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During Pandemic Businesses Should Take Advantage of Fresh Air

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Courtesy photo
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Architect Tom Hurlbert (right) blows bubbles with 3-year-old son, Landy, in their backyard. Hurlbert uses bubbles to explain the benefits of socializing or doing business outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Case study research can tell us a lot about how to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. But without a medical or science background, understanding the research and applying it can be challenging. Some architects are trying to help.

Tom Hurlbert is a South Dakota architect. But when he’s trying to explain the benefits of socializing or doing business outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, the founding partner of Co-Op Architecture puts on his dad hat.

“I do have a 3-year-old son, and if we we’re in the backyard blowing soap bubbles, you can just sort of witness airflow happen in real time. I realize air bubbles are not the same type of air cells that are transmitting COVID, but it is an illustration. You know, if you blow bubbles outside your house, even if you are 6-feet away from somebody, with the breeze and air exchange, really the air flow, you might have a difficult time landing a bubble on somebody. But if you go sit in a small room in your house and do that, you might land lots and lots of bubbles,” Tom Hurlbert says.

With this in mind Tom Hurlbert encourages folks to whenever possible take business meetings, shopping, drinks with friends or dining outdoors. A South Dakota native, he understands bar and restaurant patios typically close late fall. But this year, he hopes they can stay open longer by taking some cues from more mountainous regions of the country.

“Any ski lodge town in the world, you go outdoors anytime of year, as long as they’re relatively nice days,” Hurlbert says. “It’s about dressing warmer and using things like propane heat and tents in some cases and just moving merch outside more, being outside more.”

Now, Tom Hurlbert’s suggestions aren’t simply based on his architectural understanding of airflow and HVAC systems. He references research from a case study of COVID-positive individuals in Japan which determined through contact tracing that “closed environments were 18.7 times more likely to be the location of transmission of COVID-19 than open air environments.” (Click here to read the full report on page 18.

The results of this medical study and many others are found in the Manual of Physical Distancing. This is a report compiled August 2020 by LTL, a design intensive architecture firm in New York City. 

“Essentially, we are not claiming to be the scientists studying or examining the risk. We’re literally trying to visualize what those risks and best practices are through the representational language of architecture,” says David Lewis.

That was David Lewis, one of the founding Principals of LTL. He’s also a Professor of Architecture at Parsons School of Design. 

“When your outdoors, that and wind means you have much less density of the viral load. If you’re indoors, you have a small percentage of air, relatively speaking that is being breathed in and then exhaled. Which means if you are in an indoor space with other people, you’re going to be breathing their air,” Lewis says. 

Lewis, Hurlbert and architects like them, encourage managers of public gathering spaces to think outside the box and take advantage of fresh, outdoor air to remain open and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

For example, restaurants could utilize sanitized blankets, heaters and temporary wind-blocking structures to extend patio season. 

Brian Rex, Associate Professor of Architecture and Department Head at South Dakota State University School of Design is putting what he understands about airflow into action. He redesigned teaching spaces throughout the Department of Architecture. Students and faculty are meeting for class outdoors and in a large, garage space with its large overhead doors open.

In addition to changing the space where students’ learn, Rex sees COVID-19 changing how students will design buildings. 

“We’re going to teach in the program is that a wall of glass is not a window. A window is an opening…Somewhere along the way we traded things off, one of them is we quite putting money into windows and putting the money into the mechanical system instead because the fixed windows are way cheaper than operable windows. The other thing we traded was fresh air for temperate air,” Rex says. “We really have to teach people that windows need to open.”

As he thinks about the school year, Brian Rex is hoping for a mild winter, but says once the winter hits, he has plans to implement heaters and encourage students to dress warmer.

For a link to LTL’s Manual of Physical Distancing, visit sdpb.org. And to read a recent article by Tom Hurlbert on this topic, visit http://blueprintsouthdakota.com/.