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New research raises more concerns about airborne transmission of COVID-19

One scientist says, “The world should face the reality.”

As an architect teaching sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design in Toronto, I have been preoccupied for some years with healthy buildings and the intersection of disease and design, and more recently, how COVID-19 will affect the design of our homes, our workplaces, and our cities.

We recently looked at the question of air conditioning, mechanical ventilation and the spread of the coronavirus, quoting chapter and verse from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the organization that recommends standards for the industry. That information was a month old, but engineer Shelly Miller points us to a new paper that was just released:

Miller points to an additional paper “authored by Dr. Morawska, who also led our fearless group of scientists in the writing of this current paper.” It has quite the title: Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2: The world should face the reality. Dr. Moraska notes that handwashing and social distancing are not enough; they do not prevent infection by inhalation of the virus.

Science explains the mechanisms of such transport and there is evidence that this is a significant route of infection in indoor environments. Despite this, no countries or authorities consider airborne spread of COVID-19 in their regulations to prevent infections transmission indoors. It is therefore extremely important that the national authorities acknowledge the reality that the virus spreads through air, and recommend that adequate control measures be implemented to prevent further spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in particular removal of the virus-laden droplets from indoor air by ventilation.

Dr. Moraska looks at past events, including SARS-CoV-1, which hit Hong Kong and Toronto hard, and which spread in the air, as well as a number of other virus outbreaks, and sees no reason why this one should be different.

“Therefore, all possible precautions against airborne transmission in indoor scenarios should be taken. Precautions include increased ventilation rate, using natural ventilation, avoiding air recirculation, avoiding staying in another person’s direct air flow, and minimizing the number of people sharing the same environment.”

So why isn’t this being done? Why is it not raised as an issue of significant importance? It’s complicated. Dr. Moraska suspects that it might be due to the fact that it is hard to figure out accurately. But the fact that there are no simple methods for detecting the virus in the air does not mean that the viruses do not travel in the air. She concludes:

To summarize, based on the trend in the increase of infections, and understanding the basic science of viral infection spread, we strongly believe that the virus is likely to be spreading through the air…Therefore, we plead that the international and national authorities acknowledge the reality that the virus spreads through air, and recommend that adequate control measures, as discussed above be implemented to prevent further spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

How can airborne transmission of COVID-19 indoors be minimized?

Lidia Morawska was the lead author (along with Shelly Miller and 33 others from around the world) of the recent study which looked at this question, noting that “inhaling small airborne droplets is probable as a third route of infection, in addition to more widely recognized transmission via larger respiratory droplets and direct contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces.”

Their first and probably most important point is that ventilation should be recognized as an important consideration in dealing with the virus. This isn’t just in hospital buildings, which have been designed to have good ventilation, but also:

…in public buildings and other shared spaces, such as shops, offices, schools, kindergartens, libraries, restaurants, cruise ships, elevators, conference rooms or public transport, where ventilation systems can range from purpose-designed mechanical systems to simply relying on open doors and windows. In most of these environments, ventilation rates are significantly lower than in hospitals for various reasons, including limiting airflows for energy and cost savings.

It is important to deal with this now, as “stay-at-home lockdown measures are gradually relaxed, much of the population may return to spending increasing amounts of time in inadequately ventilated workplaces, offices, schools and other public buildings, where they may be exposed to a risk of acquiring viral infections by inhalation.”

Measures that should be taken immediately:

  • Ventilation rates should be increased by system modifications. However, they acknowledge that “this is not via a simple ‘flick of a switch'” as these systems are designed for each building and are complex systems.
  • Avoid air recirculation. This was recommended also by the European and American engineering associations. As I noted earlier, this is not going to be easy in really hot climates. As for split systems (like the one in that restaurant in China) and like the ones found all over North America, which have no fresh air intakes at all, these should just be turned off or supplemented by lots of fresh air through opening windows. Again, this will be very hard in summer in the hotter parts of the country.
  • Air cleaning and disinfection devices may be beneficial. This includes Ultraviolet Light (UVC) systems as discussed earlier. Also, portable air filters and cleaners could help.
  • Minimize the number of people within the same indoor environment in an epidemic. This is a tough one; nobody really knows what the number of people in a given space is safe and what isn’t. But their empirical guideline makes sense: “In a school or a supermarket, for example, if the number of infected students or shoppers is low, and the ventilation rate is high, the risk of airborne transmission can be low.” Crowding a bunch of people into a subway or bus is another story.

If implemented correctly, these recommended building-related measures will lower the overall environmental concentrations of airborne pathogens and thus will reduce the spread of infection by the airborne route. Together with other guidance on minimising the risk of contact and droplet transmission (through hand-washing, cleaning of hand-touch sites, and the appropriate use of PPE), these ventilation-related interventions will reduce the airborne infection rates not just for SARS-CoV-2 in the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also for other airborne infectious agents.

There are lots of lessons for architects and engineers here; perhaps it is time to look again at traditional ways of keeping cool again, shading buildings with vegetation and having lots of cross-ventilation, increasing insulation to minimize the need for recirculated air.

But perhaps the most important lesson from all of this is that we have to change the design process; architects can’t just design a building and then toss the plans over to an engineer. The mechanical systems and the building design are inseparable – how the air moves, how much is needed. Instead of designing for aesthetics or value or comfort, we have to design for health.

