Over the past year, it has become clear that by far, one of the largest changes moving forward in design for airports and other high-traffic facilities is the widespread, heightened interest in using mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems to help mitigate the spread of infectious disease.

While much of the technology being considered has existed for years, building owners and facility managers have been hard-pressed to incur the marginal increase in costs it would take to utilize some of these systems in large buildings. That mindset is changing as public health and peace of mind prove to be worth the cost.

Specialty systems design is becoming a massive industry. Whether it is retrofitting existing systems or designing buildings with the latest MEP technological advances, engineering and design firms are being asked more frequently to design systems that could improve air quality and reduce the spread and exposure of disease in large facilities. As technologies, lessons learned and best practices emerge, there are several potential trends to watch.

Interest in Specialty Systems

To help alleviate contaminants on surfaces, touchless technologies such as mobile apps, facial recognition programs and temperature scanning software are becoming more common in high-traffic facilities. Likewise, needlepoint bipolar ionization, dry hydrogen peroxide portable delivery systems, and specialized antimicrobial metals and coatings — which are all designed to kill and remove pathogens from surfaces and the air — are being considered on a broader scale in large public spaces.

Improved Air Filtration and Sanitization Systems

Improved, high-quality air filtration strategies such as using high-efficiency air particle (HEPA) capture, photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) are likely to be increasingly adopted. Owners and operators of large facilities could consider integrating HEPA filters into heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. These specialized air purifiers trap damaging particles in the air as small as 0.3 microns. Additionally, PCO systems involve a newer air purification technology that can help destroy particles as small as 0.001 microns. Photocatalysis is the process of forcing chemical reactions using a photocatalyst and light. Use of this form of air protection can also result in lower long-term costs for power consumption and maintenance.

Increased Ventilation Rates and Changes in Air Sources and Volume

As a result of the pandemic, the MEP industry has been forced to reexamine how air is managed in buildings. Increasing ventilation beyond ASHRAE’s minimum 62.1 standard for acceptable indoor air quality may be reassessed. Additionally, recirculated air distribution is being reconsidered in favor of more eco-friendly options. Moving forward, increasing the volume of air circulated from outside will likely become the norm. There will also be more refined systems for monitoring air quality. Implementing demand control ventilation strategies so HVAC systems can react to real-time data captured through facility instrumentation will be a critical component for improving air quality in high-traffic areas.

Installing UVGI or blue light systems can help destroy air contaminants by producing short wavelength light that damages the nucleus of microorganisms’ cells. UVGI systems can be installed in the ducts of HVAC systems. In addition, high-tech air scrubbers that have the flexibility to be attached to walls and ceilings or inserted into ductwork could very well be a trend of the future.

Continued Prefabrication Growth

Today’s design software and technology is exact and extremely detailed, allowing construction and design firms to know with precision what to expect from end products. This is a benefit to the prefabrication industry, which has been growing in momentum in recent years. Because of travel restrictions and limitations regarding the number of people allowed in particular areas, COVID-19 significantly impacted on-site construction, drawing attention to the benefits of prefabrication and modular assembly.


As technology strives to keep up with ever-evolving science, perhaps one of the biggest trends in design, engineering and construction is a renewed interest in robust commissioning. In addition to offering a financial return on investment, commissioning can help reduce change orders and project costs, result in fewer contractor claims and callbacks, decrease project delays, and improve scheduling and communication. There are four types of commissioning: new construction, recommissioning, retro-commissioning and monitoring-based commissioning, with the latter leading the way in projected industry growth.

Regardless of the type of MEP system installed or retrofitted in a facility, the success of the system can hinge on whether or not it was properly commissioned. This includes design, installation, testing, operations and maintenance to meet the building owner's needs.

Maintaining good air quality in high-traffic, high volume facilities is a huge priority for facility managers and building owner operators. As the world begins to rebound from the pandemic, it is worth investing in these trends to help high-traffic facilities like airports, restaurants and sports venues continue to operate in a manner that is safe for employees, visitors to the facilities and residents in surrounding communities.


As society faces a constantly evolving future, owners and operators of large facilities, like aviation facilities, need efficient, cost-effective solutions that better address issues like environmental challenges and safety concerns.

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Anthony Gianpetro, PE, ENV SP, LEED-AP, is a mechanical engineer who has worked for Burns & McDonnell in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for nearly 10 years. He is an active member of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and is one of the lead engineers working on one of the firm’s most ambitious airport projects: the Delta Air Lines Terminal Redevelopment project at LaGuardia Airport.