Rethinking architecture – new perspectives to combat pandemics

Rethinking architecture

We don’t need to make catastrophic prophecies or mention the warnigs of famous scientists, to understand that we will probably have to face other pandemics in the future. We should learn a lesson from how we have dealt with the present emergency, and we should ask ourselves how we can improve for the future. The one thing that is already clear to everyone is how fast is the disease spreading throughout the world; If in 1300s it took 15 years to the Chinese bubonic plague to spread in Europe, today global diffusion happens in a few days.

Once we will be out of this pandemic, we should analyze the fragile balance between man and virus, that today is altered by climate change and ecosystems, which not only affect the environment, but cause even heavy economic and sanitary impacts. The main COVID- 19 outbreaks in the world have developed in heavily polluted areas, such as the Wuhan region in China or the Padana Plain, in Italy, where the smog reaches the highest levels in the world and where lung diseases, even in normal conditions, are highly spread. There is not scientific evidence for this relationship yet, but certainly this is an aspect that deserves a closer inspection.

We should even analyze the social and psychological impact caused by the lock down that is changing our way of living. A lifestyle that in part was already changing with the development of Shut-in economy, strongly growing in the last few years. We are sure that getting back to normal won’t be completely possible; there will be radical changes, and even the idea itself of “Normal” is set to change for a long time. This is the conclusion reached by Gordon Lichfield, director of MIT Technology Review, the magazine of the prestigious american university : “ to stop coronavirus we should radically change almost everything we do: how we work, how we do exercise, socialize, do shopping, take care of our health , our family and how we educate our children.”

And what will be the effects on architecture? What considerations can we make today to fully understand the future changes that will modify public and private spaces? The first, the more evident at present, involves the sanitary facilities that couldn’t effectively deal with the major emergencies. In many cases they have become places where the virus has spread, infecting patients and sanitary operators. We have realized that, in case of emergency, hospitals are not safe places, it’s better to avoid them instead, choosing house assistance, that in the future will be implemented, thanks to new technologies.

A system that has suffered a crisis for the lack of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, face masks, overalls. A symptom of poor organization and of how inadequate preventive measures have been. We have to be grateful to all the health workers, who have faced the epidemic under a huge pressure, with poor personal protective equipment, at risk of their own lives. But this pandemic gives us the chance to reconsider the functionality criteria of a hospital, to re-think about it in terms of efficiency to face normality, but even to deal with extraordinary events, the exception, the unusual.

What can be questioned today is the model of a hospital as a “health factory”, made of great areas with common services where big receptions send patients to the different outpatients’ departments; an exasperated system that tries to rationalize sanitary activities, thus concentrating hundreds, thousands of people every day, exposing them to the risk of contamination. We don’t want to suggest outdated solutions, as pavilion hospitals in last century, where every condition has its specific site, but we want to stress how and if present models can give adequate responses to emergency situations.

It is not for us to criticize the choices in the health sector in different countries, but a system of “spread health” and facilities thought as “houses of health” can better fit to more and more difficult situations, and break its own borders bringing treatment at home, by means of telemedicine. At the same time, we have to think of specific tools to improve the quality of treatment areas, with modern criteria of functionality and managerial efficiency. Without dealing with the arrangement of the spaces, the location of the various services or the internal distributive plan, we want to stress the quality and the hygiene of the indoor air.

A subject concerning not only hospital facilities, but also public and private buildings. According to Alessandro Miani, president of the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine “air at home is on average five times more polluted than the one we breath outside” and he continues “keeping air clean avoids as much as possible the occurrence of breathing pathologies, that can ease the aggression by a virus”. Systems of air purification, to reduce polluting agents, permit good improvements in the quality of people’s life and health.

HVAC systems that recirculate air are not adequate to dilute contaminants present in the air, and to reduce the chances of transmission. Viruses better survive in low humidity environments, therefore we have to find solutions to get an optimal humidity interval between 40 and 60 per cent. “Many manufacturers are already integrating antimicrobial coatings onto interior products such as flooring, door hardware, faucets, window shades, paint and furniture. We can also leverage materials that are inherently antimicrobial, such as copper. There are lessons to be learned from the healthcare sector that we can apply to corporate workplaces and all indoor environments” says Brad Liebman of HOK, director of the interiors in St. Louis.

These ideas, possible solutions that could be applied to the sanitary sector, could be useful to other situations as well. They are our first deductions when we think of the possible changes and of the possible solutions that will be achieved by the post COVID-19 architecture. Not only will be interested specific sectors such as hospitals, airports or other places of great public attendance, but every area of architecture, design and urban planning will be involved in this evolution, because we have to relate urban density with urban health. At the moment, the only instrument we have to fight epidemic is based on the real denial of urban life, seen as its ease of social interaction among citizens, the very complex logistics of supplies, mobility and housing density.

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