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Prepping The Post-Pandemic Workplace

Architects and designers think of ways to make workplaces Covid-safe as offices begin to open up.

NEW DELHI — With India’s second-wave lockdown easing in many states, workplaces are slowly opening up with half the strength of employees.

However, with India issuing an updated advisory last month warning that the SARS-CoV-2 virus primarily spreads through aerosol transmission, especially in closed air-conditioned environments, the challenge for many of these offices is to ensure adequate ventilation to avoid becoming hotspots of infection.

“In closed un-ventilated indoor spaces, droplets and aerosols become quickly concentrated and greatly increase the risk of transmission to people in the area,” said the set of guidelines.

“Let outdoor airflow in to displace indoor air. This directional airflow and improved ventilation can lower the potential for infection from accumulated viral load in closed spaces. Thus, better the ventilation, lower the potential for transmission,” said the advisory.

For offices, the mandate includes running air conditioners with windows and doors ajar, expelling stale air with exhaust fans, and installing roof ventilators and HEPA/regular filters in centrally air-conditioned spaces.

Creating a Covid-safe workspace is no longer just about disinfecting surfaces, keeping sanitizers and masks handy, and enforcing social distancing.

But not many companies are prepared to make the sweeping changes in interior design and architecture required.

“The sudden upheaval caused by the pandemic has left everyone confused and helpless,” Rachna Agarwal, founder and design ideator of architecture firm Studio IAAD located in Gurugram near India’s capital Delhi, told Zenger News.

An office designed by Studio IAAD is segregated into modules that can be closed off partially when required. All the areas receive ample sunlight and are well-ventilated. (Studio Noughts and Crosses)

“People are still trying to get past the trauma and wondering if there are solutions that can minimize the effects of the Covid situation in the workplace.”

Studio IAAD designs indoor spaces like offices, retail stores, and hospitality spaces, and Agarwal is aware that much of the onus of educating clients about clean air solutions lies with designers and architects.

Some of the measures that she recommends include filtration systems integrated with UV technology that traps and eliminate biological aerosols and surface materials that do not absorb nanoparticles and can be sanitized quickly.

However, implementing these measures at short notice could be an expensive affair for firms already battling losses because of the pandemic.

Aggarwal is yet to install these technologies in her own office.

“We haven’t planned to implement any newer technologies at the moment since they are costly and would also take up a lot of time to install,” said Agarwal, who has fallen back on using operable windows and fenestrations to allow air to circulate freely.

With the high costs and inconvenience of retrofitting existing spaces, some business owners like Archana Jain, founder and managing director of PR Pundit, one of India’s public relations firms, have decided to wait before reopening their workplaces.

“We are currently working from home until our entire team is vaccinated with both doses,” Jain told Zenger News.

“Even then, we will avoid crowding, maintain social distance, and enforce mask usage at all times. In any case, our office is not in a tall glass building. It is spread across two floors and has great ventilation.”

Pankhuri Goel, Principal at Delhi-based architecture and spatial design firm Studio Lotus, disagrees that Covid design interventions must be super expensive.

She believes basic measures like social distancing, staggered shifts, and architecture inspired by traditional sustainable design methods are viable in the long run. Studio Lotus specializes in conscious, sustainable design.

This Studio Lotus Designed office’s open corridor acts as an outdoor circulation path and alternate workspace, with sill-level platforms that function as desks. (Max Estates)

“The archetype of the 21st-century office — the hermetically-sealed, air-conditioned glass cubes we work in today — is a potential breeding ground for infection and disease and is no longer relevant,” Goel told Zenger News.

“In response, we’re looking at the past, at some of our traditional building principles and techniques.”

“Before the advent of air-conditioning, buildings were designed to optimize cross-ventilation and penetration of daylight with operable windows and shallow floor plates [a building footprint that is more rectangular than square and aligns to the east-west axis for better natural light].”

“We need to return to this model. The resultant, improved natural air exchange in conjunction with the pumping of fresh air through the interiors will curtail the transmission of the virus. Additionally, the incorporation of skylights and clerestory windows, and controlled ventilation using louvers can also help lower the buildings’ energy requirements.”

She says organizations worldwide have adopted a string of safety measures to limit Covid spread in the office, from occupancy sensors that monitor employee strength and disinfection robots that clean up spaces through the day to automatic to touch-free doors for minimal surface contact.

“However, one must rely primarily on design interventions that stem from a simple and frugal approach to maximizing employee safety and comfort,” Goel said.

Studio Lotus’ own design interventions include incorporating fresh air circulation systems, multiple open verandahs and courtyards, and open, flexible workstations that encourage social distancing.

Architect Rudraksh Charan, the founder of Delhi-based architecture firm 42MM Architecture, believes it would be more challenging for small businesses to implement expensive retrofits.

“Many large organizations have sophisticated TFA [Treated Fresh Air] units in place that cool, humidify and filter air before it is supplied to the workplace,” Charan told Zenger News.

“The problem is with smaller offices that may have separate split AC units that keep recycling the stale air. A simple solution would be to install exhaust fans that expel the stale air at periodic intervals with a cyclical switch. In addition, a partially opened window will compensate for the loss of air with fresh outdoor air.”

Charan thinks firms should start moving towards Passive Solar Cooling to cut down air-conditioner usage. These cut daytime heat gain, use non-mechanical ventilation systems and store the coolness of the night.

This New Delhi office designed by Studio Lotus has semi-open shaded breakout spaces. (Studio Noughts and Crosses)

Simple ways to implement these are adding shades or overhangs on south-facing windows, louvers, and vents, building double-width external walls, and using double insulated window glass.

He also suggests cafeterias and break-out zones be moved outdoors.

“Cafeterias and restaurants can become a hotbed of infection because people have to take off their masks to eat,” said Charan.

“Even if you are assiduously masking up otherwise and eating on your own in the office canteen, you could still catch an infection since aerosols can travel up to 10 meters. Moving the eateries to outdoor spaces, however, can reduce the chances of airborne transmission.”

While conventional offices have options at hand to make their space safe and healthy for their employees, places like salons where it’s almost impossible to enforce social distancing have an uphill task for protecting their employees.

Pushkaraj Shenai, chief executive of Lakmé Lever that runs one of the largest salon chains across India, told Zenger News that his company had refreshed the ventilation systems in their salons, which are operating at 50 percent capacity on an appointment-only basis.

“There are far fewer people inside the salon at any time, and we can maintain social distancing and high levels of safety.”

(Edited by Amrita Das and Abinaya Vijayaraghavan)

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