April 17, 2020

Concern surrounding the spread of infectious diseases is at an all-time high. As we become increasingly intelligent on how these diseases are spread, we remain keenly aware of the most common transmission method: through physical contact with frequently touched surfaces.  By reducing the need to interact with these surfaces, we can greatly reduce our exposure to germs and impede the spread of illness.  This can be achieved through various “smart” technologies and automated building systems. As it stands, we strive to integrate automation, sensors, and various intelligent systems into our buildings when possible, typically in the name of energy efficiency or convenience. While preventing the spread of illness has been a concern in certain applications, healthcare facilities for example, it has been relatively low on the priority list. Our collective focus has already started to shift, however, and hygienic design strategies will become even more important as we go forward. These strategies can be integrated into our homes, businesses, and other spaces to take advantage of the health, and other, benefits they offer.

The most commonly available technologies with touch-free capabilities include occupancy and proximity sensors, voice activated controls, and automation systems (including timers, geo-fencing, sequencing, etc.) These systems have been around for some time and you most likely have encountered them at some point. Newer technologies such as facial recognition and retina scanning technologies, are starting to gain traction and can also provide touch-free solutions with the added benefit of security. These features can be integrated into a building in numerous ways. They can be integrated into individual fixtures or appliances, entire building systems, or any combination of these. While sometimes overlapping, they each offer different advantages based on their use.


Occupancy and proximity sensor technology is probably the oldest and most widely used of all hands-free technology. It is used for all types of building components including automatic doors, light switches, faucets, toilets, soap and paper towel dispensers, thermostats, and various other building components. This is built on motion-sensor technology, which is improving rapidly due to the sophistication of the sensors. These devices usually operate independently of an automation system, but it’s a relatively simple concept; the sensor is activated by motion, which triggers a controller, which activates the element. The parameters for this sequence vary by fixture, but the principle is essentially the same for all in this category. This is more of a “passive” technology, so the system functions with little to no required input other than a person’s physical presence or proximity to the element (such as waving your hand under the faucet). It is more widely used in commercial buildings than residential but is appropriate for either. While a seemingly simple technology, these sensors effectively eliminate the need to physically interact with many things that transmit the most bacteria in our daily lives, such as faucet handles, toilet handles, soap and paper towel dispensers, among others. We tend to take this technology for granted, but these fixtures greatly reduce the spread of disease and infections.


Voice-activated technology is used for all types of building components but works best in applications where on-demand control of a component is desired. This is more of an “active” technology that requires some form of input from the user. In this case physical input is replaced with verbal commands. Therefore, in respect to buildings, voice activation works best with lights, thermostats, door locks, blinds, and audio-visual equipment. However, the list of products is ever growing, for example faucets can now dispense exact measurements of water, and the latest refrigerators can generate shopping lists based on the contents of the refrigerator, which are sent to your mobile device, all by voice command. The options keep growing, but the technology is dependent upon the input system, such as a special listening device or a mobile phone. This ultimately comes down to the need for an automation system.


Automation systems are typically the backbone of any smart building. While there are exceptions to this, most smart fixtures will need a controller of some kind. The automation system itself typically provides this control, enabling touch-free management of devices in a variety of ways. You can schedule timers for lights (a simple on/off schedule), routines for temperature controls (various temperature levels throughout the day), and setup “scenes” based on an activity (command a group of elements).  In addition, when you add an external input device, such as a smart phone or listening device, the options are much greater. For example, geo-fencing allows the automation system to track the GPS signal in a user’s phone to execute specific pre-determined commands.  One example of this would be programming a thermostat or set of lights to turn on when within a certain distance from your home. Going a step further, these features can be combined so that an entire series of actions can take place without touching a single switch.


The technologies and features mentioned here are by no means an exhaustive list.  As the technology advances, so do the possibilities. Also, there are many more benefits to their integration beyond hygiene. Many, if not all, of these technologies were developed for other reasons entirely, mainly energy efficiency, accessibility, safety, and security.  Occupancy sensors on light switches reduce wasted electricity in unoccupied rooms. Proximity sensors on automatic doors assist those that cannot open doors on their own. Near-Field Communication (NFC) allows individuals to pay at the register in a more secure way. The list goes on. What all these have in common is that they are all touch-free actions.


Going forward as designers, we will be looking at these technologies with a renewed perspective. As densities within cities and buildings continues to increase, so does our need for more hygienic design practices. Autonomous systems will play a huge role in this effort.  Our team at Design Styles Architecture understands the importance weighing all the benefits these systems have to offer and how to correctly implement them into various projects types, whether it’s a commercial building, education facility, or residential building.  Especially in the case of hygiene, it’s all about the details.