Covid-19 has brought into focus the question of how well prepared we are as a society to cope with pandemics. The increase in our understanding of how viruses spread has highlighted the importance of the built environment – the majority of transmission of the SARS-Cov-2 virus occurs indoors, whether that be in buildings or transport systems.
In light of this finding, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance commissioned the Royal Academy of Engineering, together with CIBSE and other partners at the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC), to identify the interventions needed to increase the infection resilience of buildings. The report – Infection-resilient environments: time for a major upgrade , published last month – included eight recommendations: a mixture of carrots and sticks, and the result of extensive consultation with stakeholders.
The first urges BSI to convene the relevant expertise and develop meaningful standards that are embedded into existing design and operational practices. It is key that the existing standards committees from the built environment, transport, healthcare, and other relevant sectors work together to ensure, as a minimum, that best practices can be shared with others.
Recommendation two proposes that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) increases the prominence of health and wellbeing across parts of the Building Regulations, with a new part established that has an explicit functional requirement for a building to provide an adequate indoor environment that protects the health and wellbeing of those using the building. This will require guidance and training to build the competence of the sector.
The third recommendation says industry bodies and public procurement must drive improvements to the commissioning and testing of building systems. This should be supported by better enforcement of the existing Building Regulations throughout the life of a building.
Recommendation four says in-use regulations need to be established with local authorities to maintain standards of safe and healthy building performance over a building’s lifetime. Various building safety features already require regular testing and inspection to comply with certain codes, or for insurance purposes. Other features, such as ventilation, do not have the same levels of scrutiny, so this would be a significant change.
The fifth recommendation suggests BSI should develop standards that manufacturers can use and that can be independently certified by others. This would enable innovation, and assure the efficacy of products and systems.
The pandemic exposed gaps in our standards. For example, the effectiveness of an air cleaner device tested in a lab can be very different in a real-world setting.
Recommendation six urges the departments for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Transport, and the DLUHC to use the opportunity created by the net zero strategy to ensure retrofit programmes address infection resilience. There should be no trade-off between that and energy efficiency.
While increased infection resilience can require more ventilation, increased levels are not needed all the time in many cases, and energy efficiency can be enhanced with heat recovery or pre-mixing.
The final recommendations call on the UK Health Security Agency and others to communicate awareness of infection resilience and wider health considerations for indoor environments. The government also needs to identify a lead department to create the joined-up policymaking that will align infection-resilient environments with net zero, safety, equality, and accessibility goals.
The changes are significant, but so are the stakes. In the event of another pandemic in the next 60 years, the estimated societal cost of infection caused by influenza-type pandemics and seasonal flu in the UK could equate to £23bn a year – and the costs to individuals in terms of mental health, lost education, and so on are arguably even more important. However, the benefits of really improving our health and wellbeing are enormous, too.
So, these recommendations are not just about managing risk; they will also lead to a more enjoyable, stimulating environment in which we can thrive.