COVID has changed our lives — buildings should change, too
© Greg Nash

COVID-19 has changed many aspects of our daily lives. If history is any guide, it will change our buildings, too. The challenge will be ensuring those necessary changes are beneficial not just to human health and safety, but also to our environment and energy system. If we’re smart, efficiency improvements will ensure the spaces where we work, play and live aid in the nation’s economic recovery as well.

Past pandemics have led to major advancements in how we construct buildings and design communities. As architectural historian Sam Lubell wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times, the bubonic plague prompted cities to clear out squalid neighborhoods and build larger public spaces, while 20th century scourges like tuberculosis, typhoid, and the Spanish flu led to better waste management, better zoning ordinances and the use of cleaner materials like glass and steel. Governments, scientists and builders have long known that you cannot ensure the safety of the public without improving the physical environment they inhabit.

Already, the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the central role that buildings play in keeping essential workers and the public safe. Nursing homes, vital businesses, and health care facilities that treat people with COVID-19 need state-of-the-art ventilation systems, technologies and materials that reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The sudden need for bed space has led many communities to adapt buildings to be used as temporary hospitals and health facilities.

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Even once the pandemic subsides, buildings will continue to play an outsized part in the public’s health and safety. Proper ventilation ensures a direct flow of fresh air and filters out pollutants that make people sick. Moisture control prevents the growth of dangerous mold and bacteria. Ample daylight improves worker productivity and occupants’ overall health. And the responsible use of products and materials protects people from dangerous toxins.

Buildings keep us healthy and safe in other ways: structures designed to withstand natural and man-made hazards protect occupants from harm. And, because buildings account for 70 percent of electricity use in this country and nearly half of greenhouse gas emissions, conserving energy and water reduces and protects our communities from the impacts of climate change.

The urgent need to make buildings safer and healthier comes at the same time that the design and construction industry – like all sectors of the economy – faces unprecedented job loss, including nearly a million jobs in April alone. In good times, the building sector is a major economic engine that creates millions of jobs, grows businesses and increases productivity, accounting for nearly 18 percent of gross domestic product. Without these jobs, our economy will not fully recover.

That’s why it’s just plain common sense that, as Congress and the administration look to revive the economy and protect public safety, they should help get the building sector to work making our homes, offices, stores, schools and health care facilities safer. These times call for a national jobs initiative to transform America’s buildings.

Investing in buildings is a proven strategy to restore our nation’s fiscal health during times of economic crisis. An analysis of the job creation impacts of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by the Federal Reserve found that ARRA’s spending on construction restored a significantly higher percentage of jobs than in other industries. Other studies have shown that economic recovery programs that focused on making buildings healthier and more resource efficient can create more jobs than many other stimulus measures.

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Making sure that buildings are part of the conversation is the main reason I co-founded BuildingAction, a new broad-based national coalition to advance bipartisan policies that create a healthier, smarter built environment and the jobs that go along with it. Our alliance, which includes design and construction companies, business and labor groups, product manufacturers, faith-based organizations and many others underscores the fact that buildings are central to our economic and environmental prosperity.

Targeted investments focused on putting the building sector back to work creating healthy and sustainable buildings will have multiple benefits to the economy, the environment and the public’s health. BuildingAction has put together a plan to help the building sector contribute to our economic and health recovery, including:

  • Investing in the retrofitting of schools, community centers, libraries and other civic buildings to improve occupant safety and reduce energy consumption, especially in underserved communities
  • Supporting local government’s efforts to adapt buildings into temporary health care facilities
  • Upgrading federal facilities to make them both more energy efficient and healthier, setting an example for state and local governments and the private sector
  • Researching the most promising technologies, products and materials that improve occupant health and reduce transmission of contagious disease while saving energy
  • Accelerating training for building sector personnel, including operations and maintenance staff, in maintaining occupant health and safety in buildings

As we plan for the nation’s recovery in the months ahead, there’s little doubt the coronavirus will lead to lasting changes. If we make buildings part of the change, we can renew both our economy and the environment.

Russ Carnahan represented the 3rd District of Missouri in the U.S. House from 2005-2013. He is co-founder of BuildingAction, the Coalition for Sustainable Buildings.