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Can we make our interior environments safer, to return to the ‘old norm’?

Earlier this year in February 2020 before lockdown, I wrote an article for ‘MIX (Commercial) Interiors’ magazine’s March edition which was focusing on materials, entitled ‘The Future is Now – healthy materials for healthy buildings’. In which I emphasised how important it was then, and will increasingly be so in the future, that interior architects/designers should start to consider the whole life cycle (WLC) from cradle to grave or even back to cradle again, of all of the materials that they specify. Especially, if we are all to reduce our carbon footprints over the coming decade in line with e.g. RIBA’s, RICS, CIBSE, Construction Companies etc internationally DECLARE directives, to help combat Climate Change.

I also commented on how not a lot has changed over the last 40 plus years, since I first started designing commercial spaces. I used case studies of my own low energy, and sustainable design efforts on commercial interior projects in the 80’s in retail, workplace, hospitality, and my observations of bad practice on construction sites, as anecdotal evidence. I bemoaned the fact that the majority of contemporary professional interior designers, and young graduates too (unless I have tutored them) are totally unaware of a materials composition or its sustainable properties i.e. its Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) content, its finite limitations, or the embodied energy which went into its manufacturing process. I continued to pontificate that we should all be concentrating on designing as healthy spaces as possible, if we are to improve the well-being of our buildings occupants. And to do this, interior architects/designers should introduce biophilic and salutogenic strategies into in the workplace, for helping improve productivity, reduce absenteeism, relieve stress and generally help regenerate our cities.

Eight months on when we are now living in unprecedented times, amidst a Coronavirus pandemic, and so how even more prescient is all that now? Especially as our Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has just announced further restrictions, for prolonging our working from home, with returning to the ‘old norm’ workplace, now a long way off again.

I have joined various webinars, participated in so many Zoom meetings, and read numerous guides on the health and safety precautions that organisations should take, to help them prevent the threat of infection of Covid 19 spreading, when returning to work. Of which the most illuminating webinar was an afternoon of 10 minute talks organised by Imperial College London, from a series of highly respected scientists and engineers from around the UK’s and abroad, research institutes. Illustrating their respective recent research projects into e.g. how and where C19 masses, and behaves in various different temperatures, how the normal approach to air conditioning of “re-circulation” is effectively a “pathogen distribution system”, or how UVC lighting can kill the virus, also how introducing more clean air changes per hour would help mitigate against it circulating and surviving. Above all, this helped substantiate my recent collaboration with Mary Rushton - Beales of Lighting Design House, Professor Kwang - Leong Choy and Dr Lena Ciric both scientists from University College London (UCL). In our project we will use a combination of biophilia, UVC lighting and bio materials as surface coverings of materials, in test spaces to see which the optimum solution will be, for providing a safer ‘new norm’ in the future workplace.

Please consider this, that when 94 year old Sir David Attenborough was born the population of the world was approximately 2 billion people , it’s now 7.8 billion, almost quadruple! In the 1 hour that it’s taken me to write this blog, approximately 16,000 babies will have been born worldwide, whilst only 6,000 people will have died . What else, besides a once in a lifetime global pandemic does it have to take to change designers mindsets, for the survival of the human race?

Steve Edge, Principal, Salvedge Biophilic Design Consultants, October 6th 2020

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