Seeing a smart future beyond the pandemic

Neil McSporran of NSG Group discusses how ‘smart’ antimicrobial glass for tackling infections beyond the pandemic, and how smarter building materials will help designers to create safer environments

Curbing the transmission of diseases will be a priority for those who design and manage buildings for many years to come. Covid-19 has exposed many countries to the human and economic cost that harmful new infections are capable of. And society has responded by throwing all of its ingenuity behind defeating this foe, with innovation stretching beyond the race for a vaccine.

The next crucial step will be ‘pandemic proofing’ many points in our everyday lives. We’ve already made great ground, with technology facilitating an unprecedented shift in digital transformation – laying the digital infrastructure required to keep the world moving without physical interaction when needed.

But physical infrastructure and the built environment has an important role to play too. Architects, developers and the supply chain can each be influential in driving effective change.

Architecture ultimately shapes how we interact with materials and one another, and inadvertently, it can affect the risk of infections being passed on. Managing this risk stems from simple retrofits specifying innovative building materials, to the proliferation of post-Covid urban design and development.

Smarter materials
‘Pandemic-proof’ cities are already taking shape in China, where entire neighbourhoods are being built with the aim of helping residents to live comfortably under lockdown and confinement.

Large balconies that give residents more outdoor space, and which are also accessible for deliveries via drones, form part of the plans of Barcelona-based Guallart Architects behind the Xiong’an New Area – a ‘Covid-proof’ city. The practice’s founder Vicente Guallart believes that we can’t continue designing cities and buildings “as if nothing’s happened.”

Of course, existing cities can’t easily be torn down and replaced with a new post-pandemic standard of buildings. We need to make our existing shared spaces – where transmission is more likely – safer, while finding solutions that make our shared spaces work better.

This is where technical architects are looking for innovation in the supply chain, providing them with new materials that can help developers to upgrade and create spaces with enhanced protection.

We have fast tracked our research into antimicrobial coatings in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, supported by funding from Innovate UK as it sought to invest in virus-beating innovations. Pilkington SaniTise is the first result of this research, a flat glass with a coating designed to break down viruses, bacteria and fungi on its surface.

New materials like this can help to reduce the chances of contact transmission. In the right conditions, microbes can live on unprotected hard surfaces like glass for weeks. As such, ‘high touch’ applications including the doorways and windows in shared spaces like hospitals, shopping centres, schools and restaurants, can carry a high risk of contact transmission without constant cleaning or treatment.

In these environments, antimicrobial glass helps to provide a higher level of infection control that building design professionals are increasingly looking to offer developers.

Innovating in antimicrobial coatings
The new product’s coating is activated when exposed to UV radiation from natural daylight or by artificial UV radiation and is designed to last for the lifetime of the glass. Firstly, it reacts with water vapour within the air, in a photocatalytic process that produces reactive oxygen species. This enables the breakdown of organic species and helps to provide antimicrobial properties

and activity against ‘enveloped’ viruses (the envelope being the spherical shape shown in most representations of viruses) on the glass surface.

When compared to an uncoated piece of glass, use of the coating has been shown to result in almost 90 per cent less virus on its surface after 15 minutes in daylight, and more than 80 per cent less virus on the surface after 60 minutes in the dark after the coating is activated by light.

The coating has been tested to ISO Standard 21702 (2019), which measures antiviral activity on plastics and other non-porous surfaces. In November, it was recognised as Design of the Year by industry body British Glass.

No silver bullet
Of course, highly contagious infections are difficult to control – shown by the regular tinkering and changing of restrictions by governments around the world, as they work to get on top of Covid-19.

Strategy centres around breaking the chains of infection and preventing such an exponential rise in cases. The most high-profile examples of this have been the implementation of mask wearing, social distancing and track and trace programmes – none are intended to stop the virus in its tracks, but to take the wind from its sails.

Smart materials like antimicrobial glass offer the building design community a new way of contributing to the war against viruses, adding an additional step to our ways of steadying the spread of harmful diseases.

Revisiting Vicente Guallart’s words, the industry can’t carry on as we always have. Looking ahead, the more that ‘chain-breaking’ design standards or materials comprise our physical built environment, the more ‘pandemic proofed’ our lives will become.

Neil McSporran is global portfolio director at the NSG Group