Here’s How Architects Are Pushing for Safer Design Policies

Architects and Designers Urge Action on Healthier Policy Priorities

In the wake of the pandemic, designers and architects are inventing new solutions for nearly every sector of design. According to the World Health Organization, 19% of factors that affect our health and well-being are directly related to the built environment, making architects and designers key to protecting public health.

Metropolis Magazine recently wrote about three recent initiatives that introduce new building standards to help mitigate COVID-19 exposure and create healthier (and more sustainable) spaces during and after the current pandemic.

Built Environment Experts Petition the WHO, Urging Enhanced Guidance on the Role of Buildings in Addressing COVID-19

In a recent petition, more than 790 architects, engineers, and interior designers from over 50 countries have joined forces in a statement to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, urging the WHO to advance best practices in indoor environments to protect from the spread of COVID-19.

“If the WHO recommends best practice air standards now before vaccines and therapeutic solutions are available, it will have a strong effect towards raising the public’s awareness of places where they spend time,” the statement reads, noting that air pollution affects our most vulnerable populations.

Approximately 70 percent of The Ng Teng Fong General Hospital by HOK is naturally ventilated, representing 82 percent of inpatient beds. The building uses 38 percent less energy than a typical Singaporean hospital and 69 percent less than a typical US hospital. Courtesy Rory Daniel

So far, the petition has gained the signatures of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), and the World Green Building Council, to name a few. “We hope that this global call to action will demonstrate that our buildings, our businesses, and our communities can be at the frontlines of this fight if we deploy them wisely,” says Rachel Gutter, president, IWBI.

USGBC Creates New LEED Safety First Pilot Credits + Healthy Economy Commitment

Back in June, the U.S. Green Building Council released guidance to address the pandemic and support buildings with reopening strategies. Four new Safety First Pilot Credits outline best practices that are both sustainable and align with public health guidelines related to cleaning, re-occupancy, HVAC, and plumbing operations. The credits are a part of a USGBC strategy released in May titled, Healthy People in Healthy Places Equals a Healthy Economy.

“These new credits are a first step in helping the building and construction industry demonstrate its commitment to sustainable strategies as part of building a healthier, more resilient future,” said Mahesh Ramanujam, president & CEO of USGBC in a recent press release.

In addition to the credits, the USGBC also released a Healthy Economy Commitment, urging public health officials and elected leaders to take action on green building policy priorities.

AIA Launches Policy Platform 2020

Earlier this month, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) launched the inaugural Policy Platform 2020 that serves as a statement on the organization’s policy priorities for U.S. presidential candidates and Congress.

Embodying the idea of “Building a Healthy America,” the platform focuses on three key areas: Economy, Climate Action, and Healthy and Equitable Communities. Committing to zero carbon practices, rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, promoting toxin-free living in affordable housing, and strengthening water and air quality policy are a few highlights.

“AIA supports strong and unequivocal policies that ensure that urgent climate change issues, including those that disproportionately impact communities of color, are immediately addressed,” stated AIA EVP and chief executive officer Robert Ivy, in an August 6th official press release.

*The full version of this article was originally published on

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Thermal and Moisture Protection

Most construction claims result from a failure of the building envelope or shell caused by poor design or construction. Often, damage is caused  by contractors and laborers while maintaining or erecting residential and commercial structures. Unfortunately, the original building plans or original design may lack sufficient detail to prevent exterior shell failure.

Workers often fail to assemble structures in accordance with properly written plans. Too often, workers are uneducated about proper construction of building systems and the use of materials per the manufacturer’s recommendations and reasonable “best practices” for construction of homes and buildings in coastal, mountainous or areas with relatively high humidity. Thermal and moisture protection is the entire country’s problem!

Occasionally, construction workers inadvertently damage the building envelope while maintaining or working on items not directly related to the building exterior, causing it to be compromised and fail over the course of time. The time it takes for an “EXTERIOR SHELL” mistake to cause noticeable damage can take from only a few days to several years. At times, repairs may cost more than the building is worth!

Unfortunately, most workers and contractors of new homes rarely get to see, first hand, the mistakes they’ve made. It usually takes a period of time before the building shell failure becomes evident. Often, the failure happens after the original warranty has expired and the repairs are then the responsibility of the disgruntled home-owner who feels compelled to hire a different contractor!

Improper design, construction application and inadvertent damage can all compromise the exterior shell of a structure and result in immediate or delayed building envelope failure. Building shell failures often result in water being allowed to enter the structure in a manner that is contrary to the intended design. Water must be forced to the exterior of the envelope by weep holes or ventilation.  Delayed failure is almost always more expensive to remedy!

Primary claims.  Water, whether liquid or vapor, when allowed to enter the building shell can cause a host of problems. Warranty and insurance claims result from:

•  Damage to exterior systems and structure
•  Failure due to rot
•  Damaged, unrelated components that are not part of the building envelope
•  Mold

In areas prone to damage by water and water vapor, programs are often available to provide weatherization and energy conservation services at no cost to households with relatively low median income. Primary funding for these programs is from the U.S. Department of Energy with other funds from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, utility companies and local entities like Community Action or Habitat for Humanity... Yes...there is program assistance for those who need it, but remember assistance still costs taxpayers. In the long run, everybody pays!

