Opinion: How our buildings can be optimized to curb coronavirus

While the conditions of crowded cities can aid the spread of viral illnesses such as coronavirus, the buildings we inhabit can act as important barriers to contamination when properly optimized, according to a March 4, 2020 op-ed in the New York Times by Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Allen, who is director of Harvard’s Health Buildings Program, wrote that the role buildings can play in slowing the spread of disease is “not getting the attention it deserves” with regard to coronavirus.

Ventilation is a critical factor in how viruses and bacteria spread within indoor environments, and studies have shown that recirculating air in buildings can lead to higher risk of infection during outbreaks, Allen wrote. He also cited recent research showing that even minimum levels of outdoor air ventilation cut influenza transmission as much as having 50% to 60% of the people in a building vaccinated.

“Limiting the impact of this epidemic will require an all-in approach,” Allen wrote. “With significant uncertainty remaining, we should be throwing everything we have at this highly infectious disease. That means unleashing the secret weapon in our arsenal — our buildings.”

Read the New York Times op-ed: Your Building Can Make You Sick or Keep You Well