Q&A with Tracy Kijewski-Correa: The lasting impact the pandemic will have on infrastructure, design, and society

Author: Brandi Wampler

Bj 12

On Friday, December 4, 2020, the University of Notre Dame’s Health and Well-being Initiative is hosting the “COVID-19: What Comes Next” virtual forum. Open to the public, this event will feature speakers addressing four topics including women's health, infrastructure, education, and social underpinnings. In this Q&A, Tracy Kijewski-Correa, Leo E. and Patti Ruth Linbeck Collegiate Chair and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences and associate professor of global affairs, discusses her research and upcoming presentation. To register for the virtual forum, please click here.

1. What issues or questions led you to participate in the “COVID-19: What Comes Next” virtual forum?

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis continues to expose both superficial and fundamental fractures in the links that connect our built environment to the health and welfare of our communities. While there may be a tendency to characterize COVID-19 as exclusively a public health issue, the built environment (and the engineered systems that link its elements) has both mitigated and exacerbated the pace of COVID-19’s march around the globe, calling into question the role of engineering in the mitigation of pandemics. In short, if we are not careful, our “designed” physical proximity—achieved through highly spatially (and economically) efficient workplaces and similar facilities—could literally kill us. As an engineer who took an oath (Code of Ethics for Engineers) to protect the public with my designs, the pandemic has just raised the bar to new levels. 

2. Please provide a summary of your presentation, “Joint Hazard Mitigation in the Era of COVID-19: Implications for Design and Operation of the Built Environment."

A properly designed built environment is critical to mitigating a highly contagious virus. Unfortunately, our current buildings were never designed for such functions. In fact, the assumptions and operating conditions we initially assumed in their design have been completely upended by COVID-19, demanding that we critically reexamine our approach to building design. This is largely the result of our adoption of a centralized infrastructure, which efficiently delivers important societal services through a limited number of critical facilities with specific functions. While effective from the perspective of cost and risk mitigation, these systems are not redundant, flexible, or accommodating of the most vulnerable populations in our society. With further evidence that this pandemic will not only persist, but be the first of many, we must now factor this into the way we design, construct, and operate our built environment. This presentation will explore some of the dilemmas we are facing in that process: 

  1. With most of the nation’s education and livelihoods now operating out of private residences never designed for these functions, how can we better design our homes for this new normal? 
  2. Given their newfound criticality, how can we deliver more resilient homes to minimize displacement in disasters like hurricanes and avoid compound risks of mass evacuations during a pandemic? 
  3. How can we call for a more human-centered approach to design of facilities, like nursing homes, that holistically considers the vulnerability of its occupants? 
  4. With industry trends suggesting potentially permanent virtual workforces, how will we repurpose our cities for this new reality where entirely new modes of work may leave our buildings obsolete? 

3. What do you think is the role of the greater community in adapting the built environment in preventing the transmission of COVID-19? 

The built environment is nested within a wider system of societal services and systems—it both depends upon and enables the delivery of those services. Thus, any adaptation of the built environment will require adaptation of those services and systems. This affects everything from how we finance this adaptation, how we adjust our regulatory environment to enable this adaptation, and how we encourage innovation and creativity to drive this adaptation — all systems of government, private sector, and other agencies associated with architecture, engineering, and construction must be agile. Most importantly, we must find ways to do this cost-effectively and in a way that incentivizes the consumer (those who will live and work in these buildings) to be willing to invest in making these adaptations.

4. How do you think the virtual forum can further support scholarship or collaboration on this topic?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has emphasized how complex, interconnected, and, thus, interdependent our society is. This pandemic will not be addressed solely through a public health response, as it affects and is in turn affected by all other sectors of society, including my sector of the built environment. The pandemic has also taught us how woefully inadequate our society’s various services and systems were for a challenge like this. It revealed inequities, inefficiencies, and vulnerabilities in so many institutions and essential services. Thus, it is essential that our response be holistic and interdisciplinary—it is my hope the virtual forum sets that tone, engaging other scholars in different fields examining specific aspects of the problem, so we all can gain new perspectives that will push our work forward in more holistic ways. I further hope it will spur some collaborations as others hear of the issues my project is examining and volunteer their expertise or networks in support of this work.

5. What will be the next steps in this work after the forum for the community and/or research?

With our funding from the National Science Foundation, we are currently engaged in a two-year project to develop and disseminate an empirically-grounded research framework for the investigation of the impacts of pandemic joint hazards on society, with particular emphasis on the role of engineered structures and services in mitigating those impacts. The framework will be used as a platform for convening researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and thought leaders around this topic to re-conceptualize our current design process to deliver a more equitable, functional, and safer built environment. The learnings from these discussions will culminate in a research agenda that we will promote within professional associations, federal agencies, and the scholarly community to ensure we have the research infrastructure ready to respond to a future that is likely to be marked by highly disruptive pandemics jointly occurring with other hazards.

Kijewski-Correa is the co-director of the Integration Lab and associated with Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative and the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate. She will present during the “COVID-19: What Comes Next” virtual forum on Friday, December 4, 2020, between 10-10:45 a.m. View the full forum schedule of speakers and other details at hwi.nd.edu/news-events/events/2020/12/04/covid-19-what-comes-next-forum.  


Brandi Wampler / Research Communications Specialist

Notre Dame Research / University of Notre Dame

brandiwampler@nd.edu / +1.574.631.8183

research.nd.edu / @UNDResearch

About Notre Dame Research:

The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see research.nd.edu or @UNDResearch.