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Raefer Wallis photographed in the lobby of One Museum Place in Shanghai, China, on April 20, 2019. He is a former architect and the creator of Reset, a platform that monitors real time indoor health data in buildings.

Raul Ariano/The Globe and Mail

Raefer Wallis watched the pandemic sweep China from a front-row seat in Shanghai. As an architect, he didn’t know much about viruses. But Mr. Wallis is among the world’s authorities on managing interior air, and he quickly discovered that what he learned about filtering smog from buildings in China would take on global importance as office workers, developers and city managers alike look for ways to keep indoor spaces safe.

The lessons he learned from fighting the worst days of Chinese air pollution, in other words, could serve as a blueprint for redesigning and rebuilding cities around the world to make them less vulnerable to contagion – if not for this pandemic, then for the next one.

Mr. Wallis, a Canadian, is at the global forefront of analyzing indoor air quality and finding ways to improve it. He founded RESET, a company that has pioneered standards to monitor the health of buildings. Everything he has learned is “now being directly, 100 per cent applied to COVID, because it’s the same damn thing. It’s just airborne particles,” he says. But instead of belching coal stacks, it’s now a deadly virus that needs scrubbing.

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The best response to COVID-19 and smog alike, he says, comes down to gathering precise data and then drawing plans in the finest of strokes. “The solutions we’ve seen to be the most effective are the ones where filtration is hyper-local,” says Mr. Wallis. “And this is what Asia started doing back in 2007 and 2008.”

He draws an analogy to government. If a country such as Canada ran only with a federal system, “some things would be more efficient. But the needs of the people locally would be pretty poorly served.”

So, too, with buildings that manage air through a central filtration system, which draws dirty air – and any viruses it may contain – across large spaces before cleaning it. It’s “a pretty gross way to handle human needs,” he says.

Better, he says, to install networks of smaller filters that can, for example, be bolted to the ceiling above the heads of workers, where “they’re just scrubbing the air locally. Then those virus particles aren’t travelling.”

Such systems can also be tuned to respond to the number of people in a given space, increasing filtration when needed and saving energy when rooms are more empty. It’s something that “places in China figured out years ago,” he says. “I’ve spent 15 years on this, and the big lesson is just how complex air quality is.”

But as he watches the global rush to respond to COVID-19, “I see everybody else making the same mistakes,” he says. “It just drives me absolutely nuts watching everybody starting to prepare to spend all this cash they don’t have on filters that are not in the right places.”

Mr. Wallis advocates gathering data to evaluate performance rather than relying on equipment settings. Manuals may have guidelines for how often a building’s air needs to be changed, but those criteria are designed for broad averages of occupancy. Proper measurements can determine how a system can be tweaked to match a building’s actual conditions.

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If that all sounds expensive, Mr. Wallis points to research that shows better air makes for healthier and more effective workers. Productivity gains can offset much of the cost of upgrading building systems.

The pandemic has also shown that doing it right makes it possible to transform buildings from danger zones into safe spaces, he says. “It does not remove the risk of someone coming and coughing in your face,” he says. But in an office that’s properly managed with data, the odds of virus transmission are low, “and it’s possible to get it down near to zero.”

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