a multitude of factors.