Blood BrothersTaken before we had to social distance/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But there are lessons for everyone else as well: avoid crowds, dine al fresco, wear a mask, support your smaller neighborhood store where you are more likely to be one of a few people in it, or those nice little restaurants with the big garage doors.

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Will expanded patios save the restaurant business?

Cities around the world are having a look at it, but it will be a challenge.

Not long ago, everyone was excited to see Vilnius, Lithuania, take back the streets and give them to restaurants; now this is being looked at as a strategy for saving restaurants all over the world. In most cities, if the restaurants are open at all, there are limitations on capacity and distance between tables, regulations that make it difficult to earn a living. Outdoor patios have always provided a boost for restaurants, but now they are a lifeline.

As usual in North America, some cities are more aggressive and progressive than others. Kriston Capps writes in CityLab that Al Fresco Dining Is the Restaurant Industry’s Best Hope. Some cities are already permitting it, and in others restaurant operators are demanding it.

Eateries in Baltimore’s Little Italy are clamoring for street closures so they can reclaim the streets for red-sauce dining. And in restaurant-dense Manhattan, the demand to eat outside has been long and loud: Many believe that the sidewalk tables — and the street closures that would make room for them — represent the best hope of survival for New York’s imperiled restaurant scene.

NYC Restaurants Need Open Streets NOW from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Clarence Eckerson’s latest epic for Streetsfilms looks at the situation in New York City, with host Henry Rinehart. Some quotes:

“My people and I are hurting. My city is hurting. Our leaders are not creating the safety and certainty that our lives and our jobs require.”

“When the weather changes, after 100 days of solitude, we are all going to be desperate to be together, but to be safe. All we know now is that safety requires space. There is available public space in front of every door. Restaurant people are planners and doers. We do not sit alone in silence well. Give restaurants access to open streets and they will bring us all hope and sustenance.”

Outdoor dining in BerlinOutdoor dining in Berlin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Another city where the Mayor is usually dragged kicking and screaming to do anything progressive is Toronto, where the Mayor actually sounds positive about it on Global News.

“I think that it could be a lifeline for some of the restaurants, especially in light of the fact that they will probably be required to have tables further apart inside and outside,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. He said he’s asked Transportation Services to find possible locations where expanding patio spaces would be possible and is expecting a report “fairly soon… I think we can sweep away some of the red tape and get this done as a way of making the city friendly for everybody but also our friends in the restaurant business,” Tory said.

Alas, the words “fairly soon” have a special meaning in Toronto, and patios are regulated really tightly; they take years to get approved, thanks to NIMBY opposition to people having fun after nine o’clock. Then there are the approvals to serve alcohol which come from another level of government. The patio season is starting now, and “fairly soon” probably means November.

There are other issues of climate besides November chills; there is also July heat. Kriston Capps writes:

Is al-fresco-everything the answer? It has its downsides. Especially in the Southern states that are rushing headlong to reopen, summer brings miserable heat and humidity. Diners who are forced to choose between increased air-conditioned virus exposure indoors or sweating outside may stay home or stick to takeout. Pandemic skeptics don’t recognize any such tradeoff, of course. Customers in Georgia who see coronavirus exposure as a matter of personal choice are likely going to go with AC every time.

The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a culture war is going to be a serious issue in many places.

Outdoor dining in LisbonOutdoor dining in Lisbon/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I suspect another big issue will be washroom access. These are usually at the rear of restaurants, or in older, smaller restaurants, in the basement. Customers should also be washing their hands before they eat. Having them all traipsing through the inside of the restaurant may be problematic.

But ultimately, I suspect that the biggest issue is that we have run out of time. So many rules have to be waived, NIMBYs ignored, decisions made. In one Canadian city, the Mayor said he wouldn’t close a lane unless every store owner on the street was consulted. A good parallel to this might be Vision Zero; everybody loves the idea, but implementation is another story.

They are all going to just run out the clock. It’s a shame, because it could have been glorious.

Cities around the world are having a look at it, but it will be a challenge.

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Coronavirus and the air conditioned nightmare

What happens when it gets really hot and the AC is blasting on full?

In much of the United States, the malls and restaurants are reopening to the public. Some of those states get really hot in the summertime. Sarah Goodyear a writer and host on The War On Cars, posted an interesting tweet:

It is a really interesting question. We noted in an earlier post that the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations (REHVA) in Europe had warned that the coronavirus could stay airborne for some time, and travel long distances. Architect Justin Bere noted that “It recommends avoiding central recirculation during SARS CoV-2 episodes and closing the recirculation dampers, even if there are return air filters. As the REHVA guidance says, these don’t normally filter out viruses.” Bere explained:

Recent research indicates that large droplets from sneezing can travel much further than 2 meters, even if there are no air movements. Small particles (<5 microns), generated by coughing and sneezing, may stay airborne for hours according to the REHVA guidance and can travel long distances. A Coronavirus particle is only 0.8 to 0.16 microns diameter so there could be many virus particles in a 5-micron droplet floating around in the air.

They have been studying the problem in Canada too. Professor Brian Fleck told the National Post that “this has been on people’s radar for quite a while,” he said. “Somebody on a different floor sneezes …The particle can stay airborne long enough to go all the way through the system and then pop out in somebody else’s office.

There are various ways that the risk can be lessened, including use of filters that catch a greater number of those particles, and drawing more fresh air into a system….But each of those changes carries a cost. Adding more fresh air can require additional heat or air conditioning. Heavier filters means more energy is needed to push the air through them.

