Reboot Readiness: A Primer on How to Design for Contagions

  • Deborah Wingler, PhD
  • Upali Nanda, PhD
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In December 2019, Wuhan, China, became ground zero for a global pandemic that, in the first few months of 2020, has brought the global economy and life as we once knew it, to a halt. Almost every country has dealt with it and continues to deal with it, in slightly different ways, while being united in a need to contain and mitigate the emerging infectious disease known as COVID-19.

As we return to spaces left void by the emergence of COVID-19, it will be essential to understand how the events of the last several months have reshaped not only our social fabric but also the environments where we work, live, play, and receive care. Much like the sustainability movement, which enlightens us to concepts such as “global warming” and “carbon footprint,” the insurgence of the novel respiratory virus COVID-19 has increased public awareness of the need for prevention and control strategies to reduce the global threat of contagion.

What is needed as a design community to be equipped for COVID, and its successors, is a simple primer that sets us up to design for contagions. In the attached report, we take a stab at a basic 101 on how to design for contagions while addressing psychological and physical safety needs.

Transmission prevention needs a nested systems approach:

At a variety of levels, we must:

With this awareness, a newfound sense of social responsibility and connectedness has emerged that will likely influence how users will interact with the built environment for decades. We have been battling a lethal virus that is difficult to detect because of a lack of preparedness and knowledge. However, preparing for any kind of contagion in a preventative way that promotes physical as well as psychological safety can give us a certain resilience to combat the next wave of this pandemic or a completely new one. Just like natural disasters caused by climate change, contagions have become an increasing threat because of a fundamental tear in our public health infrastructure. This will fundamentally change the way we work, live, play, and heal. This ever-present threat of contagion that has already radically changed and continues to transform how we interact with each other, is also an opportunity to re-imagine our buildings, our cities, and our societies.


Casey Lindberg, PhD, Assoc. AIA 

Tommy Zakrzewski, PhD, BEMP, CEM, CMVP, LEED O+M, LEED BD+C

Graphics & Design:

Melissa Hoelting, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP


Rand Ekman

Alison Avendt

Michelle Jutt

Sarah Holton

Deborah Wingler, PhD

Dr. Deborah Wingler is the Health Research Lead at HKS. She works with HKS' research and design teams to develop and implement initiatives that achieve meaningful, measurable outcomes. As the mother of a pediatric cancer care survivor, Deborah understands that we must design health care environments that support the health and well-being of all.

Upali Nanda, PhD

Dr. Upali Nanda is a Principal and Director of Research at HKS. Based in Detroit, Upali has extensive experience leading research projects in design practice with a focus on the impact of design on human health and perception. She is executive director of Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation, or CADRE, the research arm of HKS, and teaches as the Associate Professor of Practice at the Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning at University of Michigan.