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Interior design lessons from the coronavirus

We should think differently about our material and finish choices. I wish I lived in Tottenville. It’s a town imagined by Waldemar Kaempffert of the New York Times in 1950 and published in Popular Mechanics, imagining what life will be like in 2000. “Tottenville is as clean as a whistle […]

We should think differently about our material and finish choices.

I wish I lived in Tottenville. It’s a town imagined by Waldemar Kaempffert of the New York Times in 1950 and published in Popular Mechanics, imagining what life will be like in 2000. “Tottenville is as clean as a whistle and quiet. It is a crime to burn raw coal and pollute air with smoke and soot. In the homes electricity is used to warm walls and to cook.”

When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors – all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) Jane turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. Jane Dobson throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but Jane Dobson has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order.

This might well be the perfect home for dealing with viruses – make everything out of plastic and everything in it disposable. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if we didn’t also have a climate crisis, and had to stop making plastics and burning stuff.

But we do have to think about making our homes easier to clean and disinfect. We have talked previously about the design of homes and also the benefits of minimalist furnishings, but what can we actually make our homes from that makes them safer and healthier in the face of something like the coronavirus?

Materials matter.

A very recent study by the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton University scientists have looked at how long this coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2, stays active on various materials. First of all, they found that the virus remained viable in aerosols for the length of the experiments or three hours. This contradicts our earlier reporting where I suggested that a HEPA filter was probably unnecessary; it might be a nice thing to have after all.

The virus seems to survive longest on smooth surfaces like plastics (72 hours) and stainless steel (48 hours) and a shorter time on paper, cardboard or clothing (24 hours.) The biggest surprise was the performance of copper; the virus was gone in four hours.

Bring back the Brass and Copper

Our front doorOur front door where I stupidly just put a stainless knob on a brass plate/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The antimicrobial properties of copper have long been known. Mark Wilson of Fast Company writes:

When influenzas, bacteria like E. coli, superbugs like MRSA, or even coronaviruses land on most hard surfaces, they can live for up to four to five days. But when they land on copper, and copper alloys like brass, they die within minutes. “We’ve seen viruses just blow apart,” says Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton. “They land on copper and it just degrades them.”

Buildings used to have brass door hardware, and even brass push-plates on doors. In my own house I have been so mixed up that I put a stainless lockset on a brass plate, which was dumb, because copper and brass have been tested:

In 2015, researchers working on a Department of Defense grant compared infection rates at three hospitals, and found that when copper alloys were used in three hospitals, it reduced infection rates by 58%. A similar study was done in 2016 inside a pediatric intensive care unit, which charted a similarly impressive reduction in infection rate.


I have never been fond of carpeted floors and even fought over putting a rug in our living room. Floors should be easily washable and not give bugs places to hide. But even with solid floors, there are options. Vinyl flooring, now rebranded as LVT for Luxury Vinyl Tile, is making a comeback; even that greenest of flooring companies, Interface, is making it.

However, we have always made the case for linoleum, which is made from completely natural materials. And unlike vinyl, it actually has natural bacteria-killing properties. That’s one reason it has been used in hospitals for years (beside the fact that it is easy to keep clean). Forbo, maker of Marmoleum, the most popular brand of linoleum, commissioned a study and found that it inhibited the growth of MRSA and other pathogens. Another study found that it killed the Norovirus, although there is no research regarding Sars and other coronaviruses.

The tests have proven that Marmoleum not only inhibits the growth of MRSA, but excepting the most extreme laboratory testing conditions, MRSA actually loses viability in its presence, i.e. MRSA is killed. The antibacterial activity of Marmoleum flooring means that Staphylococcus aureus (including MRSA strains commonly associated with hospital acquired infections) is less likely to survive, thereby reducing the risk of spread.