But it doesn’t get as hot in Canada as it does in Arizona. Engineer and Professor Ted Kesik told TreeHugger that “we shall be greatly challenged retrofitting our existing buildings to eliminate dilution ventilation systems.” This is especially a challenge in the heat of a southern summer, where the difference between inside and outside air can be 40°F in Arizona or Texas. In the Southeast, there is also a lot of humidity with the heat. That’s why the air is recirculated; the amount of energy needed condition a mall’s worth of outside air would be ridiculously high.

ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, had a look at the issue of the coronavirus and issued a statement in late April:

Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes to building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems, can reduce airborne exposures.

They issued technical guidelines in a position document on infectious aerosols:

Infectious aerosols can be disseminated through buildings by pathways that include air distribution systems and interzone airflows. Various strategies have been found to be effective at controlling transmission, including optimized airflow patterns, directional airflow, zone pressurization, dilution ventilation, in-room air-cleaning systems, general exhaust ventilation, personalized ventilation, local exhaust ventilation at the source, central system filtration, UVGI, and controlling indoor temperature and relative humidity. Design engineers can make an essential contribution to reducing infectious aerosol transmission through the application of these strategies.

That’s fine, the engineers know what to do with new buildings. But what about existing ones? Here, they make some recommendations, and I try to add an explanation in italics.

Non-healthcare buildings should have a plan for an emergency response. The following modifications to building HVAC system operation should be considered:
• Increase outdoor air ventilation (disable demand-controlled ventilation and open outdoor air dampers to 100% as indoor and outdoor conditions permit). Essentially, stop recirculation and bring in 100 percent outside air. When it gets very hot, outdoor conditions will probably not permit.
• Improve central air and other HVAC filtration to MERV-13 (ASHRAE 2017b) or the highest level achievable. MERV-13 is not quite HEPA filter but it is pretty good. The reason they add “highest level achievable” is because better filters add more air resistance, and the system may not actually have the power to push air through the MERV-13 filter.
• Keep systems running longer hours (24/7 if possible). More energy consumed.
• Add portable room air cleaners with HEPA or high-MERV filters with due consideration to the clean air delivery rate (AHAM 2015).
• Add duct- or air-handling-unit-mounted, upper room, and/or portable UVGI devices in connection to in-room fans in high-density spaces such as waiting rooms, prisons, and shelters. We have discussed UV filters before. UV-A and UV-B devices don’t do all that much in open spaces, and UV-C is dangerous to humans so it can only be installed in ducts or in a place up high where it doesn’t shine on people.
• Maintain temperature and humidity as applicable to the infectious aerosol of concern. We have noted before that “the higher the relative humidity, the more quickly the virus falls to the floor.” You want to keep humidity between 40 and 60 percent.
• Bypass energy recovery ventilation systems that leak potentially contaminated exhaust air back into the outdoor air supply. This is because apparently heat and energy recovery wheels leak a lot.

All of these modifications are expensive, either in equipment or operating costs. All of these building owners and tenants have been bleeding money in the last few months. All of the companies making this equipment are going through the crisis too. In short, It is probably safe to say, it’s not gonna happen, at least in the short term.

I have tried to get comments from engineers and experts, but the only one I have received so far is “yikes I think that is a problem.” I will add more comments as I receive them.

But I do believe that Sarah Goodyear has raised an interesting point. In my limited experience in Arizona in summer (two weeks in Scottsdale in July) I rarely saw anyone outside. And it’s not even summer yet, but as one shopper in Arizona told NBC News after the mall opened, “we hit all the museums and this place because it’s hot.”

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When it comes to working from home, less is more

Keep it simple, keep it light, keep it mobile.

Our tip jar recently had a post from a tiny house site that described “how to set up your “work from home” tiny home office” and which had all of our TreeHugger eyeballs rolling. It had everything from high-speed internet (hard to find where most tiny houses are hidden) to printer/scanner combo units to standing desk extenders, because “the human body was not designed to sit.” My first thought was, where are they going to put all this stuff in a tiny house? I wondered, what do you really need?

We have covered a bit of this topic at the beginning of the shutdown and other posts, but all of the TreeHugger team have been working virtually forever, from tiny apartments to coffee shops to hotel lobbies, so we have a bit of experience to share.

1. Keep it simple and don’t spend a lot of money.

It's fast enough for most thingsIt’s fast enough for most things/ Lloyd Alter/Screen capture

Unless you work for someone like Twitter where your boss has told you that you can stay at home forever, nobody knows when they are going back to offices or even, in so many cases, whether they are going to have a job a few months down the road. Take that high-speed connection; it can cost money to bring in fiber, and probably takes a couple of months to get it. I work for three months of the year on what’s essentially a cellular modem, and when I got close to my data limits would switch to my phone; my phone company just announced an unlimited data plan that would actually do the job.

2. Your office is where you are.

In 1985 Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the new wireless office phones (infrared at the time) would change everything, that you would no longer be fixed to a desk but instead, Your office is where you are. (My favorite office away from office is the Ace Hotel on Broadway.) It’s taken 35 years to prove Stone and Luchetti were right, but it is really true now. As Ian Bogost noted:

In a way, “quarantine” is just a raw, surprising name for the condition that computer technologies have brought about over the last two decades: making almost everything possible from the quiet isolation of a desk or a chair illuminated by an internet-connected laptop or tablet.

