We now have the mechanical equipment to create protective buildings, the tools to measure and track the connections between indoor climates, and the computing capabilities to correlate the data to tell us if we are doing things right.

A tiny virus has completely turned our world upside down. Even with our remarkable cognitive resiliency that allows us to feel hopeful despite uncertainties, we are now in an unprecedented situation without familiar daily routines, goals, or human interactions. As we watch movies at home during the workday, cover our faces, and glare at anyone in the grocery store who dares to cough, our deepest fears can take hold and make us ruminate about an uncertain future. Will we get COVID-19? If we do, how bad will it be? Will our families and friends survive? Will our economy ever recover? Will my business or job be what it was before this? 

While these are very valid concerns, those of you reading this column actually have reasons to be very optimistic about your work. 

Currently, most people are staying out of public buildings, offices, and schools. This will change in the near future, and people will resume some form of their previous activities — even if virtual communication plays a bigger role. As buildings are reoccupied, the fear of catching the contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus will clash with the need to return to work and school. Most people will be wary about the safety of their indoor environment and will want reassurance that something is being done for their safety. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has unequivocally reminded us that the most essential role of buildings is to shelter humans. This is where your work as an engineer, architect, facility manager, or someone associated with mechanical system design, construction, operation, maintenance, or sales has become essential to the ongoing functioning of your region and country. The exciting, yet challenging, task is to optimize HVAC design, operation, and maintenance to protect occupants from the invisible SARS-CoV-2 virus while remaining cognizant of the environmental and budgetary costs of energy use. Furthermore, your best-practice recommendations should be based on scientific data and not on mere opinions or commercial interests. Thankfully, for the first time in history, we can do this. We now have the mechanical equipment to create protective buildings; the tools to measure and track the connections between indoor climates, building materials, microbial communities, and occupant health; and the computing capabilities to correlate the data to tell us if we are doing things right. 

We now have multiple studies showing this virus is transmitted not only through direct contact and short-range, large droplet splashing but also through the air over longer distances in tiny infectious aerosols. This puts indoor air management in the center of disease control. 

The need to reduce indoor virus transmission through fine airborne aerosols, while paying attention to energy costs, raises conflicts. How do we find and implement scientifically sound strategies to protect the health of occupants while controlling energy use? Should we use 100% outside air for full dilution of indoor particles? If we do this, how do we keep indoor relative humidity in the safe zone of 40%-60%? How can air filtration, ultraviolet light, and other air cleaning technologies be used together with ventilation, humidification, and heat exchange systems?  

The ASHRAE Epidemic Task Group, of which I am a member of, is working very hard to identify the best technologies to abate COVID-19 transmission in buildings and to write guidelines for their use. 

In the meantime, what can you do to protect your health? First, we should all be managing the humidity inside our homes at a relative humidity of 40%-60%. We also need to manage our psychological distress during this time of uncertainty. I personally find that learning something new is very valuable and comforting. By giving myself daily goals of reading, taking a course, or analyzing new data, I can expand my perspective and better understand my options moving forward. During this pandemic, I highly recommend everyone reading this column learns something new about the viruses and bacteria that live in our bodies and homes. One night this winter I read past 4 a.m., unable to put down Daniel Quammen’s “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life,” a book about the discovery of natural cross-breeding between viruses, bacteria, and humans. I was surprised to learn that 14% of the genetic code carried in human eggs and sperm, and passed on to our children, originally came from viruses. Another eye-opening book about our relationship with microbes is, “Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live,” by Rob Dunn. The description of micro-climate niches in our homes where unique communities of bacteria, viruses, and fungi live will give you new respect for microbes. 

While we live through the COVID-19 pandemic without our familiar routines, take this opportunity to learn something new about our health and the indoor environment. When we emerge and return to work, you will have much greater appreciation of the importance of your work in protecting the health of yourself and your customers.