It was two years ago today, March 19, 2020, when California led the country in issuing a shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Living spaces had to quickly adapt to new distance learning, telework, fitness, eldercare and quarantine needs. Killing the virus at home by washing everything that came through their doors became a priority for stressed-out parents.
Scientific discoveries since then have shown us how to stay safer and healthier at home, (no package scrubbing required!) – and how much our living spaces contributed to COVID transmission and related stressors. These lessons need to be factored into design standards, building codes, and housing policies going forward.
“The next pandemic could come soon and be deadlier,” warned a headline from the Center for Global Development last summer. Here are four wellness design lessons for our homes worth implementing before it arrives.
1. Improve Indoor Air Quality
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, where concentrations of pollutants can be five times greater than outside. Air pollution increases vulnerability to COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, with low income households at higher risk.
“The issue of equity and environmental justice is real,” shares Max Sherman, leader of engineering association ASHRAE’s Epidemic Task Force Residential Team. “These groups often live in places with poor outdoor air quality and high indoor density. They would benefit the most from having good filtration.” Sherman notes that the costs for such improvements are moderate and offer “a great cost-benefit ratio once health impacts are included.”
Ventilation upgrades overall can reduce the volume of toxic particulates (including wildfire smoke and ash) in our homes. They can also reduce the concentration of aerosolized viruses, thus limiting the spread of COVID and other airborne contagions.
The White House released a fact sheet on Thursday announcing a new focus on improving ventilation in buildings. Its recommendations make tremendous sense, and should apply to all the places where people live — from multi-family buildings to assisted living facilities and nursing homes to dorms and single family homes — not just where they work, visit or study. These initiatives can be supported through programs like Fannie Mae’s Healthy Housing Rewards.
2. Make Safe Water Access Universal
Access to safe water at home should be a national standard, but its shocking lack contributed to excessive COVID death rates among Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. Among the causes for the virus’ prevalence among these populations, according to public health professionals, was lack of safe water supply at home, making the CDC’s regular hand-washing instructions difficult for many poverty-stricken reservation residents. This needs to be remedied along with the lead pipe removal included in the infrastructure bill passed last year.
3. Mandate Minimum Outdoor Space Requirements
Another lesson learned from COVID is the importance of outdoor space to our health and well-being. When parks, beaches and trails were closed in the early months of the pandemic, millions of Americans were cut off from their only connection to natural settings. “A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing,” wrote Jim Robbins in a January 2020 Yale Environment 360 article.
Too many households – especially low income urbanites – lack easy access to nature. (The inflated cost of gas is compounding access challenges this season.) That deficit can be remedied with residential building codes requiring green outdoor space. These standards can be as simple as compact patios or balconies with planters, or a shared courtyard or roof garden with room for social distancing when needed.
4. Increase Accessible Housing Stock
Accessible housing is a must for our rapidly-aging population, and needs to be offered at all price points. When nursing homes became early COVID super spreaders, many families took their loved ones out. Some may never return, and other aging adults will need new housing in the coming years, either with family or on their own.
A significant percent of seniors (41% between 65 and 79 and 71% aged 80 and older, according to the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies), have physical conditions that necessitate accessibility features that can be used by any individual of any age or ability.
There is a tremendous deficit of housing – including family members’ homes, unless they remodel – that can accommodate this growing demographic. Increasing this stock now is imperative.
Extending tax benefits and streamlining permitting incentives to builders and developers that include accessible entries, kitchens, bathrooms and at least one bedroom into their projects can help alleviate the shortage. So can incentivizing residentially-compatible opportunity zones for accessible housing development.
Including free, permit-approved, accessible floor plans for accessory dwelling units – i.e., creating granny flats that are truly grandmother-friendly — on municipal building department websites can also help add accessible housing stock to a community.
The home building industry and affordable housing advocates may assert that including these wellness design components will increase home prices and rents, already out of reach for millions of Americans.
The same arguments are made for sustainability initiatives. For example, phasing out residential gas availability — something being discussed and implemented in environmentally-conscious cities and states — has gotten pushback from minority community advocates tied to likely higher utility bills.
If broadly implemented, especially statewide in California, these new codes will almost certainly make induction cooktops and ranges more popular and affordable. (This was the case for LEDs throughout much of the past two decades.)
On the wellness front, COVID has already achieved these outcomes for bidet toilet seats and air purifiers. Building codes, design standards and housing policies can do the same for ventilation system upgrades, accessibility features like voice control, and modular ADUs with patio planters.
In short, the arguments for protecting the planet should be recycled for protecting the health of its human inhabitants. If we’re to address future pandemics and other home-based health and safety issues (like an aging population and increasing numbers of autistic and disabled residents), there needs to be an appreciation that wellness design can’t be just for the well-to-do.