Notebook computers are powerful and light; Slack and Skype and Google and Zoom make it easy to communicate, have notebook will travel. Most TreeHugger writers have been moving around their houses and apartments for years; TreeHugger’s Katherine Martinko, who has a desk and an iMac, tells us that she’s not using it. “I prefer my laptop more than ever these days because it allows me to move away from the kid noise. I’m constantly moving around the house to the quietest spot.”

I know a prominent tech writer for a major newspaper who is working on a Galaxy android tablet, and another on his iPad; he likes the way it limits his multi-tasking and increases his focus on the task at hand. I use my ipad as a second screen with the new Sidecar app; Windows users can get Duet Display.

3. What else do you need?

My multifunction printer/scanner stopped working in October when Apple dumped 32-bit drivers; I have had to print something exactly twice since then. I use my iPhone for scanning. TreeHugger’s Melissa Breyer says “if I had a tiny house, I wouldn’t take up precious real estate with a printer! With all the apps and options, I can’t remember the last time I printed something.”

4. Zoom changes everything.

This has been my big surprise since the shutdown: so much is happening on Zoom or other video conferencing technologies. Since we became part of the Dotdash team, we have meetings every day; there are now webinars and I even have a kind of beer bash every Wednesday evening with the Passivhaus crowd. Your setup really matters for this; most people wouldn’t go to a Zoom office meeting without brushing their hair, yet they happily sit backlit so you can’t see their face or with distracting backgrounds.

TreeHugger’s Lindsey Reynolds attends the morning meetings from a lush garden under flattering natural light; that’s the virtue of portability. I have a window behind my computer specifically to get good lighting on video, but grab my notebook in the afternoon and move when the sun comes around to the west side of the house. During meetings, you want a quiet spot with light in front of you and a nice wall or carefully curated bookshelf behind, but it may not be the most comfortable spot at other times; that’s another reason to travel light.

I have become disenchanted with zoom backgrounds; they don’t cut around my hair very well, body parts and animals come weirdly in and out randomly, and my notebook doesn’t have enough oomph to run them. I think that a carefully chosen real background is a lot better and says more about you.

In summary: Less is more.

We have covered these issues before, but the context of a tiny house or apartment raises different issues. Go minimalist and use as little equipment as possible; you probably really can get by with just a little notebook, we have all been doing it for years. As the weather gets nicer and the parks are opened, get out of your tiny place and work outside. If you want to work standing up, find a shelf or a counter and move to it. And even though we are out of the office, we are still social beings and care about how we present ourselves; whenever your camera is on, think about what’s behind you and where the light is coming from. Keep it light, keep it portable, keep it simple, and keep moving.

Keep it simple, keep it light, keep it mobile.

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Build a transparent face mask out of a soda bottle

Industrial designer Mark Sanders shows us his new improved design.

Earlier in the coronavirus crisis, we showed a design for a face mask and shield you could make out of a soda bottle. Now the industrial designer, Mark Sanders, tells TreeHugger that the design has evolved:

Now mask use guidance is much clearer – they DO have real benefits in preventing spread, mainly from asymptomatic carriers. So just like used for years in the far east, the west is now accepting masks: ‘to protect you from me’. I hate waste and especially plastic waste, and yet still love Ginger Beer so I’ve done a new *clear* mask ‘See Me, Protect You’ to “Share emotions and expressions but not C-19”

mask made from bottle© Mark Sanders/ Mas-design

This design doesn’t cover the eyes, and doesn’t have a hose; it is not an attempt at making a fully sealed respirator mask, but instead is designed to prevent most droplets from passing freely between people. There is really not much to it, and looks a lot more comfortable that the previous model. In lieu of covering the eyes, Mark recommends glasses or sunglasses for eye protection.

Mark Sanders facial expressions© Mark Sanders

What I particularly like about this mask, compared to a cloth mask, is that you can, in fact, see facial expressions, although in this photo I do think Mark gives us too much information. It’s also likely that my iPhone will actually open with face recognition– Mark says that facial unlock works with his Android phone.

mask can be made in different sizes© Mark Sanders/ Mas-design

Also, Mark notes that “faces vary in size, so these instructions are for a large size and a small size (me and my wife), but please adjust sizes and folds to make comfortable.”

The first mask was very controversial; at first, we called it a respirator, which it actually is, but people confused it with a ventilator and complained that we shouldn’t be presenting this as a medical device, which we weren’t. But now the situation is much clearer, everyone is making masks, and the understanding that their purpose has changed: “Much is unknown about the spread of C-19 so this, other masks, shields, and visors cannot guarantee to stop its spread, but this aims to help reduce it.”

Thoughts about their effectiveness have changed too; six weeks ago, the advice was “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection.” But in places like Hong Kong or Japan, full of crowded cities with crowded subways, the virus has been controlled. According to Vox, “Not wearing masks in Hong Kong is like not wearing pants nowadays.”

On May 13, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias also pointed out that in April, researchers at the University of Hong Kong and in Europe calculated that if 80 percent of a population can be persuaded to don masks, transmission levels would be cut to one-twelfth of what you’d have in a mask-less society. However, that study has yet to be peer-reviewed.