Our other favorite TreeHugger material is cork, also completely natural and also antibacterial. Again, what works with bacteria doesn’t necessarily mean that it works with coronaviruses, but still, a recent study showed:

Cork displayed high antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, with a bacterial reduction of almost 100% (96.93%) after 90 minutes of incubation, similar to the one obtained with ACA. A more reduced but time-constant antibacterial action was observed against Escherichia coli (36% reduction of the initial number of bacterial colonies).

Concrete and Tile

These are easy to keep clean; in my own home, on the lower level, I have a concrete floor with epoxy paint on it, and it is a breeze to keep clean, even more so than the ceramic tile that I have in the bathroom, which has all that grout.


Terrazzo detailsTerrazzo details/ Architectural Graphic Standards/CC BY 2.0

This is much like concrete, where pretty stones are put in cement and then ground smooth. It used to be almost the standard flooring in hospitals, lasting forever, easy to clean, and you could run it up the walls in curved or splayed bases so that it was easy to mop clean. But like my 50-year-old architectural graphic standards book, you don’t see this much anymore.

Wood Flooring

maple flooring30 year old maple flooring in my house/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have covered the Pros and cons of 6 different kinds of wood floors. Most wood floors today are really a thin layer of polyurethane on top of the wood, not sealing the entire floor as it used to when it was done on-site. So you cannot really wash it down with a bucket, as the water gets between the boards. In an engineered wood floor it will cause it to quickly deteriorate. There are many benefits to wood floors, especially when they are real wood, that is certified to be sustainably harvested, preferably close to home. But in terms of this discussion, it is probably not the best choice when dealing with the coronavirus.


I may not be crazy about wood for floors, but I love it for walls, for the same reasons they did in Florida a hundred years ago when they built the walls out of cypress wood: after a flood or a hurricane it just dries out. Nothing grows on it. Meanwhile, after Katrina, every New Orleans house that was made of drywall had to be stripped out; the hundred-year-old cypress ones were just fine. As we also know from the studies, the coronavirus doesn’t last as long on rougher surfaces like this, which might be closer to cardboard when it comes to survival time.

view from den© Craig A. Williams

Even today, you don’t have to use drywall; in my own home where I did an addition, I left the exposed brick back wall of the original house, and finished the ceiling in wood. There is some drywall on the new rear wall, but I try to minimize it.

Get rid of the paper-faced drywall.

Georgia Pacific fiberglass faced drywallGeorgia Pacific fiberglass faced drywall/Promo image

Drywall is ridiculous stuff. The paper facing is just food for mold and disintegrates at the sight of water. For just a bit more money you can get it with a fiberglass facing. It is more durable, moisture and mold resistant. It can take the abuse if you have to wash it down to disinfect it.


stair landing© Stone’s Throw Design/ Riley Scott

Architect Terrell Wong of Stone’s Throw design likes wood but also clay-based plaster “to improve sound quality, improve durability and avoid toxins, mold vulnerability and embodied energy of drywall.” It has a beautiful smooth finish that is easy to clean.


ceramics© Ceragres via V2com

I am really liking these giant porcelain tiles that come in sizes of up to 5’x10′. There are no grout lines to clean, and while we know that the coronavirus lasts a long time on smooth surfaces, but this would definitely pass the Mrs. Dobson test, she could fire her hose at this wall all day long. According to Ceragres,

Porcelain stoneware slabs are made using the most modern sintering technologies. This compact material is resistant to stress, wear and tear and trampling and is resistant to chemical products, mould, frost and fire. The 6-mm thickness offers flexibility and ease of cutting, drilling and transport.

In conclusion: Everything should be washable.

60s armstrong ad60s Armstrong flooring ad/Promo image

I may have spent the last 10 years complaining about vinyl and plastics, but there is a reason that they were so popular– they were comfy underfoot and incredibly easy to keep clean. But they are not the only choice. The key question should be: Can you clean it easily? Does it stand up to water? Does it pass the Dobson test? This is how we have to think about these things now.

We should think differently about our material and finish choices.

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