Report calls on government to mandate infection-resilient buildings

Improvements to the design and operation of buildings - aimed at minimising the transmission of infectious diseases - could save the UK as much as £23bn a year in the event of another pandemic, according to a report published by the National Engineering Policy Centre.

Indeed, even without the extreme circumstances of a pandemic, improvements to ventilation, air quality and sanitation in buildings could – it is claimed - save the UK economy as much as £8bn a year, by minimising the impact of other infectious diseases such as seasonal flu.  

Based on research commissioned in 2021 by the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and led by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) the report calls on government to mandate long-term improvements to infection control in commercial, public and residential buildings.

Claiming that many of the UK’s buildings are not being operated according to the current air quality standards - either because they were built to previous standards or are not being used as originally intended – the report makes a series of recommendations aimed at enshrining infection resilience in building regulations.

These suggestions include the development of a set of meaningful standards by the British Standards Institution (BSI); the promotion of the benefits of infection resilience by the UK Health Security Agency; the establishment of binding regulations compelling local authorities to maintain safe and healthy building performance over a building’s lifetime; and ensuring that government departments consider incorporating infection resilience into major retrofit programmes designed to meet the commitments of the Net Zero Strategy.

The research also identifies a number of specific measures and technologies that could be used to improve infection resilience including No-touch technologies such as sensor-operated doors, performance improvements to ventilation and air cleaning technologies, and the use of CO2 monitoring systems.

Professor Peter Guthrie, Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Chair of the NEPC Infection Resilient Environments working group, said: “If the built environment is not equipped to limit the spread of infections, there will be direct health costs from severe illness, long-term sickness or death….This is not simple because the developers who commission and fund new buildings will not directly benefit from including health provisions at the design stage. Changes to regulation and standards are therefore needed for the scale of change required.”

Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance added: “We spend most of our time in indoor environments and making these healthier and more sustainable spaces will have wide benefits to our public health, wellbeing, and the economy. I hope this report encourages the coordinated system-wide approach, collaboration, and innovation required between government, academia, and industry to deliver the transformational change recommended.”