The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to adapt our way of working to protect the health of our employees. As we have settled in to the “new normal” we find ourselves asking “what next?” How can we safely return to the workplace, if we do at all? Change must happen, and this is an opportunity to re-evaluate your workspace through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as health and sustainability.

Recently, at the 4th Annual B Corp Leadership Development - Pacific Northwest Conference, Waterleaf Associate Ellen Krusi took to the mainstage to present ideas on how the built environment can respond to the pandemic as an opportunity to adapt the workplace. She draws from historic moments that lead to design impacts on workspaces and outlines ideas to make the places where we work more equitable.  (You can watch Ellen's talk at the PNW BLD 2020 Conference here.)

How did we get here?

From The Code of Hammurabi (1758 BCE) cited as the earliest known building code, stating “If you build a house for someone and it collapses and kills them, then you will be killed as punishment” to the catastrophic great fires of London in 1666 and Chicago in 1871 to the pandemic of 1918, history has marked major events that triggered the development of regulations for life and health safety.

Within those regulations the development of standard dimensions in architecture was based on traditional “ideal” or “normal” body types highlighting male, white, hetero, cis-gender, and able-bodied people. All other humans were exceptions to the rule. Covertly and overtly, anyone outside of the dominant culture was excluded. Segregation, zoning laws, and redlining actively discriminated against people and no accommodations were made for people with mobility devices or sensory impairments.

It was only after decades of protest and the hard work of activists before the Civil Rights Act and American Disabilities Act legislation passed that mandated accommodations and de-segregation.

However, that wasn’t the end of the struggle – which brings us to present day.

From disability rights to universal design

We understand that diversity is complex. There are many factors that make us unique and some have a greater influence on how we are able to move through our lives. There is a tendency is to assume other people are like ourselves and we must be intentional when it comes to listening and understanding what others want and need.

Universal Design goes beyond the ADA to address the following principals: equity, flexibility, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort and size and space for approach and use can be the first step to designing healthy buildings for diversity and equity.

Looking at the Cultural Context 

We can look at architecture within the cultural context and recognize how people perceive spaces and styles differently depending on their lived experience. For example, side entrances for wheelchair users in the context of racial segregation; the emotions that a brutalist style building might trigger for a person with a history of imprisonment; the message that colonial style architecture may send to those of indigenous cultures or oppressed people, and the difficulty faced by those whose gender identity does not fit the distinction made by gendered restrooms or parents and caretakers who are of the opposite gender. These are just a few examples of ways architecture may hold different meaning for different people. It is essential to keep an open mind and seek to understand how others experience the built environment.

Sharing the room with COVID-19 Transmission Risk

What we have learned about COVID-19 so far is that primary transmission is through the air via large and small droplets. The distance droplets can travel depends on a complex variety of factors such as the velocity of the droplets and airflow patterns of the space. The CDC’s six foot rule is a bare minimum and larger distances are better. More fresh outside air is better than inside air and the direction of the airflow matters. Studies have shown that COVID remains in the air longer when humidity is low. And though studies have shown the risk to be very small, we can’t completely rule out the risk of transmission from surfaces. Laboratory studies have shown the virus to survive on surfaces for up to 3 days, though in real-world scenarios it is unlikely to survive more than a few hours in concentrations that could get you sick. Good hand washing and cleaning habits can’t hurt and can help prevent the spread of other diseases, but avoid overuse of harsh chemicals and hand sanitizers as they can have negative effects on people with sensitive respiratory systems.

Design Strategies to Implement

Below are some specific strategies that address COVID concerns and also increase accessibility and equity that can help earn the trust of staff to return to the workplace. These efforts will require offering a safe environment with amenities that cannot be replicated at home.

Entrance, Reception, Circulation Areas:

  • Provide a level entry or a ramp; avoid relegating wheelchair users to a side entrance
  • Auto-operator or push-button doors limit transfer of germs and accommodate people with mobility challenges
  • Provide ample space for two wheelchairs to pass – this also allows for social distancing
  • Toe-kick controls for elevator call-buttons, handy when carrying packages as well
  • Program elevators to limit number of passengers at one time
  • Providing a shield at reception counters can serve multiple functions of preventing transmission of airborne particles, limiting noise, maintaining privacy, and providing an extra level of safety.
  • Locate restrooms near entrance to facilitate handwashing upon entry

Meeting Areas

  • Provide flexible and adjustable seating that not only allows for social distancing but is accommodating to mobility devices
  • Install camera and microphone setups to include telecommuters in meetings
  • Install acoustic treatments to improve ability to hear conversations over the phone, through masks, or for persons with hearing loss.
  • Enclosed meeting spaces can benefit from increased air exchanges via operable windows or the mechanical system. Consider installing a UV light sanitizing system to further cleanse the air
  • Outdoor meeting spaces, if an option, have the advantage of fresh air, daylight, and connection to nature but be careful about ambient noise and light glare


