The COVID-19 Era of Design

Everyone’s daily lives have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Vulnerable populations became isolated. Stress on the healthcare system and long-term care workers increased. Work travel was cut to a minimum, and retail turned to a virtual experience. As the country turns a new page and public spaces are open again, what can we do in our existing settings to stay safe and protect others in the built environment?

Schools, retail establishments, workplaces, hotels, arenas, and restaurants discovered what healthcare settings long understood: Infection control adds a layer of complexity to cleaning protocols. In the age of COVID-19, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said that public spaces must develop and implement a plan for cleaning and disinfecting.

It starts with selecting materials to ensure surfaces can be cleaned, sanitized, and disinfected. High-touch surfaces are a priority for cleaning and disinfecting, and those harsh chemicals can break down materials. Selecting materials is not a choice of performance versus sustainability, but rather performance equals sustainability. Products should be evaluated for performance characteristics, service life, life cycle assessment, and health and safety.

Optimizing Material Selection

Selecting the right materials can mean the difference between healthy spaces and premature product failures, unbudgeted costs, and negative health outcomes. That’s why applying a multi-attribute approach is critical.

Materials must be able to withstand cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Cleaning removes dust and other microorganisms and is accomplished with water, detergents, and mechanical actions as the first step before disinfection. Sanitizing is a form of germ control that reduces bacteria, but not COVID-19 and other viruses. Disinfecting deactivates COVID-19 and other pathogens, and often involves chemicals, heat, or UV.

The process that can be used to mitigate material and product failures includes balancing the following criteria:

  1. Understand performance requirements for a material, product, or surface and selecting a product based on multiple attributes versus a single feature.
  2. Evaluate impact categories included within product-specific or industry average Environmental Product Declaration lifecycle assessment.
  3. Identify and verify product service life expectations.
  4. Understand the types of cleaning and disinfection protocols that are going to be used in the setting.
  5. Follow all manufacturer cleaning and disinfection recommendations, and provide information to building owner.

Understanding the material options for the setting and disinfection can provide many options. Choosing the optimal product comes down to the smartest material for the end use. Examples of smart material selection in design include:

  • Flooring – Remove hard-to-clean carpets and replace with resilient products like waterproof vinyl sheet, tiles, and planks.
  • Upholstery – Select solid surface countertops and desktops. For seating, opt for simple designs made from hard, nonporous, pre-formed materials. When movable seating is used, consider cleanable, durable vinyl coated fabrics.
  • Wallcovering – Select materials designed for cleanability, especially in high-touch areas such as light switches and thermostats. Vinyl wall products are sturdy and can be cleaned with more caustic cleaning products.
  • Partitions – Select plastic, acrylic, plexiglass, or vinyl partitions to install between workstations and to protect cashiers and customers.
  • Shopping carts – Consider vinyl-coated shopping cart handles and metal carts and baskets that are easy to wipe down after every use.

Sustainable Selections

The Vinyl Sustainability Council recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the design community’s approach to designing new spaces as cleaning and health regulations were instilled. From retail to education, hospitality to offices, the selection to use vinyl in new and renovated spaces supports a healthy, sustainable built environment.

Learn more in the Vinyl Sustainability Council Designing for Disinfection Resource Hub.

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