‘COVID-proof’ design is more than home offices and gyms

‘COVID-proof’ design is more than home offices and gyms

If you asked real estate agents and home builders in the late spring how buyers were responding to the pandemic, they would answer with tales of multiple home offices and private gyms becoming must-haves.

But as the virus surged into winter, less sexy — but more important — components like air-filtration systems and new approaches to a condo building’s package drop-off zone were suddenly entering the conversation.

“I think with ‘COVID-proofing,’ we’ve learned so much over the nine months of this pandemic,’’ said Vickie Alani, principal at architectural firm CBT. “It’s not really the house or the space causing COVID. It’s not stuff. It’s people. It’s how we move through space and breathe.’’

While “COVID-proofing’’ is a term said somewhat wistfully, it hasn’t stopped architects and home builders from accelerating healthy-living trends that were already growing in popularity before the pandemic. Enhanced water- and air-filtration systems and a general push toward sustainability are increasingly basic expectations in both the single-family and multifamily home sector.

These healthy-living trends — particularly in the realm of air filtration — are on track to be a new standard of post-pandemic home building.

“It’s certainly something we hear about with people spending so much more time in their homes and thinking about it in a different way as a safe haven from germs and disease and, in particular, air quality and air filtration and virus filtration,’’ said Abbe Will, a research associate and associate project director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. “All of that is suggesting this is a part of the market that is likely growing and almost certainly will have some kind of boost from the pandemic.’’

Designed pre-COVID, The Smith, a new environmentally inspired residential building in Boston’s South End, has bumped up its work-from-home options and numerous smaller outdoor seating areas for dedicated work and smaller groupings. —Ed Wonsek

Architects like Alani approach air filtration in dense apartment and condo buildings with a focus on increasing mechanical systems, especially nine months into a pandemic in which potential renters and buyers are suddenly just as focused on air quality as they are amenity space.

There is also a return to operable windows, even in downtown high-rises where developers have shied away from installing them in recent years to save money.

“I was against them in the past. They’re more expensive, and zoning limited how little they could actually open,’’ said Michael Procopio, vice president of development at Procopio Cos., a real estate development firm. “Now I would never think about building a 350-unit building unless it had operable windows.’’

There are ways to abide by zoning and still deliver fresh air to residents seeking more ventilation, both during and after the pandemic. Juliet balconies are very shallow and basically enable full-length windows with the protection of a railing in taller buildings. Alani expects the trend to grow in the coming years, even with budget-minded developers in a costly construction environment such as Boston.

“There had been resistance [to installing working windows] due to cost increases,’’ she added. “It’s not huge, but everyone was after the last dollar because of rising construction costs. But I think moving forward, providing residents with more than the four-inch operability of one window in a room is a huge benefit. I think people will be more conscious of it.’’

Multifamily developers are also reworking the layouts of apartment and condo buildings, particularly in amenity areas and delivery drop-off points. Amenity areas that once housed communal eating areas and workspaces are getting compartmentalized to offer more private offices.

“We’ve always been big proponents of coworking and essentially mini WeWorks in our buildings,’’ Procopio said. “Now it’s a lot of little nooks, and it feels like an airport lounge. It’s cozy.’’

Procopio’s development team has also installed enhanced high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems on elevator cabs to provide better ventilation in such a confined space. Residents can open main entrances to a Procopio building or summon an elevator remotely via a smartphone app at developments like Ironwood Apartments in Lynn. While this technology was offered pre-pandemic, Procopio said, he expects it to become more standard practice in light of a year of social distancing and other precautionary measures.

Incorporated at many Procopio Cos. properties (and pictured here at Ironwood Apartments in Lynn) ButterflyMX allows residents to call an elevator, enter the building, utilize video calling, and review door release logs from their smartphone or other device. —The Procopio Cos.

The CBT design team moved toward a secure porch-like delivery area at Watermark Central, an apartment building in Central Square. Deliveries are left in a secure vestibule that’s visible to the concierge but doesn’t require a delivery person coming into the building.

New filtration technologies or retroactive build-outs may initially cost more, but developers and architects expect prices to come down the more these features become new building standards.

“This year, there would have been a cost impact because we were all scrambling,’’ Alani said. “But moving forward, this is how we will do buildings, and we will incorporate it into a system of decisions and not tack it on as we have this year.’’

Single-family homes are a different arena. While they don’t have the same issues of shared air-filtration systems as a condo building, an individual home can still run the risk of bacterial spread. One of the ways Cindy Stumpo, CEO of C. Stumpo Development, tackles this is by zoning off the air-filtration systems of the bedrooms in the luxury homes she builds. Typically, air filtration is controlled on different levels of a house.

With the Stumpo method, someone quarantining in their bedroom wouldn’t have to worry about contaminated air particles seeping into the rest of the house.

“If the parents are in their bedroom sneezing and coughing, the kids aren’t going to get it in their rooms because I separately zone off,’’ Stumpo said. “If from the beginning you zone off, you can stop germs from spreading through your own home. But if you’re not isolating and going to go into the family room or kitchen, it’s going to spread.’’

Experts interviewed for this story recognize there could be an opportunistic cottage industry of pandemic-related home materials born from the public health crisis. But all stressed the importance of the basics: air filtration. Items like HEPA filters or allergen-pleated MERV 15 (minimum efficiency reporting value) air filters provide viable ways to combat airborne bacterial spread. The cost of a basic air infiltration depends on the size of your home.

Ultraviolet lights are even available for residential air systems and can eliminate germs and viruses. While there is debate on how effective some cleaning materials and sanitizers work in combating an airborne virus, Stumpo installs in-duct UV-air germ lamp systems in the homes she builds. The purification system uses UV light and ions to destroy particulate, microbial, and gas pollutants on surfaces, as well as in the air of a home. The systems, from brands like Field Controls or Reme Halo, typically cost less than $500.

“This is the only product that is not a gimmick,’’ Stumpo said. “I am actually designing seven new homes in Brookline, and I’m making sure we are getting everything we can in these homes right at the beginning.’’

No matter how advanced the air-filtration systems get in one of her homes — the spec ones typically start around $5 million in the tony neighborhoods of Brookline and Newton — Stumpo said they still require some level of attention to get the maximum benefit.

“Some people don’t remember to change the filters,’’ she added with a laugh while noting she sends a twice-a-year reminder e-mail to all her clients. “They forget. I don’t care how smart they are.’’

Cameron Sperance can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.

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