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A blog from CityRealty (Links below will take you to the 6sqft site)


(Photo from the Park Imperial, 64th floor via Sotheby's International) (Photo from the Park Imperial, 64th floor via Sotheby's International)
Wuhan, Milan, and New York City are among the cities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. Located on three different continents, these cities are remarkably different, but they do share one thing in common—high-rise living. Naturally, this has already led many people to conclude that while high-rise living may not be to blame for the COVID-19 pandemic, it has contributed to its spread. But is living in a high-rise building necessarily a health risk? And if so, could we build healthier high-rise buildings to guard against future pandemics?
Unfortunately, for anyone who happens to live in a high-rise building, living close to neighbors does not appear to be the best option during a viral epidemic or pandemic. There are four potential reasons high-density, high-rise living may increase one’s chances of contracting a virus: faulty plumbing, recycled air, increased contact with high-touch surfaces, and the inability to engage in social distancing practices. However, there are still many things that high-rise dwellers can do to lower their risk. In the future, there is hope that we may even see an increased focus on pandemic-resistant building design.

Faulty Plumbing

In the aftermath of the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, Emerging Infectious Disease published a study exploring the community outbreak of SARS at the Amoy Gardens—a high-rise residential complex in Hong Kong where 329 residents, all living in the same block, came down with SARS and 42 died. The authors of the study found a notably higher viral load in patients residing in adjacent units of the same block inhabited by patient zero. They also found lower viral loads detected in patients living further away from patient zero. The study suggests that at least in the case of SARS, living next door to or even on the same floor as an infected individual increased one’s chances of contracting the virus and one’s chances of carrying a higher viral load.
Other studies on the SARS outbreak at Amoy Gardens have reached similar conclusions, and one 2006 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health even offered a possible explanation for the rapid transmission of SARS at Amoy Gardens. The researchers concluded that the virus likely traveled from unit-to-unit via faulty bathroom floor drains. In February 2020, a similar explanation was initially proposed as an explanation when a cluster of COVID-19 appeared in a Hong Kong high-rise , though faulty plumbing was later ruled out as a culprit in that case.
Plumbing trap high rise Plumbing trap and two-pipe highrise plumbing system
So, could faulty plumbing potentially spread a virus from apartment to apartment in the United States? It is generally assumed that the only way for a virus to spread from apartment to apartment via pipes is if there is no water in the U-shaped pipe traps (also known as U-traps) that connect floor drains. If devoid of water, U-traps could permit droplets containing viruses to travel through the pipes of a building. Fortunately, this is highly unlikely to happen in any New York City high-rise building since North American plumbing is designed to ensure the U-trap is never empty. But even if faulty plumbing isn’t a likely problem for New Yorkers, high-rise living may still place one at higher risk during a pandemic.
View from the Oxford #21C (Douglas Elliman)

Recirculated and Poorly Filtered Air

Recirculated and inadequately filtrated air is a culprit in the spread of diseases and could be a factor in the spread of COVID-19, though there have been no conclusive studies on this yet. However, as Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently observed in the New York Times, the real problem isn’t air in high-density buildings but rather how this air is managed. As Dr. Allen notes, “Buildings typically recirculate some air, which has been shown to lead to a higher risk of infection during outbreaks.” However, he also suggests that there are many things building managers and even tenants can do to mitigate the potential problems posed by recirculated air. Most buildings use low-grade filters that only capture about 20 percent of viral particles. Using a filter with a MERV rating of 13 or higher can help capture up to 80 percent of viral particles. Portable air purifiers can also help. Raising humidity levels is another strategy since, as Dr. Allen notes, viruses survive better in low humidity. The most effective way to deal with potentially bad air, however, is simple—open your windows and keep them open at least a crack at all times.
via Anytime HVAC (

High-touch Surfaces

The most likely source of viral spread in any high-rise building is via high-touch surfaces. In this case, the evidence is indisputable. As per CDC guidelines , to avoid COVID-19, clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly. For high-rise dwellers, this can be challenging. If you live in a single-family home and put your garbage out for curbside pick-up, you can easily do so without touching surfaces that have been touched by people outside your own home. If you live in a high-rise building, this is impossible since this simple task, which you may do several times each day, requires touching multiple high-touch surfaces. Disposing of trash is just one challenge. Using a high-rise building’s elevator also means engaging with a high-touch surface. In the face of COVID-19, buildings have increased their cleaning of high-touch surfaces, but even with increased precautions, as a high-rise resident, one must assume that all the surfaces outside their unit are potential sources of contamination.
Typical high-rise elevator panel (Wikipedia)

Social Distancing

A final and obvious way in which high-rise dwellers face increased risks concerns social distancing. We’ve now all been told to stay at least six feet away from people outside our own home, but as any New Yorker knows, few elevators permit for such distancing measures. Likewise, if you live in a high-rise building, whenever you come and go from your unit, the likelihood of brushing past one or more individuals is exceptionally high. While social distancing is a great idea and may work for people who live in single-family homes, for many urbanites, social distancing guidelines are extremely difficult to put into practice.

Pandemic Proof Buildings

This raises a rather obvious question and one that designers around the world are likely already contemplating: Could we design pandemic proof buildings?
While we may not be able to prevent future pandemics through design, there are many things designers can already do to mitigate the spread of viruses in buildings, promote social distancing, and even detect viruses. As Luke Leung, director of sustainable engineering at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, recently told Fast Company , “Buildings have to be the secret weapon in the future to combat infectious diseases.”
At least a few fixes are simple—for example, ensuring a building’s plumbing is up to code, improving air quality by installing higher-quality filters, and adjusting humidity levels. It could also be possible to reduce the number of high-touch surfaces in buildings by installing voice- or motion-activated interfaces on elevators and in other high-touch areas. Low-tech solutions, such as installing handwashing stations outside all elevators and other high-touch areas, could also help reduce the spread of viruses. In China, some buildings have already been rewired for detection purposes. Many buildings take people’s temperatures as they enter using either an infrared thermometer or thermal imaging.
Some measures, especially those focused on detection, may receive pushback in the United States where people seem unlikely to consent to having their health status monitored as they go in and out of buildings. However, in a post-COVID-19 era, public attitudes on health and building design both seem bound to undergo a radical change.
Sotheby's International Real Estate Credit: Sotheby's International Real Estate

Additional Info About the Building

Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.
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