In North America, masks were really not socially acceptable, although according to Mark Gollom of the CBC,

Societal attitudes in Canada and the U.S. toward wearing masks in public as protection against COVID-19 have undergone an “unprecedented’ shift in just a matter of months, some social psychologists say. “As somebody who studies social norms, it’s astonishing. It’s like a flip in a blink of an eye in terms of this change,” said Catherine Sanderson, a social psychology professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

How to add a filter to the mask© Mark Sanders/ Mas-design

The beauty of Mark Sanders’ mask is that it is totally transparent. For those concerned that it isn’t going to really stop the virus from traveling through the hole in the bottom, he’s also designed a filter you can add to it. Mark is sharing his design with anyone who wants to make their own; get your pdf of instructions here.

I now wear a cloth mask when I go out, purchased from a neighbor who sells them on her street corner, with all proceeds going to a food bank. It’s exciting and inspiring to see how this has turned into a cottage industry, and how they have become socially acceptable so quickly.

Industrial designer Mark Sanders shows us his new improved design.

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Home office ideas for open-plan living

These days, a home office isn’t just a place where you work on your computer; it’s also a studio.

More and more of us who work with keyboards and screens are doing it from home these days. When the lockdown happened and I first wrote about home office design two months ago, I advised, “Keep it simple and don’t spend a lot of money. If you are going to be working from home permanently I would have different advice, but nobody knows what is going to be happening.” But it is becoming clear that many of us are not going back soon, and it is time to think of the longer term.

One designer who is giving this a lot of thought is John McCulley of McCulley Design Lab, “a multi-disciplinary San Diego design firm specializing in interior design, experience design, building design and integrated branding.” He has designed a series of interventions for the wall-less “great room” that is so common in modern houses and apartments, “a series of ways that homes can transform into productive workspaces — with or without construction.”

Working from home has been a topic of discussion on TreeHugger forever; we have long touted the environmental benefits. This is the kind of transformer furniture that has long been a feature; I worked with Julia West Home years ago, before everyone had notebook computers, to design furniture that could bring big computers into little small spaces, and Graham Hill famously built his LifeEdited apartment with its moving office/wall. I have also been working from home for 20 years and teach at Ryerson School of Interior Design, so I thought, hey, let’s do a little constructive criticism of this.

secret bookcase folded up© McCulley Design Lab

The Secret Bookcase design is perhaps the most universal in application, it can go almost anywhere. All folded up, it looks like… a bookcase.

Bookcase folding out© McCulley Design Lab

The bookcase rotates out from the wall 90 degrees, and a screen rolls out on the other side.

Bookcase unfolded in home office© McCulley Design Lab

There is an elaborate side-table that folds down; in this image, it is holding a printer. In other iterations, it has another computer. On the side, there is the “fake lightglass” windows” to bring in light and make it feel more like an office with a window.

finished open office setup© McCulley Design Lab

I have a couple of minor cavils here.

The side table is elaborate and looks like a big deal to unfold, but is it really needed? Hardly anyone prints much anymore, and it seems like a throwback. Look at the New York Times image of the home office from 2008 and you needed all that for printers, scanners, external hard drives and digital cameras; most of that is is all in our phone and computer now.

But perhaps the biggest issue I have comes from thinking about what the home office actually does now, besides being a place to work, and that is being a home studio for Zoom meetings. For this, you do not want the fake window on the side, but you want it in facing you, preferably lit with Hue RGB color-tunable bulbs in it. As tech expert Shelly Palmer notes, “Your face will be illuminated to the point where people watching can actually see you.” Dual monitors are also really wonderful for Zoom type meetings; you can see all the people on one screen and the presentation on the other.

The foldout screen behind should be green, and wide enough or close enough to fill the entire field of view of the camera in the computer; this lets you change the backgrounds at will and really get a clean break between the real you and the virtual background. When I designed my home office I put a neutral wall behind as a backdrop, but it’s a bit too narrow.

Perhaps even a better idea would have been to have another bookcase that folded out; the big design surprise for me is the obsession with bookcases and the carefully curated books that are on the shelves. There are whole websites and Twitter feeds devoted to this.

Top view home office© McCulley Design Lab

The design also doesn’t address the issue of children and pets zoom-bombing your presentation or meeting, and there is no serious attempt at acoustic privacy. But that may all be too much to ask; what it does offer is an attractive and comfortable place to work which can be closed up at the end of the workday; one of the biggest problems people have is that they never know when or how to quit.

sliding panel setup© McCulley Design Lab

John McCulley shows a couple of other designs that are interesting, like this one in a larger room that has two workspaces; the smaller, instant one on the right, and the bigger, foldout desk setup on the left. I am not going to go into detail here because it has many of the same issues, the key one being that setting up for decent video should be absolutely top of mind when designing a home office. I am on a lot of Zoom meetings now, and have seriously had my fill of terrible lighting and distracting backgrounds, all from people who wouldn’t think of not getting dressed or brushing their hair before they went onscreen, but still look awful.

And I will again point to Shelly Palmer for the most coherent and complete set of technical tips for setting up at home.

my desk during passivhaus meetingMy desk during Passivhaus meeting/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I must admit that that last image of John McCulley’s with the giant TV next to the computer has inspired me to try an experiment. These technologies are not just used for work; every Wednesday night I grab a glass of wine and get together with a few hundred Passive House nerds (here you see the two screens in action.) This week I will try to set up in the room with the big TV and see if it improves the party experience. We are all using these new technologies in new ways and trying out new ways of working. The big TV shouldn’t go to waste!

