COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on how we live — but how could the pandemic potentially change the way we approach ventilation within our healthcare facilities as we learn from the coronavirus and tackle potential airborne infection control? Mechanical Engineer at Pick Everard, Simon Atkin, discusses how the pandemic could shape ventilation systems moving forwards.
Sustainability and energy efficiency has long been high on the agenda for the construction industry as we all look to move towards Net Zero Carbon and to deliver the most environmentally sound infrastructure — but COVID-19 has introduced a new focus for many; ventilation. More importantly, how we can ensure that the systems we use within our buildings keep end users safe and prevent the spread of airborne diseases such as coronavirus?
Historically, ventilation has been related to the thermal comfort of end users, particularly in commercial settings. However, the way in which we handle air circulation within our buildings has become a key point of discussion in relation to infection control, whether that be within new builds or what options there are to retrofit older buildings to help improve the role of ventilation in bacterial control within our buildings — especially those with healthcare purposes.
Adapting to changing scientific advice
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, building services engineers have had to pay close attention to the scientific advice on the disease to ensure that clients can be advised on their systems appropriately — whether this be a commercial office space or a medical facility.
Several months into the pandemic in the UK, the World Health Organisation (WHO) acknowledged that there was emerging evidence that the virus could be spread by tiny particles suspended in the air, and that such airborne transmission could not be ruled out in crowded, closed or poorly ventilated settings.
With many patients needing critical treatment for other conditions throughout the pandemic it is of critical importance that we adapt quickly and efficiently within healthcare facilities to ensure that patients are still able to receive potentially life-saving treatment without being put at risk of contracting coronavirus.
High-performance ventilation systems are already commonplace within the healthcare sector, with systems including negative pressure air handling and fresh air exchangers utilised effectively in hospitals — but are we likely to see these types of systems integrated into other sectors as we move out of the pandemic? It could be that hospital grade ventilation systems become the norm across all varieties of buildings as consumers become more focussed on how we ventilate spaces to prevent the spread of disease.
There is an inevitable cost implication to utilising higher performance ventilation systems as well as a potential compromise on other sustainability credentials within the build, both of which may make clients think twice about how far they are willing to go — especially given the evolving ways in which we are all using spaces as a result of social distancing.
We may also see changes to the maintenance and cleaning of ventilation systems. In the past, this is something that has been carried out infrequently — if at all — but as increasing focus is placed on germ control, it may be that we see pressure being applied on building owners and occupiers to illustrate these measures are being taken, possibly even via legislation and certification.
The future of ventilation
At Pick Everard, we have been keeping abreast of the latest scientific data and advice from the WHO, to make sure we provide our clients with the best possible service in what has been undoubtedly one of the toughest years for the healthcare sector. As well as the obvious pressures the coronavirus placed on services directly, there have been huge ripples of indirect pressures as well.
One hospital with whom we at Pick Everard have a working relationship has sought consultancy services on its ventilation systems due to one such indirect pressure — a forced reduction in the number of patients served.
Following the WHO acknowledgement of potential airborne transmission in enclosed spaces, the hospital had to introduce a process of leaving a minimum of one hour between patients in its consultancy rooms to avoid cross-contamination issues. This of course has a significant impact on the number of patients that can be treated each day, increasing the waiting lists for treatments and has a very real human impact on those patients waiting for treatment.
We have never seen such a focus on air circulation and ventilation, but whether or not there will be a long-term change in approach when it comes to designing systems in our buildings is not yet clear. There will undoubtedly be cost implications associated with higher grade ventilation systems, as well as considerations around performance and energy efficiencies, which will potentially require clients to find additional funding to see projects come to fruition.
As we move through the pandemic and with a vaccine potentially on the horizon, any longer-term shift towards high-performance heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems may not be obvious as changes take their time to filter through. Without legislation it is likely that progress will be slow across the board, but there are certainly many learnings to take forward from 2020, and opportunity for forward-thinking organisations to deliver better, more hygienic, and sustainable buildings.
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