As the coronavirus pandemic continues and the public seeks information regarding the effectiveness of mask wearing, a recent study by an Ithaca architecture firm offers a local perspective. Holt Architects published a study in conjunction with M/E Engineering on Aug. 5 that indicated wearing a mask does limit the spread when compared to not doing so.
So far, Holt has released two videos of the study, both illustrating the efficacy of masks. The first video includes footage of the now-empty office and the simulation of a person infected with COVID-19 coughing three times over 10 minutes without a mask. In the second video, the same simulation occurs but with four coughs, and this time the person is wearing a mask.
The difference is stark. In the first video, the person’s infectious cloud—colored blue, green, or red depending on the Human Infectious Dose percentage—disperses across the entirety of the office space. But the second video shows the same droplets remaining closer to the person’s work space, highlighting the mask’s effectiveness.
Steve Hugo, Principal at Holt, said the study was prompted by some employees’ interest in returning to the office space, located at 619 W State Street, and if they could sit at their desks unmasked. Holt executed the study of its office utilizing Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) technology to create simulations with M/E to predict the flow of fluid in the air within and around the office space.
Scott Reynolds, Manager of the Computer Aided Engineering Solutions (CAES) group at M/E, said the study provides a point of view to clear up the misinformation surrounding interactions during a pandemic, specifically how to social distance at work.
“We wanted to put some parameters on [the study] in terms of an office environment where you’re there eight hours a day, either fully staffed and partially staffed and how the virus could spread within the office during that typical work day,” he said.
As divisive arguments over wearing masks continue, seen as either a personal choice or obligation to public health and safety, Hugo said he hopes the results of the study will push people to consider wearing a mask more often.
“A lot of people have read some of the guidelines to mean that if you’re six feet apart from each other indoors, you don’t have to wear a mask, and I think people are […] going to be rethinking that, and I think we’re ahead of the curve with regard to that,” he said.
The masks in question were double or triple layer cloth masks covering both the mouth and nose. Rob Shutts, a Project Manager at Holt in Syracuse who coordinated contact between Holt and M/E, said choosing between cloth and N95 masks came down to the likelihood that employees would have better access to or prefer a cloth mask.
Shutts also said as architects and engineers, their methodology offers a different perspective on how studies like this can be performed. He said CFD technology is often used by architects on projects to evaluate how smoke spreads in a space in the event of a fire. With this study, the same approach and concept applies.
However, he said that because he is not a healthcare professional, he hopes this study will give insight into Holt’s operations specifically, not as a general rule for all businesses to replicate.
“It’s gonna be different in different spaces, a school space versus an office with a different type of air distribution system,” Shutts said. “The point that we wanted to make is that it’s part of our process to make informed decisions on what we do with our space and […] give people some thought that maybe it’s worth looking at their own individual space.”
The third video, not yet published, will discuss Holt’s practices moving forward with potentially repopulating its office, though Shutts said he thinks Holt’s office in Syracuse will likely remain working virtually. Hugo said that currently some employees have started working in Holt’s office in Ithaca again, but because so few people decided to return, each employee has their own private room to work in.
“We wanted to share what knowledge or what information we had to […] help our clients and other people,” Hugo said. “We’re very open to engaging in conversations with anybody who’s trying to continue brainstorming what the best solutions are to make spaces safer for people.”