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5 Things Architects Can Do To Help With Climate Change

1. Retrofit Existing Buildings

An easy way to reduce the carbon footprint is to not build new buildings. Minimize the demolition and maximize the reuse of existing structures. Transforming a building also helps preserve history and installs future promise.

2. Reduce the Use Of Concrete

The main reason concrete has a huge carbon footprint is because of the large quantities being used. A study recently showed cement and concrete is responsible for 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions. “If concrete is replaced by almost any other material, it would have a bigger carbon footprint,” said Piers Taylor, founder of Invisible Studio If the construction industry is to make a reduction in CO2 emissions, it needs a new strategic design approach when it comes to concrete.

3. Understand How Buildings Are Performing In Use

Whole life carbon is viewed through embodied carbon and operational carbon. Carbon emissions associated with a building’s day-to-day energy can be measured through information from energy bills and meter readings. This information can give architects a better understanding of how well a building is performing and help encourage them to engage with design solutions.

Understanding embodied carbon is equally important as operational carbon, and there are BIM-based tools to get an easy and fast assessment on projects.

4. Treat embodied carbon with higher importance

According to The Architect’s Journal, “The embodied carbon costs of the materials and systems we choose for our buildings, perhaps surprisingly, make up the majority of a building’s lifetime carbon emissions.” Architects oversee the design’s carbon performance.

Reducing carbon and being resource efficient goes hand-in-hand like using recycled content, the reuse of structures and buildings, and using renewal materials. To understand this the architect must understand the supply chain of:

  • What things are made of
  • Where they come from
  • Where they will be going at the end of a building’s life

5. Make sure every design has optimized massing and orientation

Work hard early in the design process to help optimize the building performance. They are basic principles but getting the massing and orientation right early on will help pave the way for net-zero buildings. Answering questions such as:

  • Is the building using more energy just because of its form?
  • Does it have too much surface area or too much glazing?
  • Is its thermal envelope easy to map?

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Northern Florida Revisits Building Code

Florida has some of the toughest building codes in the nation, but Hurricane Michael showed that the northern part of the state and the panhandle did not. The category 4 hurricane made landfall on October 10th at Mexico Beach. Entire blocks were flattened and 75% of the town gone. According to, the estimated insured losses topped around 6 Billion dollars from Hurricane Michael.
One factor for the extreme destruction of Mexico Beach and nearby cities were the substandard construction practices that predated the building code. Craig Fugate, the former head of FEMA and a longtime emergency management official in Florida, told NPR “it’s not a bunch of high-rises. It’s not a lot of new construction. This is multigenerational Florida families. Many of them were descendants of folks who fished the areas.”

South Florida took serious actions on improving their building code in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew hit. Miami-Dade and Broward counties implemented strict standards to making structures withstand winds up to 175 mph.

Don Brown, a former legislator from the Panhandle and sits on the Building Commission, says “We are vulnerable as any other part of the state. There was this whole notion that the trees were going to help us, take the wind out of the storm. Those trees become projectiles and flying objects.”

The Florida Building Commission is in the process of revising the state code but realtors, homebuilders, and the insurance industry will have a voice as the state considers how to prepare for another storm like Hurricane Michael.

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Seattle Takes A Closer Look At Infrastructure For Earthquake

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a convergent plate boundary in the Pacific Ocean, that stretches from Vancouver Island in Canada to Northern California. The Cascadia Subduction Zone can produce large earthquakes when ruptured and could exceed a magnitude 9.0.

Research from the M9 project, a study estimating the impact from a magnitude 9 Cascadia quake, shows that high rises are at greater risk than previously thought. The Seattle Times reported the estimated effects of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the region stating, “the vast, sediment-filled basin under Seattle can magnify the type of ground shaking that puts high-rises at risk of collapse by a factor of two to five, which can trigger stronger surface effects than earthquakes in nearby California.”

As a result of the M9 findings, Seattle and Bellevue plan on revising their seismic construction standards for new buildings over 240 feet (20 stories tall). The new standard would require high-rises to be stronger than and sturdier than their predecessors without sacrificing cost.

There are also concerns regarding Seattle’s older high-rises. Many of which were constructed between the 1960s-90s, before the dangers of earthquakes were fully understood. They have a greater risk of damage and collapse because of their fracture-prone welded joints, which are suppose to secure the steel frame, and poorly-reinforced concrete supports.

Ron Klemencic, CEO of an engineering firm that helped design many of Seattle’s and San Francisco’s tallest buildings, expressed more concern with the water systems and older brick buildings than the high rises. High-rises are generally designed to withstand winds that exert more force than an earthquake shaking.  Klemencic’s company is headquartered in the Rainier Tower, despite its fractured-prone welds.
“That should tell you that we’re not particularly worried” he added.

Although the M9 results mean that high-rises aren’t as safe as previously assumed, people should not be concerned with the “Big One” happening tomorrow. They should take steps and be prepared for the future. Having a plan in place and working towards a solution later down the road helps increase the chance of solving the problem before its too late.

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