  • Access to daylight and operable windows increases airflow, utilizes the disinfectant properties of light, increases occupant satisfaction and productivity
  • Increase air ventilation and filtration and monitor humidity levels
  • Sizing workstations to allow social distancing, providing dividers or fully enclosing offices can also decrease noise, improve privacy – but avoid the ‘cubicle farm’ where access to windows is limited.
  • Arrange workstations so that people are not directly facing one another
  • Provide flexible workstations to accommodate various mobility and work styles
  • If you have an open work area, set aside an enclosed office or two that employees can use as quiet spaces. This can be handy as well if someone is immune-compromised and needs an extra level of protection while they are in the office.

Kitchens and Break Areas

  • Provide touchless fixtures, trash and recycling areas
  • Provide smooth, easy to clean, antimicrobial surfaces
  • Place flatware and dishes in enclosed cabinets at a level that can be easily reached
  • Place appliances within accessible reach ranges
  • Install a dishwasher to clean and sanitize; this is easier for employees with difficulty grasping objects rather than washing by hand
  • Consider separate handwashing and food prep sinks if space allows
  • Provide a large enough area for more than one person to access the space comfortably at a distance
  • Consider whether or not to provide indoor dining areas. If you have them, provide flexible seating arrangements to allow people to eat while socially distanced
  • If possible, provide outdoor break areas or operable windows


  • If space allows, eliminate door into restroom area entirely, instead use a switchback entrance to block sightlines, otherwise use automatic door operators and/or toe-pulls
  • Depending on the size of your office you may have a couple of single-user unisex restrooms or a larger restroom with individual non-gendered ventilated compartments. Advantages of these are:
    • Floor-to-ceiling toilet compartments with full size doors.
    • Improves sanitation by separating the air space
    • Improved privacy
    • More equitable for non-binary and transgendered people
    • More people can use available fixtures (rather than women waiting in line when men’s stalls are available)
  • Urinals can be placed either in individual compartments, or in a separate designated area. Space them out at least 6 feet or provide privacy screens
    • Touchless fixtures provide improved sanitation and are easier for people with limited mobility
  • Provide smooth, easy to clean, antimicrobial surfaces

Colors, Patterns, Textures

  • The use of color is powerful, setting a mood and influencing our perception of a space.
  • Color can be used for subtle wayfinding and to call attention to potential obstacles such as changes in floor level.
  • In the era of COVID-19, color and patterns can help indicate proper social distancing spaces
  • People with colorblindness or other vision impairments will not see color the same way. A more monochrome palette with lighter and darker shades will be more effective.
  • Too much visual stimuli can be distracting, so be thoughtful when selecting busy patterns and bright colors.
  • If you are looking to accommodate users of American Sign Language, it is best to use colors that contrast with skin tones, such as green, so signs are more easily interpreted.
  • It might seem easy to simply paint everything white, but colors with high reflectivity like bright white contribute to eye fatigue. Consider a more toned down neutral such as light gray.
  • With COVID-19, smooth hard surfaces that are easy to clean are preferred. However, hard surfaces reflect sound and contribute to a noisy work environment so it is important to temper it all with some acoustic treatments.
  • Changes in texture can serve a similar purpose as changes in color, but in a tactile way that can be interpreted by people with vision impairment. For instance, a floor that transitions from a hard surface treatment to a carpet implies a change in activity from high-traffic to a less public area.

Prioritizing Improvements and Engaging Stakeholders

For new construction, certain accessibility accommodations are mandated by the building code. For existing buildings and spaces, alterations to the space must comply with accessibility requirements to the extent feasible. A certain percentage of the construction budget (varies depending on the state you live in) must be spent on accessible upgrades. The order of priority for improvements is from the outside in: parking, entrance, route through building, and restrooms.

It is essential that you engage your stakeholders (staff, clients, neighbors – whomever might interact within your workplace) in this process. It can be done on your own or under the guidance of a professional, by hosting a “town hall” style meeting, bringing together focus groups, or conducting a survey. It is important to touch base and listen to feedback at various stages of the process and be transparent as possible about decision-making.  Set realistic expectations and be clear whether you are getting this feedback for immediate changes that are happening now or just gathering thoughts for the future. 

We find ourselves in a time of great upheaval and unknowns, but we know that while it seems endless right now, it is not.  This can also be a time to take a step back and focus on how we can make our eventual return to the workplace with a better vision in mind.  Ask questions, engage in a dialogue, and take this opportunity to reimagine how that workplace can be more equitable for all.

Watch: You can watch Ellen's talk at the PNW BLD 2020 Conference here