These days, a home office isn’t just a place where you work on your computer; it’s also a studio.

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Could ultraviolet light kill the coronavirus in our buildings and homes?

In a recent post on the future of hotels after the coronavirus, I proposed with tongue in cheek that designers should “stick a big ultraviolet light in the middle of the room that runs when guests are out of the suite and it could be continuously disinfected.” In fact, it may not be such a silly idea.

We are exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun all the time; it’s why we wear sunscreen. But most of what gets through the atmosphere and down to us is the longer wave UV-A like you get from Black Lights, and UV-B, which causes skin damage and can lead to skin cancer. Doctors and scientists thought small doses were good for us, and between the World Wars, Heliotherapy, or treatment with UV, was a popular thing, but as Sir Henry Gauvain, Britain’s heliotherapist noted in 1922, you can have too much of a good thing. “Like a good champagne. It invigorates and stimulates; indulged in to excess, it intoxicates and poisons.”

WHO on ultraviolet lightWorld Health Organization/Public Domain

Doctors and scientists don’t suggest that anymore, and the World Health Organization is quite explicit that using UV on people is dangerous.

But UV-A and UV-B are not very useful for disinfecting; it works, but it does not have enough energy. UV-C, is another story, and has been used for a hundred years to treat water and air. Fortunately, it doesn’t get through the atmosphere or we might not be around. Allison Bailes of Energy Vanguard explains:

Bacteria, fungi, and viruses can be killed by exposure to UVC. The UVC photons are energetic enough to damage the DNA and RNA of microorganisms, destroying their ability to replicate…And yes, this does work.

But it works on humans too, which is why the lamps are buried in ductwork and not often put out in the open, and it is not that effective at killing the germs or viruses in the air; Bailes explains:

The main reason for that is that the UV lamp won’t have the intensity needed to provide a high enough dose to kill the various germs. The air moves through most air handlers and duct systems at 500 to 900 feet per minute. The faster it moves, the more power you need in your UV lamps to zap the speedy little germs. So for UV lamps integrated into the HVAC system, the main benefit is to keep stuff from growing on the surfaces, especially the coil and drain pan. It’s not going to kill much coronavirus or other baddies that get pulled into the ducts.

A bus is disinfected with ultraviolet rays© A bus is disinfected with ultraviolet rays in Shanghai/ HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

But UVC lamps do work well on things that stay put; in China they are disinfecting entire buses, which seems like a very good idea. An industry group, The International Ultraviolet Association, says UVC will help prevent COVID-19 “based on existing evidence”:

All bacteria and viruses tested to date (many hundreds over the years, including other coronaviruses) respond to UV disinfection. Some organisms are more susceptible to UVC disinfection than others, but all tested so far do respond at the appropriate doses…UV light, specifically between 200-280nm (UVC or the germicidal range), inactivates (aka, ‘kills’) at least two other coronaviruses that are near-relatives of the COVID-19 virus: 1) SARS-CoV-1 and 2) MERS-CoV.

VioLED uvC LED© Seoul Semiconductor VioLED

Most of the devices emitting UVC are clunky and dangerous mercury lamps, but LEDs have been developed, and according to a recent study, they are very effective at killing the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the official name for the coronavirus) that causes COVID-19. A Korean company claims that its UV LEDs (VioLEDs) provide “99.9% sterilization of coronavirus (COVID-19) in 30 seconds.” They were in fact designed for automotive use, to sterilize the interiors of unoccupied vehicles. These LEDs are still under development and according to researcher Christian Zollner, are not ready for prime time: “many technological advances are needed for the UV LED to reach its potential in terms of efficiency, cost, reliability and lifetime.”

But the company says otherwise in a press release; the CEO announced that “to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we decided to temporarily launch the product by drastically reducing the process of merchandising such as molds and customer delivery.”

These VioLED car lights are designed to “safely detect for absence of occupants before activating lamps.” It’s not a stretch to imagine these fixtures being installed over toilets in public washrooms, bathrooms in homes, kitchens or really, just about everywhere, (including hotel rooms), all hooked up to motion detectors to ensure that nobody is getting fried when they are running.

Far-UVC might be the answer

Even shorter wavelength and higher in energy than UV-C is what’s called Far-UVC, which doesn’t cause as much damage to people. Researchers at the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University led by David Brenner are quoted:

Several years ago, Brenner and his colleagues hypothesized that far-UVC could kill microbes without damaging healthy tissue. “Far-UVC light has a very limited range and cannot penetrate through the outer dead-cell layer of human skin or the tear layer in the eye, so it’s not a human health hazard. But because viruses and bacteria are much smaller than human cells, far-UVC light can reach their DNA and kill them,” Brenner said.

According to the study, Far-UVC light: A new tool to control the spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases
released in 2018 before this crisis, they found that it did indeed kill viruses:

We show for the first time that far-UVC efficiently inactivates airborne aerosolized viruses, with a very low dose of 2 mJ/cm2 of 222-nm light inactivating >95% of aerosolized H1N1 influenza virus. Continuous very low dose-rate far-UVC light in indoor public locations is a promising, safe and inexpensive tool to reduce the spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases.

If this is truly the case, and if we get affordable Far-UVC LEDs, they might be installed everywhere, from subway cars to shopping malls to hotels. I personally hope that there is also some Far-UVC sunscreen.

Yes, but be careful.

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How will hotels change after the coronavirus?

