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Washington, D.C. – A roundtable of engineering industry experts said Thursday that COVID-19 will force retrofitting of existing buildings, and future building design measures to enhance post-pandemic safety and comfort for occupants.

“The Buildings We Live and Work In” is the second in a three-part virtual roundtable series sponsored by the ACEC Research Institute. More than 100 participants from throughout the nation tuned in as four industry leaders offered perspectives on what society’s new normal means for existing and future commercial, high-rise, education, residential and healthcare buildings.

Panelists included Dino DeFeo, managing partner, AKF; Peter DiMaggio, co-CEO, Thornton Tomasetti; Arathi Gowda, associate director, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; and Kate Wittels, partner, HR&A Advisors. Joseph Bates, ACEC Research Institute, was moderator.

Roundtable topics included possible fundamental shifts in where we work and live, how future building design must address “new normal” requirements, and its impact on workplace culture and practice.

The panel acknowledged that remote working has now become the new workplace normal a result of COVID-19, but that working from the office would remain critical.

AKF’s DeFeo predicted more decentralized offices and that some headquarters facilities may no longer be as massive as before. “But you still might need office space for a collaboration area or a conference center. You’ll see more hoteling; this has really accelerated that,” DeFeo said. “I think it’s going to continue to accelerate until there is a vaccine. A lot of people won’t be comfortable coming back to the office until that’s the case.”

Arathi Gowda noted the big concern of working remotely was the loss of person-to-person collaboration. “Engineering, architecture, planning, are all very collaborative disciplines,” she said. “There was always this idea that you had to have the groupthink in the office.

“Although we all have experienced some things that are a little less efficient remotely, people also are seeing that we also can be very collaborative in our home environment.”

“I think you’ll see a fundamental shift,” Peter DiMaggio said. “I think it’s going to look very different in suburban areas than it may look in urban areas due to the challenge of public transportation.”

Kate Wittels noted how the overall role of the physical office will evolve. “That’s really what we need to figure out,” she said. “And that will change how offices are laid out, since we had to produce everything in the office before.”

Panelists also agreed that the pandemic will force building owners to alter workplace and occupancy designs such as shared spaces, along with issues involving elevators, workplace kitchens and bathrooms, and that those alternations would create retrofitting opportunities for engineers.

Primary engineer focus on energy efficiency in building design also will change, according to DeFeo. “We’re going to start spending more time looking at the wellbeing of the building occupants,” he said. “We’re going to have to give greater attention to ventilation rates, greater air changes, and higher humidity because we’re finding that humidification is great for the wellbeing of the person, regardless of a pandemic or not.”

DiMaggio referenced September 11th as a lesson as people become more demanding of building safety. “It took us a long time after 9/11 to say, ‘we’re going to go back into a high-rise building’,” he said. “I think the speed at which the design community has started to attack today’s problem is a positive thing. I’m excited to see where this ends up because we’re not stuck on the problem. We’re already talking about the solutions.”

Panelists noted that many future workplace solutions also must factor in conditions of public transportation. “I think ultimately we’ll figure out a way to safely transit and then we’ll get back to where we were,” DiMaggio said. “But it’s a tough challenge to keep public transportation safe.”

Wittels emphasized the resiliency of the public to adapt to any future new normal requirements. “We’ve changed so quickly from working in the office to working from home that I think we can change our behavior to adapt to anything.”

To watch a replay of “The Buildings We Live and Work In” roundtable click here.

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June 8, 2020

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