by Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM

It has been a year since the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States. Even as infections are spiking domestically and around the globe and more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are emerging, there are signs of hope with the initial roll-out of vaccines that promise an eventual end to the pandemic. The successful vaccine trials show conclusively that being vaccinated will prevent most people from becoming ill with COVID-19 if they are exposed to the virus, but there are limitations. We do not yet know how long immunity will last and if the vaccine will prevent people who have been exposed from spreading the virus to others. Additionally, we know that broad access to vaccinations around the globe will vary, that universal acceptance is not guaranteed and that the virus does not respect political boundaries. Hence, continued vigilance is needed, and additional precautions will be required indefinitely. Even with some degree of relief in sight, many virologists and epidemiologists predict we will be living with SARS-CoV-2 for a long time, and that we are likely to see additional zoonotic virus outbreaks in the not-too-distant future that could lead to new epidemics and pandemics.

The good news is that we know how to protect ourselves from many of the types of pathogens that threaten building occupants. Beyond the now-familiar reactive responses to reduce virus transmission risks, we can begin to explore how to better design and maintain buildings and building systems to promote wellness and reduce transmission of known and anticipated pathogens. The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated infection concerns and increased awareness of indoor air quality and will certainly accelerate the healthy building trend and make it a top tier quality criterion for buildings. Not limited to health risk reduction, this demand will include designing and operating buildings to support healthy immune function, helping occupants stay well.

Building commissioning providers (CxP) can play and important role in protecting occupant health and reducing health risks from the current pandemic and future outbreaks. Here is a sampling of these leadership opportunities:

  • Scientific evidence has shown that people with respiratory and immune system comorbidities are more likely to face severe COVID-19 symptoms. We know that moisture issues in the building enclosure (bulk water intrusion, condensation, etc.) can result in mold and mildew which can trigger allergies and cause more serious respiratory and health issues. The CxP’s role directly addresses the prevention these air quality problems in new and existing buildings.
  • Building commissioning also supports occupant health by improving building enclosure thermal performance. Indoor environments that are too cold, too warm or that create thermal asymmetry (high contrast in radiant surface temperatures) are linked to circulatory, respiratory and musculoskeletal health issues, as well as impacting mood and productivity.
  • Effective air change in occupied spaces, achieved through optimized ventilation rate, high-efficiency filtration, and appropriate application of other air cleaning technologies, is essential for respiratory health and cognitive function. This includes ensuring that the delivery of fresh air is balanced and matched to the dynamic occupancy of indoor spaces. Commissioning can confirm that all spaces are properly ventilated for optimal occupant health, not just minimum requirements, while avoiding excessive energy usage.
  • Climate change is steadily increasing health risks, through extreme temperature events, worsening urban heat islands, drought, water quality impacts, an expanding range for tropical diseases, and other human health consequences. Reducing the carbon emissions and other atmospheric impacts of building operation and maintenance provides a broad and long-term public health benefit. Commissioning of building enclosures and energy using systems is fundamental to maintaining low-carbon buildings, from enclosure performance and durability, to energy efficient operation.

The CxP is the guardian of the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR), which will increasingly emphasize the health and wellness of building occupants. Wellness and health risk reduction could become a new specialty for commissioning agents as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving beyond face coverings, social distancing and surface disinfection, we will need integrated design, construction and operation strategies to limit pathogen transmission risks including SARS-CoV-2, rhinovirus (common cold), seasonal flu, measles and future viral threats. More importantly, we need indoor environments that boost our immune systems and promote mental and physical wellness. Commissioning providers can write the prescription for healthy buildings.

Alan Scott is an architect with over 30 years of experience in healthy, resilient, sustainable building design, construction and operation. Alan leads BCxA corporate member Intertek’sProtek Facility Health Management consulting and certification program. To learn more, visit and follow Alan on Twitter @alanscott_faia.