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Building Lobbies Are Now the First Line of Defense Against COVID-19

Designing buildings has always been a bit of a guessing game. Now, there might be more of the trial and error than ever as we play the guessing game of determining how to best mitigate the spread of disease in enclosed spaces. Yes, reliance on scientific research will be important, but there are still quite a few unknowns. Perhaps in one hundred years or so, we will have nailed designing “pandemic-proof” properties, but as it stands, we’re working from a limited scope of experience. 

You give me fever

One of the biggest unknowns about how to stop the spread of a disease in a building is how we can prevent sick people from entering the building in the first place. This puts the pressure on building lobbies to protect its occupants. Many lobbies will need to make changes in order to do so—and many already have. Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, NJ is performing temperature checks at every entrance. For their highest traffic entrance, they’ve installed a camera that reads people’s temperatures as they walk by. To do this, they’ve partitioned off the entrance to direct the flow of traffic so that some doors are for entering and some doors are for exiting, and there is clear signage to indicate which are which. Upon entering the building, partitions guide traffic to walk past the temperature camera, which then flashes a temperature above each person’s head in real time as they walk by. A security guard stationed at the camera reads each temperature to make sure everyone is in compliance. This is a helpful addition but can only go so far in stopping the spread of this particular coronavirus since symptoms are often not displayed for weeks after someone has been infected, if at all.

To determine how COVID-19 could further impact lobby design, I spoke with Ambar Margarida, principal at Spacesmith, an architectural design firm based out of New York City. “I think one of the very interesting things is an upgrade in terms of the technology that is being embedded in the security,” said Margarida. She provided an example of advanced visitor management systems currently being used in South Korea and now in the U.S. that allow visitors to log into the system ahead of time, fill out their contact information, reason for visit, and time of visit. The visitor is then sent a QR code that they can either present to the front desk or use themselves to scan into the system that will provide them with entry at the designated time. 

This kind of technology provides buildings with contact tracing by monitoring who is entering the building and at what times, but it also provides touchless access control if properties upgrade their spaces. Margarida explained how these kinds of systems “imply a lot of other things architecturally. Upgrades to the turnstiles and the technology that are used there, upgrades to the security desk. As you know, you don’t just print a badge anymore by scanning someone’s license. This is completely touchless technology.” Properties may have been moving in that direction anyway, but the impacts of COVID-19 accelerated the property industry’s adoption of touchless technology.

Look but don’t touch

Another aspect of touchless technology includes limiting interactions or making them safer. We’ve all witnessed temporary plexiglass dividers that have popped up seemingly everywhere, from fast food restaurants, to nail salons, to banks, to reception desks, as an added layer of protection for both employees and patrons. Margarida envisions these dividers becoming more permanent installations for reception areas where we will see glass partitions combined with low walls to create spaces that are both safe and aesthetically pleasing. In hotel lobbies, for example, Margarida thinks that seating areas will be segregated off to discourage large groups from gathering. Instead, intimate seating clusters will be divided by “tall bookshelves, a beautiful green wall, a piece of artwork that’s floating, or wide coffee tables that allow more space between people because they have a large footprint.” While meant to intentionally separate people, divisional design elements can still blend into a space and help to beautify it in addition to mitigating risk.

A recent blog post from architectural firm Gensler explained how they envision office lobbies of the future now serving a dual purpose: “We view this communal space as the first line of defense in preventing the spread of infectious germs,” said author J. Kevin Heinly. In addition to welcoming occupants to the property, lobbies will undoubtedly need to be designed to protect them as well. Heinly identifies four major areas of lobby design in a post COVID-19 world, including improved air quality, antimicrobial materials, automation and voice control to limit contact, and sensor technology to screen visitors. 

In terms of air quality, the biggest recommendations from experts have been to increase filtration and ventilation as well as bringing in more fresh air from outdoors. Similarly, Heinly explains, “As transition spaces, lobbies can operate mechanical systems that are isolated from the rest of the building. Opening up these high-traffic common areas to the outdoors can also create an ideal environment for integrating landscape features like living walls, which organically filter air and breath oxygen into indoor spaces.” Because lobbies typically have entrances and exits that are exposed to the outdoors, this creates an opportunity for future designs that can remain open for longer periods of time, using sensor-based technology—another one of Heinly’s recommendations. Sensors are also used in thermal scanning technology like the ones I saw at Borgata in Atlantic City, and since the onset of COVID-19, this technology has seen a huge jump in demand for use in all kinds of commercial buildings.

Margarida explained how touchless technology that is already being used in restrooms to automate faucets, toilets, and hand dryers, is now being applied to other parts of the building to operate doors, elevators, and grant visitor access. In our recent report Touchless Office Access Improves Long-Term Value and Short-Term Safety we learned the importance of collaborating with tenants when it comes to touchless integrations so that building occupants have a hands-free experience, not just in the lobby but throughout all of their interactions with the building. According to Heinly, future commercial building restrooms may have entrances that resemble airports where there is no actual door, making it easy for travelers to navigate “hands-free” while carrying their luggage. For surfaces that can’t be avoided, using naturally antimicrobial materials like copper and manmade ones like Krion, can help limit disease transmission, which is why these types of materials are often used in healthcare settings. Buildings can also retrofit surfaces with protective coatings that work to fight microbes. 

“Only you…”

However, even with hands-free measures, contract tracing, and temperature monitoring, it’s still important to enforce personal hygiene and protection, which can be done through communication and signage. For example, tenants and visitors alike can be reminded to wear masks and wash their hands via messaging through visitor management systems or tenant communication portals. Signage, in addition to hand sanitizing stations, can also remind people to frequently wash their hands and wear masks. While signage should be used to direct traffic flow into and out of buildings, future buildings should also make thoughtful design decisions regarding entrance and exit placement and design that naturally guides people in the right direction.

It may take a while for people to get used to navigating commercial properties as they adapt to mitigate risk, but eventually, these changes will become the norm, expected even. People are eager to get back out into the world and enjoy the things they’ve missed, like going to work or visiting a hotel. Lobbies serve a central purpose of guiding occupants to their destinations within a property. Now, they also serve another very important purpose which is to keep occupants as safe as possible by limiting exposure to infectious diseases. It may take quite a bit of trial and error to get properties to a “pandemic-proof” state, but landlords, owners, and occupants will agree that they’d rather adapt to the changes than go back to complete isolation.  

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