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Why Ceilings Offer Clean-Air Solutions for a Post-COVID World

Editor's note: this podcast episode originally appeared on the Gensler Design Exchange podcast. This episode is the first in a three-part series co-hosted with Armstrong World Industries that examines how our organizations are reimagining buildings, spaces, and products to enhance health and well-being in our return to the office and shared spaces.

As architects and designers meticulously work to transform our workplaces, retail, restaurants, schools, and virtually all places where humans connect in a post-COVID world, each space element has taken on a new sense of purpose and intentionality. Ceilings are certainly no exception. In fact, as the attention on air quality becomes paramount in creating spaces where occupants feel healthy, comfortable, and safe, ceilings will play a vital role.

In a recent Gensler Design Exchange podcast episode moderated by Gensler Global Workplace Research Leader Janet Pogue McLaurin, Gensler Design Realization Leader Don Ghent and Vic Grizzle, CEO of Armstrong World Industries, discuss how ceilings are an important part of the holistic approach to design we must take as we reimagine shared spaces in the future.

Gensler recently completed a series of Global Workplace Surveys in the U.S., the U.K., France, and Australia (Australia report is forthcoming). While results varied slightly by country, overall, we found that only a small percentage of workers want to work from home full-time; most want to return to the office full-time or a few days a week. As people return to the office, they want to feel safe, healthy, and valued.

If 52% of the people [want to be] in a hybrid [work] mode from here on out, or at least the foreseeable future, how do we plan spaces for that hybrid mode? How do we make sure people are comfortable and we’re thinking about the future… we need to actually make this part of our practice.
—Don Ghent, Design Realization Leader, Gensler

We have an opportunity to create great experiences for people — places where people want to be, including transforming buildings and workspaces where people can be their best selves and do their best work with each other. Armstrong World Industries is at the forefront of this movement, using their own workplace as a living lab and a leading model for collaboration across the industry, beta testing new health-focused solutions and emerging innovations in workplace design, and ultimately transforming their campus to elevate wellness and sustainability.

COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of our lives, including the workplace. The new role of the workplace will be as a place that brings people together to be with teams, colleagues, and clients in person, while reserving days to work independently at home for intense heads-down work. The design of physical workspaces must change to support this new role with new space types that connect us with each other and support group work.

This pandemic has really accelerated the idea of health and wellness, and it has accelerated the climate crisis, as well as social injustice…. I think all of these things together are transforming our cities and every aspect of live, work, and play.
—Janet Pogue McLaurin, Global Workplace Research Leader, Gensler

We must also create solutions that support workers’ health and well-being. We’re already seeing touchless technologies, synergy of indoor and outdoor spaces, nudging of healthy behaviors, and a sense of psychological well-being incorporated into office design.

The roofs over our heads are, ironically, often overlooked. But, in fact, ceiling products are a crucial component of the holistic design of a space. While many of the temporary solutions we’re seeing to address the current pandemic — such as plexiglass and mask mandates — may eventually phase out, the emphasis on clean air for all is a trend that is here to stay.

Ceilings have always mattered in the functionality of a space — from acoustics, to fire protection. But now, ceilings are becoming key elements in addressing workers’ heightened concerns about health and well-being. Ceilings control the air flow of a space — the shape, contour, and design are among the most critical elements in defining how air will flow across a space. And innovative ceiling technologies can provide proper ventilation and filtration solutions. So, as we plan our safe reentry into the cities we inhabit, let’s not forget to look up.

Our mindset around healthy spaces and the spaces we go into and the definition of healthy, have changed forever…. This has been a health crisis and it’s gotten to the most fundamental element of human beings, and that is their survival: their innate need to survive and stay safe. When that’s been attacked, change happens the most.
—Vic Grizzle, CEO, Armstrong World Industries Inc.

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