Although ventilation is known to prevent disease, many modern buildings are sealed environments with fixed windows or windows that are opened rarely. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the dangers of this approach. If not adequately filtered, recirculated air spreads viral particles indoors.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a public reckoning and challenged architects to rely less on complex mechanical systems that pollute the environment.

Content from the exhibition Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics, curated by MASS Design Group and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

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Ventilation for a Hospital, 1869
Engineer Lewis W. Leeds (American, 1829–1896) was responsible for ventilating government hospitals in the 1860s. He used fresh air flow to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. In this drawing of a hospital, foul air exits through vents near the floor.

Schematic drawing of a domestic interior with directional arrows showing how air circulates from the lowest part of a room to the highest part and back down

Diagram: Lewis W. Leeds, Man’s Own Breath Is His Greatest Enemy, 1869

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Circulation of Indoor Air, 1869
This drawing shows how fresh air is pulled through the room by the chimney. The clean air mostly hits the back of the person’s head. Thus, someone seated upside down would inhale more fresh air than someone seated normally.

Two almost identical drawings, one on top of the other, illustrating a seated light-skinned person leisurely reading a newspaper in front of a smoking fireplace. The upper drawing depicts the person seated normally in front of the fire, the lower drawing depicts the seated person completely upside down.

Diagram: Lewis W. Leeds, Man’s Own Breath Is His Greatest Enemy, 1869

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Bellevue New Building, New York, New York, USA, 1973
This gigantic hospital encloses an entire Manhattan city block. When the building opened, workers questioned its massive scale and the lack of light in its windowless core.

Plan view of an illustration of a square hospital building

Designed by Pomerance and Brienes in association with Katz, Waisman, Weber, Strauss, and Blumenkranz, view, typical floor plan, redrawn by MASS Design Group

Featured Image: Diagram: Lewis W. Leeds, Man’s Own Breath Is His Greatest Enemy, 1869

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