Will sustainability impact building design, construction and operations in a post-COVID-19 world?

COVID-19 has impacted the construction and development industries in a big way, but what does the future of green building look like once the pandemic is over? We sat down with Myrrh Caplan, sustainability director for our USA Building (USB) group, and Sarah King, sustainability director for our Commercial Development (CDUS) group, to get their perspective on what the “new normal” may look like.

1 / 2 Our Two Drydock project in Boston, Massachusetts is a great example of a flexible office space that incorporates natural light with abundant fresh air.
2 / 2 Our Two Drydock project in Boston, Massachusetts is a great example of a flexible office space that incorporates natural light with abundant fresh air.

Looking at the big picture—how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how we view sustainable construction and the health and wellbeing of building occupants?

Myrrh: I’ve seen three main changes so far. First, there is more onus on us and the property manager to be transparent and prove we are meeting and exceeding current, best-known health practices. Second, owners are looking into system enhancements, like ionization units and ultraviolet (UV) sanitization lights, which are starting to be used in both permanent installs to control mold and as a new cleaning protocol. Third, building programs that have been focused on just the environment will start integrating more health and community aspects into their certifications. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is enhancing and adding credits around health and social equity, so the majority of the points in the next iteration of LEED® will go far beyond green.

Sarah: On the CDUS side, we’re seeing an acceleration of a trend that started pre-COVID 19—an increased focus on the health and wellness of building occupants. Whenever tenants or investors are voicing interest and want to learn how a high-performance, highly sustainable building has been designed, it’s a great opportunity for us. All of our projects are minimum LEED Gold and we also apply Fitwel, a health and wellness building certification, to many of them. The focus on indoor air quality and health and wellness isn’t new for us—it’s just being emphasized and magnified right now. I hope this remains a lasting focus.

Will buildings be constructed or operated differently in the future?

Myrrh: I think of all those years that I wore “bunny suits” onsite at a Skanska project for a confidential high-tech client, and while it felt extreme at the time, we will apply many of our quality construction methods from such projects to current practice. Particulate and microbial control measures across our pharma, mission critical and cleanroom fabrication plants, and healthcare projects have been in our wheelhouse for well over a decade. It’s time to take our lessons learned to more teams and more clients.

Sarah: I believe a few things related to building operations will change in the months and years ahead. Building automation and high-touch areas are top of mind. For example, to enter your office building and get to your desk, how many times do you touch a doorknob or an elevator button, and how can we use the tools and technology out there to reduce the number of times you need to touch surfaces in common spaces? For our buildings that are operational, we are working closely with property management teams to develop and implement operational protocols that are consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines while taking into account any unique aspects related to building systems and design. We’re talking with our mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) consultants around best practices that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends, such as increased ventilation and filtration. Since LEED and other certification standards have pushed us towards thinking about indoor air quality for a long time, MERV 13 filtration is standard for a number of our projects.

How might building interiors potentially change? 

Myrrh: We will likely see a change to practical elements like switching from porous to solid surfaces, batt to spray insulation, or even something as easy as replacing plastic with copper or bronze switch plate covers, which are naturally anti-germ. We’ll also move towards increasing outdoor air rates, with more advanced filtration of course. A lot of these changes will come from interior tenants collaborating with the base building on shared policy, germ reduction at entrances and hands-free conveyance system controls for elevators and escalators.

Sarah: When thinking of building interiors, I think we will lead with more flexibility and optionality. How can we design our spaces, whether office or multi-family, so that the space is really flexible in both its configuration and its use? With all of us experiencing this in such a real-world way with our homes becoming our offices, we’ve realized we need to design spaces that are as flexible as possible for future unexpected events.

Does innovative technology have a place in post-pandemic sustainable design and construction?

Myrrh: We will definitely see more applications of UV integration and better air quality solutions like ionization systems. Thought leaders and stakeholders, including an even greater diversity of doctors, scientists and healthcare experts, are going to be involved in building design due to COVID-19, so we may see some really innovative technology come out of this.

Sarah: This crisis is going to drive a tremendous amount of innovation—it already has. We’re looking into building automation and indoor air quality sensors and monitoring. I think there will be a bigger focus from building occupants around not just knowing the systems are in place, but figuring out how we can measure, monitor and see the data. We’re following leading industry associations, like ASHRAE, to pilot and evaluate HVAC upgrades and other tools and technologies designed to filter and purify indoor air.

Will certain construction elements already standard in healthcare find application in other types of buildings?

Myrrh: The infectious disease areas of healthcare facilities, like an emergency room or intensive care unit, are informing the rest of a hospital’s spaces now. There is a lot of learning happening that has extended out into their own industry, as well as flowing in from other industries. Skanska’s construction approach at microchip labs is very much about particulate and microbial control because we’re often doing construction inside active fabrication plants. So, how do we plan the work in a way where we’re ensuring that there’s not going to be any particulate load in the atmosphere? Our decades of experience with labs and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities allow us to better control the potential of product quality impacts onsite.

Sarah: Traditionally, UV filtration is used more in healthcare settings than commercial office or multi-family settings. So, we’ve been asking our MEP consultants for advice on how we get to that purification level of air, beyond the extra ventilation and extra filtration. We’re trying to understand the existing technologies while also keeping an eye on what’s emerging.

How are we currently approaching sustainable solutions with clients?

Myrrh: A recent and fast-moving example of how clients are changing their usual plans is at one of our university projects in the northeast. We are in schematic design, and the goals of occupant comfort and health changed as the client saw how COVID-19 affected their ability to operate and attract students to a busy campus. Over the past month, myself, our architects and their consulting firm have packaged good-better-best options for each design scheme being offered. I also created a side-by-side material health comparison for the university that showed a progressive path from LEED, LEED for Healthcare, WELL, LBC Core and a customized “chemicals of concern” approach. We then used that analysis in our proposal response for another pursuit with them, so they can see that their concerns are being met with our experience.

Sarah: From a development standpoint, sustainability and health and wellness have been focus areas for a long time. COVID-19 raises the profile of these issues and gives us an opportunity to engage even deeper with our customers—whether that’s the tenants who are sitting in the building, investors who are considering purchasing the building, or even neighboring buildings and cities. Everyone’s mind is on how we can create healthy public and private spaces. It gives Skanska a chance to highlight our developments as well as design and operational elements that reflect the importance of sustainability to the company and our Care for Life value.

How has COVID-19 impacted our fight against climate change on a global level?

Myrrh: Pollution is still far eclipsing the fatality rate of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. There is a great graphic from the CDC I use in presentations that highlights the areas of health that are impacted by climate change. While the pandemic has led to a temporary reduction in carbon emissions, all of the added used and disposed antibacterial wipes, as well as the more frequent use of aerosols and other chemicals, is actually hurting the planet and our immunity. While “localized” CO2 has been reduced through less commuting, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently provided a surprising update: CO2 levels have risen steeply and we are now at the highest concentration since records began in 1958. We cannot afford to lose traction on improving the planet.

Sarah: There’s been a lot of news about the temporary dip in global emissions and air pollution with the majority of commuters working remotely and air traffic declining by 95 percent. I think it’s great that people are noticing and appreciating the environmental impact. But, I do worry that once we go back to our offices and resume our previous commuting patterns, we’ll be setting ourselves up for a quick return to normal, or even larger than normal, emissions. It’s important to keep climate change in mind because there are so many parallels between COVID-19, which is an intense pandemic that quickly hit everyone, and climate change, which is more of a long-term, slower-motion pandemic. We need to figure out as a society how we can continue progressing on all of these fronts without having to set one of these major challenges aside.

Last updated: 6/18/2020