The detection of polio in sewage last month was declared a national incident and marks the first polio transmission since the 1980s. Alongside the spread of monkeypox, it is a grim reminder that another global health crisis could be around the corner.

Jo Cowen

Jo Cowen

If another pandemic takes place in the next 60 years, the social, economic and health cost to the UK will be huge. A recent Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) study put the average cost of pandemics over the next six decades at £23bn every year, more than the Treasury spends on policing, R&D or foreign aid annually – not to mention the lives that will be lost or damaged.

The RAEng has developed a package of measures to make the built environment more infection resilient. RAEng urges the British Standards Institute to develop standards for infection resilience in buildings, public transport and retrofitting projects. These standards should be embedded in the codes and guides the sector already uses, such as the WELL Building Standard, RIBA Plan of Work stages and BREEAM.

Fresh thinking is crucial to future-proofing workplaces and homes against the next pandemic, building in design sympathetic to public health from the outset. Also recommended is to embed a minimum standard for infection resilience in building regulations for developments, providing standards allowing regulators, including local authorities, to monitor and enforce infection resilience in buildings.

The enforcement of regulations is important because it is not clear whether designing infection-resilient buildings will be profitable. Attitudes on this changed during the pandemic. In 2020-21, surveys showed workers valued personal safety in the office above all, touch-free technology and temperature scanners being almost as important as wifi. Many believe a renewed focus on health will be necessary for office buildings to perform.

Fresh thinking is crucial to future-proof workplaces and homes against the next pandemic

The RAEng report shows footfall and revenue were often driven more by visible measures than by effective ones. Ventilation makes a big difference to the spread of airborne infections in a building, but it operates invisibly in the background. People often feel safer in buildings with less effective but highly visible measures like hand sanitiser, which is partly why many shops still have dispensers. The vaccine rollout has made many feel safe again in unmodified buildings, so without enforcement, there probably isn’t an incentive for the far-reaching change required.

Finally, infection resilience should be built into the government’s plans to retrofit homes to improve the efficiency of our housing stock – the oldest in Europe. This is likely to involve installing touch-free technology, high-quality ventilation and monitors that make indoor air quality more visible to occupants – lessons learnt from the pandemic.

Ensuring that infection-resilience measures reinforce other goals – community generation, placemaking and net zero targets – requires talented architects and masterplanners. My experience suggests it will be possible. For example, our designs for Present Made’s single-family build-to-rent scheme at Eddington, Cambridge, include ecology corridors and shared gardens that bring nature and community together with the natural ventilation of the outdoors.

The built environment’s power to prevent disease is enormous, but we must make sure the industry is informed enough to act. The human and economic cost could both be devastating if we hesitate.

Jo Cowen is chief executive of Jo Cowen Architects