The new year brings hope that the coronavirus pandemic will diminish into a much less menacing endemic. In the past two years, we have seen technology advance rapidly in response to COVID-19, sometimes in surprising ways. The fact that we are now living in a pandemic-influenced design experiment is palpable: Research is conducted on the fly, hypotheses are quickly made and altered, and successes that emerge are immediately embraced. This is a time of great acceleration of change in architecture and allied fields. New products and practices appear at unprecedented speeds; meanwhile, others swiftly become obsolete. Here are a few of the building products and technologies—from antimicrobial paint to innovations in UVC light—to watch in 2022 and beyond.
Once the SARS-CoV-2 virus settles out of the air, it remains viable on many surfaces. Antimicrobial disinfectant cleaners and surface treatments are commonly used to eliminate pathogens. However, these products cause at least two problems. One is that strong chemicals such as quaternary ammonium chlorides can be deleterious for human health, irritating the eyes and skin. Another is that such antimicrobial agents have been linked to antimicrobial resistance, leading to prolonged illness and hospital stays. The New York–based Alistagen Corporation makes an antimicrobial paint using calcium hydroxide, or lime, which does not present these challenges. Dubbed Caliwel BNA (Bi-Neutralizing Agent), the paint incorporates micro-encapsulated lime that disintegrates viruses, bacteria, and mold. Alistagen also offers a coating for HVAC systems. In an interview with CEO Bryan Glynson, he said if this lime-based paint were applied to most architectural interior surfaces, the widespread viability of the pandemic would be reduced—without causing antimicrobial resistance or human health problems.
Another tool to diminish the viability of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses is ultraviolet light (UVC). UVC illumination has been used as a germicide to reduce the presence of tuberculosis and other diseases. Unfortunately, UVC light is also known to cause skin and eye problems, so disinfection has been limited to times when spaces are unoccupied. Recent advances, however, in human-safe UVC light have resulted in fixtures that may be operated in inhabited areas. Studio Roosegaarde—based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates—has developed a street light fixture that utilizes this technology for public spaces. Naming it the “Urban Sun,” the design firm calls the product “the world’s first artificial sun which sanitizes public spaces of the coronavirus," saying it uses a using a safer far-UVC 222 nanometers light. The suspended fixture casts a bright ring of light that is about 50 feet in diameter, creating a visually recognizable germicidal zone that is safe for humans and pets to occupy.
As UVC light proliferates rapidly, monitoring light sources for potential human health effects is essential. Although 222 nanometers light is safe, other wavelengths—such as the more typical 254 nm used for disinfection—remain problematic. Lights utilizing these wavelengths will also be commonplace in HVAC duct cleaning. Therefore, it is still necessary to heed the U.S. FDA’s advice that “UVC lamps used for disinfection purposes may pose potential health and safety risks depending on the UVC wavelength, dose, and duration of radiation exposure.”
The San Diego–based sensor and power-monitoring company L&M Instruments offers UVC sensing technology to monitor these aspects of illumination. The company’s Apollo UV sensor provides dose monitoring for occupied spaces as well as ducted systems. Apollo sensors require minimal power, are easy to place, and provide a continuous, real-time indication of UVC spectral range, power, and duration.
New technologies are also being developed for construction observation. Zepth is a Middletown, Del., project management platform providing digital monitoring capabilities for design teams. The company offers a service called Zepth360° to enable continuous evaluation of construction progress. In addition to delivering stationary camera feeds, the service also works with robots. Zepth has joined forces with Boston Dynamics to provide real-time monitoring via the iconic robot Spot. According to a Zepth press release, “Spot’s autonomous, terrain-agnostic capabilities support the dynamic nature of the construction site and enable a standardized, precise data collection process.” A design team can program a predetermined route for the robot to capture data on a repeated and consistent basis, enabling image-comparison to confirm progress over time. Zepth360° is further enhanced via Spot’s ability to navigate difficult obstacles, hard-to-reach places, and areas that are hazardous to humans.
Regarding aspects of space occupation, indoor environmental quality has received increased attention with the coronavirus pandemic. Many people continue working remotely from home environments that offer better access to daylight than many traditional offices. Now, a significant percentage of the U.S. workforce is reluctant to return to the office full-time. Company leaders and building owners recognize that employee expectations have increased regarding indoor environmental qualities such as the availability of natural daylight. The Los Angeles–based Panelite, maker of light-transmitting honeycomb composite panels, has recently experienced a burgeoning demand for its ClearShade insulated glazing unit. The company made a splash with the first use of ClearShade IGU at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center, designed by OMA, for the panel’s novel aesthetic qualities. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, clients are increasingly attracted to the product for its ability to maximize daylight while minimizing glare and solar heat gain.
“What we see more is the desire to amplify daylight and user well-being in general,” Panelite founder Emmanuelle Bourlier says. The internal honeycomb functions as an array of microsunshades and light shelves, propagating light deeper into a space while filtering the less desirable aspects of sunlight. The result is more luminous interiors that provide the benefits of circadian light to occupants—without the need for shades or blinds to reduce glare. As evidenced by client interest, this kind of innovative façade technology could play a measurable role in improving the overall quality of interior environments—and make the office an inviting destination again.