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    Sustainability Requirements of Residential Buildings

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    Submitted by: Aidana Tleuken
    (This entry belongs to Entry Collection "COVID-19 ")


    The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about changes, and alongside these, we can alter the way we design our living spaces. The need for a healthy and comfortable living space is essential to mental, physical well-being, and personal comfort. This entry shows how is COVID-19 Experience Transforming Sustainability Requirements of Residential Buildings.

    1. Introduction 

    December 2019 marked the beginning of a novel disease outbreak, later called COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO) [1]. Epidemiological links led the virus origins to animal stock in Wuhan [2]. Taking into account that some previous disease outbreaks have also been zoonotic (originating from animals), such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012, researchers claim that the amount of novel zoonotic diseases is expected to rise in the future [2][3]. For instance, markets that sell meat and products from wild animals are still not prohibited and thus continue to exist globally. This indicates a still ongoing threat of new disease outbreaks of animal origin. In addition, some researchers forecast a rise of zoonotic diseases, linking them to climate change and extensive land usage for agriculture and construction of infrastructure, as these activities put stress on the wildlife by reducing their habitat zones [3]. Finally, existing land-use practices lead habitats of humans and domestic animals to be brought closer to wild animals, which eases the way of virus mixing and further propagation [2]. COVID-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2, has progressed to become a global pandemic, and, in contrast to previous pandemics, it caused a global-scale crisis in medical systems and business [1]. The COVID-19 pandemic has so far created a tremendous impact on humanity's both personal and professional aspects.

    Possible means of contagion propagation and their lifespan in different mediums are still being researched. Recent studies show that one of the transmission means is air in human-to-human interaction, and SARS-CoV-2 is able to suspend in the air for up to four hours [4]. Another means of propagation is to deposition the virus on the surfaces after direct contact with an infected person or indirectly via turbulent flow. The lifespan depends on the medium matter, e.g., steel surfaces allow the virus to survive up to three days [4][5].

    In a short time, rapidly propagating COVID-19 has forced people to spend most of their time at home to prevent the risk of viral spread [5]. The world needs to adapt quickly to such changes in lifestyle and to bear with strict safety measures. Remembering recent outbreaks of other diseases, COVID-19 is another vivid reminder of the danger of unknown diseases uprising [2]. The experience of quarantine life due to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform the perception of the environment in different ways. Dense spaces will no longer be as welcomed, as they increase virus transmission routes. As such, to improve social distancing, public spaces have been (and are still) suspended worldwide.

    In addition to the impacts detailed above, offices, universities, and schools remain closed in some locations, necessitating people to work and study from home [6]. Therefore, residential buildings have become a crucial infrastructure type, vital for sustaining these disrupted communities [5]. Housing is becoming more than just a living space, which also significantly increases buildings' resource consumption (e.g., electricity and water). Therefore, even with the relief of the COVID-19 pandemic, the current world we live in still needs to acquire changes to become more resilient to possible upcoming disease outbreaks and lockdowns, and it introduces challenges to the existing residential buildings for adaptation to a new reality. To ensure that we remain resilient and sustainable, future houses need to be able to answer questions under epidemic measures, such as (1) how to effectively avoid disease propagation, (2) how to minimize the environmental effect, and (3) how to maintain and improve the comfort of people spending most of their time at home.

    2. Impact of COVID-19 on General Society and Urban Environment

    Before COVID-19, various other diseases have shaped our environment, including city planning and residence interiors, and there were several developments in architecture and urbanization in the last two centuries. Historically, the bubonic plague that happened in the 14th century facilitated the urban development of the Renaissance. More recently, the 20th century's challenges, including overcrowded cities with tuberculosis and various flu types, motivated architects and urbanists of that time to make changes such as clearance of slums, reforms of tenements, and waste management. As another example, smooth, straight, and wide streets for proper underground pipe system installation were developed due to cholera and typhoid outbreaks during the industrial era [7]. Recently, COVID-19 has drawn many researchers' attention from various fields and thus become one of the most frequently studied topics. The previous studies mainly discussed how COVID-19 influenced multiple aspects of our life, including economic factors [8], sustainable development goals [9][10], food pathways [11], education [12], tourism [13], urbanization [7], living spaces [14], and business [10].

    Filho et al. [9] reported that COVID-19's economic impacts are unexamined and only going to unfold; the global economic downswing is estimated to be more challenging than the financial crisis of 2007–2009. According to the United Nations Trade and Development Agency (UNCTAD) [14], the consequences of COVID-19 are going to cost the global economy in 2020 around one trillion USD, considering that the length of the pandemic is ambiguous. Consequently, a global economic collapse is expected to have harsh consequences, including food shortages and hunger. Blay-Palmer et al. [11] stated that the right to food should be guaranteed under international law to fulfill the obligations of all governmental levels. New policies tackling the food shortage and hunger should be based on a clear understanding and consideration of the human right to food. Tran et al. (2020) [12] examined the impact of the COVID-19 experience on Vietnamese students' education. The study concluded that there is a significant difference in students' learning routines from different types of schools. Learning capabilities, motivation, and self-discipline play crucial roles in distant learning during the pandemic. Additionally, family income partially influences the efficiency of students' learning in pandemic conditions such that above-average income group students spent less time in offline learning compared to their other peers.

