Air Filters & Outdoor Dining: COVID Changing Building Design

Climatic Heating & Cooling President Sonny Swann replaces a filter in a residential Carrier Infinity Air Purifier, which cleans the air by capturing virus particles and deactivating them using an electric charge.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led people to distance themselves from others and avoid contact with surfaces, among other habits. Many businesses have also upped their cleaning schedules. Those changed perspectives could lead to a change in the ways buildings are constructed in the future. And while the push for those changes could take years to be codified in building codes, some organizations have already taken steps to modify their existing building layouts and to forge new designs to accommodate a more virus-aware world.

Thomas O’Neil, of Leesburg-based O’Neil Architects, said there are some design characteristics that are already catching on as a matter of societal preference, such as multi-use spaces that can function as indoor or outdoor areas. O’Neil said that design feature is popular among wineries, with many installing roll-up doors to open their tasting rooms to the outdoors when temperatures warm up.

Some food and beverage establishments also are veering away from the open-bar concept. O’Neil said he’s working with a winery that decided against having a second tasting bar installed, opting instead for space for table service to keep guests separated better.

“That’s just a change in design approach,” O’Neil said.

Meanwhile, Old Ox Brewery CFO Graham Burns said his brewery, which operates locations in Ashburn and Middleburg, was halfway prepared for the change in society’s mindset about water fountains—Old Ox’s Middleburg location never had water fountains. Instead, the bartenders have always provided guests with water from behind the bar. Burns said when the pandemic hit, the Old Ox Ashburn covered its water fountains and shifted to bartenders supplying water.

Rethinking Building Designs

But for businesses thinking of changing the way their new buildings are designed, there is a price tag. For example, if they plan for more space to allow for social distancing, it can cost them extra to not only construct that added space, but also to heat it and cool it.

“It’s a huge domino effect,” said Peter Edivan, an independent Loudoun-based architect who designed the Ashburn Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department’s firehouse in 2014.

O’Neil said that while social distancing was the simplest way to control the spread of COVID-19 in the past year, it’s most likely not a long-term solution that will be applied to future building designs.

“Why? It’s a lot of wasted space,” he said.

Instead, O’Neil said perhaps the simplest design characteristic to include in new architectural drawings is improved ventilation systems—systems that could pull air up through a filter rather than across the room past individuals who could be spreading germs, and systems that could bring in outside air.

O’Neil said those modifications in new buildings would be a fairly easy way to ensure COVID-19, or any other virus, is kept at bay without needing to add extra space or other over-the-top design features that could become outdated in the decades to come.

“It’s always difficult to go back and retrofit old buildings,” he said.

But according to Climatic Heating & Cooling President Sonny Swann, an air filtration system that sucks air up rather than across a space might not properly condition a room. He said while it’s important to take sanitization into account amid the pandemic, it’s equally important to consider comfort.

Swann said he’s hearing more of a desire from some essential businesses, like childcare centers, to incorporate ventilation systems using 100% outside air. But, he said, those systems can be difficult to manage in the summer months when it takes more energy to cool the outside air for indoor use.

In general, Swann is seeing a desire for all kinds of add-on components to air systems, such as photocatalytic air scrubbers that use UV light to clean the air. Climatic has already installed those in all three Ford’s Fish Shack locations and in The Hill School in Middleburg. Swann said those add-ons aren’t overly expensive, either, coming in at about $1,000 for installation and $400 for a new cartridge each year.

Edivan said that instead of designing buildings radically different based on the pandemic’s immediate effects, it’s more feasible for organizations to continue having new buildings designed in the same ways as before, but to leave the option open to simply reconfigure the interior space as needed and re-evaluate needs later on. Edivan said it’s all about flexibility, pointing to the ways certain businesses have eliminated their self-serve components.

New Designs Already Catching On

Wegmans, which was one of the stores that eliminated its self-serve stations and also added social distancing queues and transparent dividers around service counters. Wegmans also added a space for Meals 2GO where customers may order restaurant meals for curbside pick-up or delivery.

Meanwhile, Rounds VanDuzer Architects Principal Steve Kenney said his firm has been tasked with designing walk-up windows on some projects to eliminate the need for customers to enter stores to pick up their purchases, like coffee.

Hillsborough Vineyards Master Brewer Tolga Baki said the winery performed a “tremendous” number of changes to accommodate an extended COVID mindset and future expected public behavior during flu seasons.

That work included updates to the winery’s two bar areas to better serve customers and to aid in better sanitation; the addition of a new, full outside bar; the addition of more picnic tables; the expansion of the stone patio to double outside seating capacity; the addition of 25 more parking spaces and a gravel overflow lot to accommodate 40 additional cars; and the addition of an enclosed pavilion to hold up to 30 people.

Baki said all those changes will be in place before Mother’s Day.

As for the county government, it has spent about $1 million on building modifications to protect against COVID-19, according to Loudoun County Public Affairs and Communications Officer Glen Barbour.

For the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, the county has set aside about $100,000 to address additional modifications as they come up. 

Building Codes Could Change

O’Neil said he fully expects change to the International Building Code to accommodate COVID-related cultural shifts. But he and Edivan aren’t seeing that push yet.

Edivan and O’Neil both emphasized that if changes were to be made to the International Building Code, they wouldn’t come anytime soon; most Virginia architects today are following regulations found in the 2015 International Building Code.

“It is several years behind,” Edivan said.

O’Neil said it could take at least five years for changes to be made to the code. He cited the changes related to wind bracing that were spurred by the damage Hurricane Andrew wreaked in Florida in 1992—those changes didn’t hit the books for nearly a decade.

“It takes a while,” O’Neil said.

Edivan noted that even if changes related to the COVID culture are made to the building code in the years to come, they could be knee-jerk reactions to the pandemic that quickly become outdated and spark a need for even more change to the building code in the future.

Those changes could target regulations like the number of toilet stalls required in bathrooms or the number and arrangement of water fountains. But there are ways to navigate the code, O’Neil said.

For instance, he said, the building code doesn’t require water fountains in spaces where less than 15 people assemble, which means businesses can have their buildings designed in a more compartmentalized way if they’re set on providing their employees a more germ-conscious workspace.

“It’s not completely black and white,” O’Neil said.

A Return to Normal

Edivan said he’s hearing from many industry leaders that they expect business to return to normal once the pandemic is controlled.

“We’re still seeing office buildings going up,” he said.

Burns said he’s seeing more Old Ox Brewery guests becoming more comfortable going back inside the tasting room to enjoy their beer, rather than being outdoors in the open air.

“I don’t know what it will be like six months from now, but I think it’s going to be better than what’s it is now,” he said

But many people will still want to eat and drink outdoors as much as possible. And that desire is duly noted food and beverage operators; Kenney said his firm has seen more of a demand recently for outdoor dining options.

“It was a desire before, but more of a requirement now,” he said.

Delirium Café and Wild Wood Pizza owner Curtis Allred said he, too, feels the culture has shifted to a point where outdoor seating is a must.

“I don’t think anybody opens another restaurant without a patio,” he said.

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