These are interesting times. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect our lives. As designers, we’re working with clients to develop strategies for safe environments and to understand how COVID-19 may affect the way we design in the future.

Because we’ve all had to relearn how to interact with each other and our environments, we’ve witnessed clients make decisions too quickly and out of concern of an unknown future. As we continue to move projects forward, one reaction we continue to see is around fabric choice.

While it may seem small, fabrics play an important role in the overall impression of a space. Textures and feel are just as important as visual appeal and patterns. However, the impression of textured fabrics seems to be changing as emphasis on infection control takes precedence. We’re here to set the record straight.

This heightened awareness of infection control may tempt us to make all surfaces – from tabletops to sofas – wipeable, non-porous, and smooth, with the belief that it will make everyone safer from dangerous microbes. However, there are better ways to reduce the risk of infection that will allow you to maintain the overall feeling and comfort of a space.

Fibrous vs. smooth surfaces and an outcome you might not expect.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study on CoV-1 and CoV-2 which proves viruses decay faster on the surface of fibrous materials than on smooth surfaces. This is because scientists believe fibers and absorbent materials cause viruses to dry and become inactive. By nature, a virus requires a host to replicate. The longer they can wait for that host, the more likely they are to find one. Thus, removing them is the most effective way to protect yourself and visitors.

Cleaning vs. Disinfecting: What’s the difference and why does it matter?

Whether a surface is smooth or fibrous, understanding the proper way to remove microbes is very important. We often hear the terms “cleaning” and “disinfecting” used interchangeably when in fact they are two very different things. Cleaning is the act of removing soil and grim with detergent and water. Disinfecting, on the other hand, is when you apply chemicals to a surface to kill possible microbes. Chemicals must be allowed to sit for a specific time before being rinsed with clean water. A disinfectant does not clean dirt, it kills microbes. The chemicals in disinfectants are harsh and registered with the EPA as pesticides. Using these chemicals can trigger asthma and, over time, promote antimicrobial resistance. They should be used sparingly and only according to the label.

Cleaning with mild detergent and water is effective and will reduce or eliminate the need for sanitizers and disinfectants. However, if a disinfectant is deemed necessary it should be applied to a clean surface and rinsed with water afterward. Otherwise, the disinfectant will cause a residue build-up that attracts dirt, weakens the effectiveness of future disinfectants, destroys the finish materials, and endangers the people who touch the surface.

In other words, it doesn’t take a cannon to kill a fly.

Why non-porous materials are used in design.

Sometimes a designer will recommend non-porous material when the risk of fluid exposure is likely, which is more about protecting a cushion from being soiled or contaminated by liquid than anything else. There are also fabrics treated to repel both stains and liquids. These options are as easy to clean as non-porous materials if the right products, tools, and patience are used.

The best way for a designer to determine if a material is right for a space is to understand the abrasion resistance, lightfastness, flame resistance, fiber content, color, and pattern. However, even if the qualities of the material are in alignment with the use of the space, the care and maintenance given will enhance or limit the power of that material to make your environment safer.

Creating more opportunities for good hygiene.

We have known for nearly a century and a half that hand washing is a highly effective way to limit the spread of disease. While we can’t force people to wash their hands, we can make hand washing sinks more prevalent and more attractive to encourage their use.

A designer can assist you with selecting materials that hold up to the use of your space, are aesthetically pleasing, and complement both your architecture and user experience goals. But, no matter how resilient a finish material may be two things are certain, all finishes need to be cleaned regularly and no finish will survive repeated exposure to disinfectants that are left on the surface.

As we continue to navigate this health crisis, we’ll remain steadfast in encouraging clients to not miss the forest for the trees. This is a unique situation that, yes, will likely change how we design buildings in the future. However, the enjoyment and feel of a space are incredibly important and still possible when cared for properly.


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