    Regarding the impact of the pandemic on business, compared to the Great Depression or the housing recession in national economies (2008), the significant difference of COVID-19 is that it influenced both the supply and the demand side of the economy. Future business is going to be significantly more digitalized, which will bring positive changes, including cost-cutting, increased business intelligence, and more transparency [10]. Digital transformations are expected to occur in all daily activities. Apart from the digitalization of business, most employees have to be ready to host online meetings and to work with new portable types of equipment for virtual communication [15].

    It is expected that the COVID-19 pandemic experience will slow down urbanization. Villages and city suburbs will likely gain more attention to be enhanced and experience necessary digital transformations. Moreover, cities are advised to expand horizontally and decrease their densities. Various services, including health facilities, schools, and shopping malls, are better if they are decentralized, putting more attention on smaller units. Urban farming will likely be one of the critical aspects of creating a self-sustaining community [7][8][16][17]. Additionally, cities are expected to transform from car-driven to more walkable and cyclable, which is advantageous over cars by being environmentally friendly as well as beneficial for the physical and mental health of citizens [18][19]. Office spaces are also expected to experience necessary changes, with larger spaces having fewer seats, to ensure the new requirements of social distancing [20][21].

    The COVID-19 pandemic experience will also influence strategies for building construction. Modular construction will gain more popularity, because it allows the construction of various building types quickly with lower expenses [22]. Standardized prefabricated components of modular construction strategy will allow us to adapt to and meet healthcare buildings' requirements during quarantine times [23]. Adaptive reuse of existing structures is one of the possible ways to meet the demands for emergency facilities. In case of a sudden pandemic, big spaces such as sports facilities and fields, parking lots, and other open space buildings could be converted into temporary medical facilities or hospitals. Future buildings will be designed considering the opportunity for efficient, flexible, and quick transformation of the building for necessary needs (hospitals, medical facilities, etc.) [24]. Lightweight and adaptable structures have advantages such as construction speed and portability. Temporary structures that can be easily disassembled and transported as field hospitals are being designed for use during COVID-19-like pandemics [24][25]. Post-pandemic architecture may also include hygienic building materials that are easy to be sanitized [20][26].

    Apart from the impacts in general society and the urban environment, as mentioned above, a new set of requirements and suggestions are emerging regarding building design. This suggests a drastic paradigm change from "business as usual" to "for a pandemic" in the design and operation of buildings, particularly for residential buildings. The building design will experience various changes starting from general construction methods to the planning of its details [27][28]. Megahed and Ghoneim [7] highlighted some significant changes that are expected to happen in future architecture approaches, promoting self-sufficient strategies and refocusing on green space and low-rise buildings with better indoor air quality. An autonomous design of a building is especially crucial during pandemic conditions when the transportation of food and other goods are limited [29][30]. While interaction with green spaces positively influences people's mental health and allows them to grow food during self-isolation time, at the same time, low-rise buildings and resulting better air quality will enable the reduction of density of people as well as the risks of being self-isolated for long durations [31]. Assuming that future buildings are going to experience various transformations, the set of new standards and the design process of new buildings will require a multidisciplinary approach [32]. Significant changes that are going to happen in the design of buildings include greener spaces [13], better air ventilation and intimacy [33], improved water and wastewater management [34], introduction of touchless technologies and antimicrobial materials [35], better solid-waste management [36], social distancing within the house [31], and lightweight architecture and flexible building design [37].

    The COVID-19 pandemic forced authorities to oblige people to stay home for disease propagation prevention in many locations. This has abruptly disturbed professional and personal lifestyles all over the world. This leads to the fact that, from now on, homes will be more than just a living place. Consequently, the coronavirus pandemic leads to a reconsideration of existing buildings, which need to become more resilient and sustainable for other possible upcoming disease epidemics/pandemics. The present work aims to define the current sustainability limitations of residential buildings in providing a resilient response to disease outbreaks, and it reviews the emerging solutions and ideas that will lead to "design for a pandemic". The present work addresses the following research questions: (1) how to assess the capacity of existing buildings to protect occupants' health and safety, especially during lockdown periods; (2) evaluating the effect of pandemics on residential buildings' resources consumption; (3) defining the deficiencies of current residential buildings in terms of bringing comfort to the occupants; and (4) addressing emerging solutions and ideas for residential building design that will shift the design paradigm from "business as usual" to "for a pandemic".

