By Prof Sr Dr Hishamuddin Mohd Ali & Dr Shazmin Shareena Ab. Azis
COVID-19 is an illness caused by a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, formerly called 2019 ncoV. On Dec 30, 2019, it was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and on March 11, 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has rapidly affected day-to-day life, business and disrupted world trade and movement. Various industries and sectors are affected by this disease. This virus creates significant knock-on effects on the daily life of citizens, as well as on the global economy.
Despite this hurdle, the economic sector needs to be opened soon to balance the economy and current health situation. The government has enforced the Standard of Procedures (SOP) in the workplace to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
According to Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a comprehensive guide on improving ventilation and indoor air quality in commercial and non-commercial buildings are one of the crucial steps in the country's multi-pronged approach to contain COVID-19 as the nation transitions to the "next normal".
She said the ventilation policy should be in place before reopening the economy, as states transition to subsequent phases under the National Recovery Plan.
Indoor environmental quality
Green measurement such as Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) would ensure long-term social and environmental protection. Indoor Environmental Quality acts as one of the evaluation aspects of green building rating criteria which not only focuses on achieving a healthy environment for occupants, but also to the environment that promotes health and productivity of the occupants.
There are seven measurements under Indoor Environmental Quality, namely space management, air quality, thermal comfort, lighting comfort, visual comfort, and verification.
It cited that the virus could spread from an infected person's mouth or nose in small liquid particles. The virus transmission through the air highly increases when there are people shouting or singing within a confined space.
WHO acknowledged that some evidence about in-room transmission is worrisome due to the possibilities of indoor airborne transmission, especially for people who spend long periods in poorly ventilated rooms.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported humans are exposed to higher internal levels of contaminants and this can be more than 100 times greater compared to outside levels.
Besides, close physical contact is difficult to avoid, which could increase the virus transmission risk, especially in the workplace.
Recent studies claimed that the important factors to determine the speed of virus transmission are the characteristics of environmental air quality and environmental surfaces infected by the virus.
Important IEQ to contain the spread of COVID-19 in workplace
The workplace should be designed and aligned with the “new norm” which practises social distancing. Henceforth, workplace size should be bigger and wider. However, this could implicit higher costs for the developer.
It is advisable for the appropriate space arrangement in the workplace to have a distance of at least 1.5 metre to two metres from one table to another.
Further, the internal wall partition with light penetrable is a must for both safety and ease of communication.
From a medical point of view, maximum exposure to ultraviolet light (UVC) during working hours could help in killing the virus as it is sensitive to heat with inactivation of the virus in five minutes at 70°c.
Air quality is an utmost important IEQ element to curb the spread of COVID-19 including; ensure the workplace has a good combination of natural and mechanical air ventilation, use high-efficiency air filter such as HEPA air filter, display room temperature and carbon dioxide monitoring system, and conduct air filtration maintenance frequently.
Furthermore, the acoustic element in the workplace is deliberately essential in this new norm. Buildings must be designed to achieve ambient internal noise level to avoid people talking loudly. Talking loudly causes higher risk of human aerosol and droplet transmission.
Resilient and sustainability
Considering that some 70% of the population of the world would be living in cities by 2050, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has mentioned that resilient cities could absorb, recover, and prepare for future shocks by looking into the economic, social, and environmental aspects by promoting the sustainable development, well-being, and inclusive growth.
It could be seen that this COVID-19 pandemic allows the reshaping of office buildings to be more resilient to sustainability. Even though the pandemic will not last forever, considering IEQ elements for office buildings may shape our future built environment to be more resilient and ready for any disastrous events in the future.
Governments, policy makers, and stakeholders need to come up with necessary steps by focusing on the future building sustainability as many people spend approximately 90% of their daily life inside the buildings.
The government should improve the current Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the workplace. The current SOP should include essential indoor environmental quality (IEQ) elements to create a resilient SOP guideline that is not only applicable during the COVID-19 pandemic but also in any unprecedented event. Also, the integration of IEQ elements in office buildings allows the building to be entitled for the green building certification award.
Prof Sr Dr Hishamuddin Mohd Ali is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and International) at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Skudai.
Dr Shazmin Shareena Ab. Azis is Senior Lecturer, Real Estate, in the Faculty of Built Environment and Surveying (FABU) at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Skudai.