Once again, it’s time to learn from the modernist masters about light, air and openness.

In some ways, hotels could see a real renaissance if and when people start traveling again; the consensus around the virtual water cooler is that Airbnb is not going to be nearly as attractive as it was; Melissa notes that hotels will have sanitation protocols in place, regulations to follow, and accountability to consider. Molly Fergus, General Manager of our Dotdash sister site tripsavvy had similar thoughts:

I expect hotels to find new ways to prove their rooms are clean. Some chains have already toyed with the idea of sealing room doors with tape between cleanings, so guests know they’re the only ones who have been inside since the last wipe-down.

They will be different in other physical ways; Sarah Crow of Bestlife lists 8 Things You May Never See in Hotel Rooms Ever Again. This includes minibars (too many touchpoints) and coffee makers (disgusting even before the coronavirus) and almost everything else that you touch, from key cards to remote controls.

Molly Fergus concurred:

Mobile check-in and keyless entry are already options at several major hotel chains, and I’d expect consumer demand for this to grow as travel opens up. Who wants to touch a plastic keycard these days? TV remotes are another item I’d love to see disappear from hotel rooms. They are consistently one of the grimiest objects in any hotel room — I was grossed out by them long before the Coronavirus! Voice-activated smart TVs or devices would be a huge upgrade, and let guests stream their favorite shows instead of fumble with local stations.

Two of Sarah Crow’s ideas I am not so sure of are the elimination of desks because they were seriously contaminated in one study, and whether micro-hotels are over. She writes:

In order to keep hotel rooms clean and sanitary going forward, the average room’s footprint is about to get a whole lot bigger. “Health and wellness goals will accelerate the demise of rooms that are too small to vacuum between the bed and the wall, and a certain level of hygiene theater will be necessary to reassure guests that their accommodations are sanitized,” explains Angie Lee, partner and design director of interiors at architecture firm FXCollaborative.

Desk I wrote this post at this desk/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I am not convinced of either of those points; for many who travel on business, the desk is as important as the bed, especially after the coronavirus (no more working in the lobby). It doesn’t have to be much, and there is no reason it cannot be wiped down. I am not sure the room has to be much bigger, either. It just has to be different.

Zonnestraal Zonnestraal, the model of a healthy building/Public Domain

A few years ago we had a series of posts about how antibiotic resistance will change the way we live, which in many ways anticipated the coronavirus pandemic. It described the roots of modernism:

It is clear that the source of our obsessions with hospital-like bathrooms and spotless kitchens, as well as the continuing interest in minimalist interior design, descends directly from the modernist obsessions with hygienic design that formed in the years before antibiotics.

Much of modern design was influenced by the sanitariums built for tuberculosis patients. Paul Overy described in his book Light, Air and Openness how these ideas came into our homes:

Sanatoriums exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of modern architects and designers as building types and institutional models. Among the first to be designed in “modern” or “modernist” style, purpose-built sanatoriums for tuberculosis and other chronic diseases were some of the most technologically advanced buildings of the first decades of the 20th century. Combining associations of health, hygiene cleanliness (and easy-to-cleanness) modernity and machine-like precision of operation, they were to have a major influence on modernist architecture and furniture design between the wars. The austere white rooms for the patients of sanatoriums were designed not only to be easy to clean but to appear to be spotlessly clean- potent visual symbols of hygiene and health.”

The hotel after the coronavirus may well feel more like Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium, built between 1929 and 1932. The rooms weren’t big, but there wasn’t much in them. All of the furniture was designed to be easy to clean, usually made out of tubular steel. Those beds don’t look as comfortable as the ones you find in a modern hotel, but could be wiped down in seconds.

All of the furniture was designed with the same idea; nothing was upholstered and the plywood could be cleaned easily.

Its lobby isn’t exactly the Fountainbleu in Miami, but it is clean, bright, and easily washable.

Room in the UniteMy room in the Unite d’habitation Marseille/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Le Corbusier also designed a really nice little hotel room in the Unite d’habitation in Marseille; there are a sink and a shower behind the partition. It is also totally minimal, yet comfortable, with a workable desk.

Hotel room Citizen MMy room in the Citizen M/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The Citizen M probably comes closest to the hotel room of the future, outside of the impossible, immovable bed that fills the whole end of the room. Almost everything is controlled by an app; there are light switches but they are actually superfluous. All the surfaces are washable. The shower and toilet behind the glass door could probably be hosed down. Stick a big ultraviolet light in the middle of the room that runs when guests are out of the suite and it could be continuously disinfected. (More on this in an upcoming post.) And, there is no coffee machine or minibar.

A room at the Paimo Hotel might be a bit spartan compared to the Citizen M, but they both have the sink in the room, a place to work, are not too big, and are easy to clean. I suspect the hotel room of the future will have a bit of both.

Once again, it’s time to learn from the modernist masters about light, air and openness.

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Bring back the Automat!

In the age after the coronavirus, this is a good idea whose time has come again.

The New York Times recently ran a story on A Retro Way to Buy Meat, from vending machines. It reminded me of a story on my to-do list, about the Automat .