    3. Search Methodology and Data Collection

    The method of data and information collection for the present study was based on a state-of-the-art review [38] of the rapidly growing literature on COVID-19. The speed of information and data flow related to COVID-19 is extraordinary such that an example of such rapidly growing literature on a particular subject has never been previously witnessed. That guided us to a process such that the relevant information was not only collected from scientific literature but also from various high-quality online resources, including blogs, journals, news, policy, and media reports. The available literature was collected from March 2020 (the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic) until the completion of the present manuscript (September 2020). The primary source groups of the study (summarized in Table 1) and the data collection/review were focused on two main categories: (a) lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic experience; and (b) its impact on the design of residential buildings. The literature review for the first category mainly focused on the information from Central Asia (which is our expertise area regarding building sustainability), with most findings widely applicable and generalizable to the global context, whereas the second category considered the available information from all around the world. Google and Nazarbayev University Library (with a subscription to 249 databases including ScienceDirect, PubMed, Scopus, and Web of Science) were used as search platforms with some of the keywords used (used individually as well as in combination) including "Effect of COVID-19 pandemic", "Water consumption", "Energy consumption", "Domestic violence", "Central Asia", "Personal comfort during lockdown", "Waste management", "Sustainability of residential buildings", and "Sustainability requirements".

    Table 1. Summary of literature review, sources, and information.

    Data/Knowledge Source

    Type of Information

    Database / Source

    Literature Found



    Nazarbayev University Library

    Peer-reviewed research papers










    Peer-reviewed research papers





    Policy reports






    Other reports





    Blogs and Journals




    4. Residential Building Sustainability Lessons Learned from COVID-19

    The COVID-19 experience has revealed certain deficiencies in current residential building design such that living conditions should be rethought and improved for better resilience through pandemics. More than 90% of infected cases happened in cities, as they have a significant amount of dense and concentrated places [39]. Since multi-story housing is standard in most cities, they need special attention. The sustainability lessons for residential buildings (summarized in Table 2) are presented below as categorized into the following perspectives: (1) health and safety, (2) environment, and (3) comfort.

    Table 2. Summary of sustainability lessons learned regarding residential buildings from COVID-19.





    Health & Safety

    Virus propagation risks

    Existing residential buildings have many surfaces of contact (e.g., elevators, doors, ladders), which leads to limited capacity to protect the occupants from virus transmission through surfaces and by air.


    Domestic violence threat

    Lockdowns tend to increase domestic violence frequency, and most existing residential buildings lack any service or facility that could help the victims.


    General health risks

    Housings that lack proper comfort can lead to a decline in both physical and psychological health.




    Increased energy usage due to global lockdowns (e.g., cooking, the use of ICTs, laundry, entertainment) creates a greater and uninterrupted need for sustainable energy sources.



    Households are not ready to manage the possibly infected waste; therefore, there is an emerging need to create a waste separation and disinfection strategy.



    Increased water consumption due to lockdowns might lead to water shortages. It drives a larger necessity for sustainable water management.

    Wastewater needs to be treated appropriately and sanitized to diminish virus spread.



    Personal comfort

    Households lacking comfort (personal space, outdoor space) complicate occupants' lives and lead to health problems (including mental health). Unavailable ICTs lead to a deficient use of necessary services (e.g., medical consultation, food/medicines delivery).


    Living costs

    Due to a sudden drop in economic activity during lockdowns, paying for increasing housing costs becomes problematic for several population classes.


    Local services

    Lack of independent local stores and pharmacies might create a crisis during lockdowns due to an insufficient amount of necessary reserves in food and medicines.


    5. Current Sustainability Requirements

    Architects and urban planning institutions are one of the first to respond to disasters such as tsunamis, hurricanes, warfare, earthquakes, and bushfires. They are highly involved in the reconstruction of damaged cities or towns after natural disasters. However, it is surprising that the impalpable calamities, such as pandemics, result in the less active involvement of architects and urban planners. The reason might be that understanding of "disaster" is restricted to only physical natural/anthropogenic types of calamities [60].

    One way to push the design of buildings into more sustainable and green approaches and solutions is sustainable assessment tools and guides. The three main components of sustainability are environment, society, and economy, which make a foundation for sustainability assessment tools [61]. Typical categories that are included in the sustainability assessment tool of residential buildings are energy, water, indoor and outdoor environments, site consideration, and material input [62]. Awadh (2017) [63] compared the four most popular and widely used sustainability assessment rating systems: The British Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS), and Estidama Pearl Rating System. After analyzing all four sustainability assessment rating systems, he concluded that the main priority with the highest weight is given to the energy category in BREEAM, GSAS, and Estidama systems. At the same time, LEED puts into first place the indoor environmental quality category. Among the three major sustainability pillars (environmental, social, and economic), the environmental side is given the most significant attention, while the social pillar is given the least importance in all four sustainability assessment rating systems [63].

