The Space Needle opened 60 years ago with a nod toward futuristic architecture. Inside the iconic Seattle structure today, the Needle is still focused on the future, deploying technology that it hopes will help it deal with public health concerns beyond COVID-19.
The Needle has turned to Population, a San Francisco-based startup selling a far-UVC device for businesses that can be installed on ceilings or walls to help eliminate harmful viruses and bacteria. A study earlier this year found that far-UVC systems can reduce airborne disease transmission.
The Needle is testing Population’s tech in one of its three elevators, which take about 45 seconds to get from the ground to the upper observation deck, and where people are obviously prone to be in close proximity to one another. The hope is that installing this solution will keep the Needle from having to constantly adjust down the road.
The lights are in conjunction with an aggressive fresh air approach. Joel Dazey, special project manager for the Needle and neighboring Chihuly Garden and Glass, said the Needle elevators do one air change per minute, as opposed to the accepted norm of 1.5 to three air changes per hour.
“In some areas, we have better air changes than your average hospital public areas,” Dazey said.
In July 2020, four months after closing at the outset of the pandemic, Needle officials spent $1 million on an array of devices intended to rid the air and surfaces of harmful viruses. The investment in cleaning technology was aimed at helping the popular tourist attraction get back to the business of showing off its 600-foot-high views.
A lot has been learned nearly three years into the pandemic.
“Back in the early COVID times, we basically wanted to implement this Swiss cheese approach,” said Dazey. “We purchased some of everything. We didn’t know exactly how well it would work, but we figured that spending the money was worth it from a health perspective.”
Some of that “everything” included far-UVC “sanitizing” body scanners at the front gates; electrostatic disinfectant sprayers for surfaces; and a portable UV-C light machine on wheels to zap bathrooms. He called those days the “Wild West of sanitation hardware.”
“Now we’re on to a more targeted, intentional approach,” Dazey said, expressing confidence in what’s known about far-UVC light — both in its ability to kill pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 and its safety around people.
Something’s working, at least when it comes to attracting visitors.
The Space Needle has recovered to about 90% of its pre-pandemic attendance, according to a spokesperson. But the safety focus is also heavily geared toward the 100 or so employees working on site every day.
“The pandemic has shown us that cleaner, safer, healthier air in our buildings need to be a priority, and if those benefits can extend to reducing sick days for a company, we have a win,” Megan Groves, CEO and founder at Population, said in a statement.
Dazey, whose job usually involves performing a mix of research, development, and implementation of hardware and software for the Needle, said he’s spent a good deal of his time since COVID arrived “collecting brains.” By that he means finding and bringing in people who know how to combat pathogens and aerosolized diseases, or know what steps workplaces should be taking.
Martin Cohen is one of those people, as a professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington.
Cohen worked closely with Dazey early in the pandemic and brought a class he was teaching — hazard recognition in industry — to the Needle.
“We go to different work sites and see what hazards there are and what controls there are,” Cohen said. “I decided to take them to the Space Needle to see what one company has done to reopen successfully after COVID first struck.”
He said the Needle has been very flexible in terms of figuring what technology wasn’t working and getting rid of it. And they aren’t just worried about COVID, but about other current viruses (influenza, norovirus, etc.) and ones that are still to come.
“The Space Needle, aside from being futuristic looking, they really try to be futuristic in their approach to operating,” Cohen said. “They’re really interested in being on the leading edge.”