When I was on my first trip to New York City, I had lunch at an Automat. I loved it, so modern and high-tech, except it wasn’t really high-tech at all; it was invented in Germany in 1895. There were no robots, just people behind the wall, putting fresh food into slots. Bob Strauss of ThoughtCo explains:

The first New York Horn & Hardart opened in 1912, and soon the chain had hit on an appealing formula: customers exchanged dollar bills for handfuls of nickels (from attractive women behind glass booths, wearing rubber tips on their fingers), then fed their change into vending machines, turned the knobs, and extracted plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and cherry pie, among hundreds of other menu items.

Janet Leigh makes Peter Lawford learn to eat from automat© Janet Leigh makes Peter Lawford learn to eat from automat/ Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

But there was no waiting to order or be served, you just put your money in the slot and got what you wanted, when you wanted it, and you took it back to your seat. All the hard-working (and apparently underpaid) staff were separated, behind glass. As Carolyn Hughes Crowley notes in the Smithsonian,

Customers found many advantages in this style of dining. They could see the food before buying it. They thought the glass-fronted compartments and shiny fittings were sanitary, a comforting reassurance after the food contamination scares of the time.

These days, that comforting reassurance would be nice, the knowledge that the food prep and handling is all done in a separate space. They could build the cases out of anti-microbial copper and provide gloves or wipes for when you open the door.

Eatsa restaurant in San Francisco© Eatsa in San Francisco/ Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Alas, it all fell out of favor with New Yorkers; the more limited menus at McDonald’s and KFC meant lower food costs. In the 70s Horn & Hardat started converting them all to Burger Kings. There was a brief flurry of interest in bringing it back in 2014 when President Obama tried to raise the minimum wage; as I noted in MNN, “there was outrage from the fast-food industry, which threatened to replace employees with robots if the wages went up.” A restaurant called Eatsa was the model of the robotic Automat; it closed in 2019.

But there is something attractive about the idea today. They would have to change the seating from the original Horn & Hardarts; according to the Smithsonian, “Diners could sit wherever they chose. Automats could be great equalizers because paupers and investment bankers might sit together at the same table.” There was no take-out and no waste; if you were in a hurry, “the company provided stand-up counters similar to those that banks provide for writing deposit slips. These people ate what became known as “perpendicular meals.” Perhaps everyone could eat outside now.

This is what we need today: a zero contact, zero waste dining experience. Time to convert those Burger Kings and bring back the Automat.

Model Cindy Heller, wearing a low-cut spotted print dress, purchases a snack from a vending machine in an automat. © “Model Cindy Heller, wearing a low-cut spotted print dress, purchases a snack from a vending machine in an automat.” Getty Images
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“Intertwined homes” are efficient, healthy, prefab and all-electric

There are lots of reasons we post houses on TreeHugger. Is it increasing urban density? Is it healthy? Is it prefab? Is it all-electric? Is it efficient? It’s pretty rare that we see something that hits all of these buttons, But this new project in Toronto by baukultur/ca does. I also hits a bunch of our mantras:

unit plans of interlocking house© baukultur/ca

Radical Sufficiency!

It’s an unusual configuration for a two-family house, with one sort of L-shaped unit behind the other, each 4 storeys from basement to attic. I didn’t think that a “house behind a house” design was even legal in Toronto. But it is a great idea, and it doesn’t look like a two-family house, which probably makes the neighbors happy. You don’t get the really narrow units that you do in a semi-detached house, and both houses have access to the front and rear. It’s no bigger than many of the infill single-family houses you see in Toronto, either; that’s sufficiency, getting enough to live comfortably yet providing two units where there probably used to be one.

prefab walls under construction© Michael Rafelson via V2Com

Reduce demand!

The walls are prefabricated by Pinwheel Structures, who can build to Passivhaus specifications, although this house is Net Zero Ready yet another standard, this one being 60 percent more efficient than conventional homes with 80 percent lower carbon emissions. With Pinwheel’s wood and cellulose walls, the upfront carbon emissions (UCE) are going to be pretty low as well.

Basement level of house with concrete walls© Michael Peart via V2COM

Most of the UCE will be coming from the concrete in the basement, which is pretty hard to avoid in Toronto construction. However, I really like the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” approach designer Felix Leicher took in insulating the basement on the outside and leaving the concrete exposed. (I did the same thing in my own Toronto house but used block instead of poured concrete and it looks tacky in comparison)

Main floor Unit B© Michael Peart via V2COM

The houses are also Built Green Platinum, another Canadian standard I have never heard of (why are there so many of these?) which the architects say “focuses on much more than mere energy efficiency but rather looks at the buildings from a holistic standpoint: The House as a System – which encompasses the preservation of natural resources, reduction of pollution, ventilation and air quality, and the enhancement of home durability.”

Main floor, unit A© Michael Peart via V2COM

Electrify everything!

It certainly has all the attributes of a healthier home with low VOC finishes, a big Energy Recovery System (ERV) for fresh air, and importantly,

The homes are not connected to the city’s gas grid and function solely on electrical power. With the elimination of open flames and the possible sources of carbon monoxide and exhaust fumes within the house, this approach is commendable in its advancement of healthy residential living and, moreover, provides the most cost-efficient and resource-saving solution to heat and cool these highly energy-efficient homes in the future.

Kitchen Unit A showing induction range© Michael Peart via V2COM

According to the V2COM press release, the houses are for sale, apparently built as a speculative project. It’s unusual to see spec houses built to such high standards of efficiency and quality, and to not install gas when everyone wants their high-end Wolf gas range. That makes it all even more impressive. Nice work from baukultur/ca.

Rear of houses © Michael Peart via V2COM