    Considering the wide range of problems (domestic violence, energy, waste, and water management, food supply, etc.) that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability of current sustainability requirements of residential buildings to tackle those problems, there is a need for reconsideration of current sustainability system and its requirements. Sustainability requirements of residential buildings should be adapted into the new reality with COVID-19-like pandemics, which humanity is going to face for the next decades and even centuries.

    6. Major Expected Changes in Sustainability Requirements

    Along with the lessons learned from COVID-19, there are changes in sustainability requirements as well, which can be grouped into the following (summarized in Table 3): (1) health and safety, (2) environment, and (3) comfort.

    Table 3. Summary of expected changes in sustainability requirements of residential buildings.





    Health & Safety

    Smart technologies

    Touchless technologies such as face recognition, voice control, motion sensors, keycard swiping will help decrease the contact with surfaces, which is one of the transmission routes of the viruses.Smart technologies would also allow designing self-cleaning spaces (bathrooms, toilets, etc.).


    Indoor finishing materials

    Copper and its alloys can effectively kill microorganisms and viruses. Steel and plastic surfaces allow viruses to be active for long durations compared to copper or cardboard surfaces. However, antimicrobial additive for indoor finishing materials should be carefully selected due to the risk of equally being toxic to humans.


    Green and natural environment

    The addition of green spaces into residential building designs will enhance the mental health of residents, decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression during lockdowns. Gardens, where people could grow their own plants, will facilitate the relaxation of residents and increase their psychological well-being.


    Indoor air quality, temperature, humidity

    Constant air ventilation is essential for maintaining clean indoor air to prevent the spread of the virus. Furthermore, the proper temperature and humidity of the air are critical to the health as well as the comfort of the residents.




    Increased energy consumption due to work from home practices can be controlled via energy-consuming technologies and smart systems, which would increase the efficiency at home.


    Solid waste

    Increased solid waste, especially personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, highlighted a need for proper management and disposal of potentially infected waste.



    Since the virus is able to transmit via human feces that contaminate wastewater, there is a risk of its transmission via sewage. Proper wastewater management via additional measures may be needed to avoid the spread of the virus via wastewater.



    Housing automation

    Sensors and detectors connected to smart systems would allow us to manage and control the home more comfortably, faster, and smarter.



    With the emerging need to work from home, the layout of the rooms is going to likely be different, with more attention paid to the design of comfortable, isolated, and separate workplaces.



    Difficulties in finding some private space during lockdown will shift new housing design towards more private spaces, allowing each family member to have a personal spot at home.


    7. Conclusions

    The current COVID-19 pandemic is bringing different changes to society. It is humanity's responsibility to prepare plans and implement necessary actions for future disease outbreaks. Residential buildings are crucial for the health of the population, as they determine social well-being. Homes had critical importance during lockdown periods during which people were required to stay home for infection spread prevention. The nature of this home quarantine experience differed significantly from person to person. This invokes a substantial rethinking of housing to prepare humanity for future possible disease outbreaks.

    The present paper addresses a critical question to the community of building sustainability research: "What can we learn from the recent pandemic to modify the building suitability criteria and assessment methods that would promote better sustainable living conditions during such difficult periods affecting entire populations?" The answers to this question will lead to significant changes to the existing methods. We specifically expect that existing building sustainability rating methods that mainly favor "environmental impact" and "energy performance" of buildings will receive a significant shift towards emphasizing "social and health" aspects. It is finally encouraging to see the opportunities that the disruption brings, and the improvements that would be implemented may be financially supported by expected COVID-19 stimulus financing for the building industry as well as existing/upcoming green stimulus packages.

    COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures have revealed the deficiencies in existing residential buildings in terms of health and safety risks, excess consumption of environmental resources, and lack of personal comfort. The following changes are expected to improve health and safety in houses: widened use of touchless and automotive technologies, selection of finishing materials with regards to viral survivability, and development of green spaces. As a response to environmental needs, sustainable technologies mainly and particularly need to address the issue of improving the increased consumption of energy and water. For comfort enhancement, residential houses need to improve communication technologies to use remote services better and use automotive technologies to regulate better comfort parameters: air quality, light, temperature, humidity, and so on.

    Future scenarios involving upcoming pandemics cannot be precise, as the nature of the coronavirus, as well as its spreading behavior, are still being researched. Nevertheless, humanity should be ready for possible repeating outbreaks of COVID as well as other pandemics. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the requirements under pandemic scenarios and design resilient solutions. Future work can proceed in (1) the development of novel building codes and green certificates for the post-pandemic residential buildings and/or (2) the modification of existing codes and certificates considering particular pandemic needs.

    The entry is from 10.3390/su12208732


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