How Can Architects Help in a Post Covid-19 World?

How Can Architects Help in a Post Covid-19 World?
Nicholas FaillaJune 25, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought with it major changes to the way we live, and not just for the short term. Social distancing has become the new social norm. Many of us are working from home. Our social lives have been severely restricted, and when interactions outside our homes are permitted they are modified by; avoiding touching surfaces, maintaining good hygiene, and physically distancing ourselves between one another. If history is anything to go by, major pandemics such as COVID-19 bring with it lasting change in society, ultimately, by design. 

It might be tempting to think that at some point the pandemic will be over and we will go back to life “as normal”. But it’s likely that the “as normal” will never be the same again. One gets the feeling that we will live, work, and socialize differently. Our homes will change, but more so, our workplaces, venues, stores, community spaces, and public institutions & infrastructure, that have direct contact with the wider population regularly. 

As architects, we should recognize this as a challenge and more importantly as an opportunity. We can start thinking differently about how to design spaces in a way that mitigates the health risks that Covid-19 pandemic brought with it, but more broadly, improving our neighborhoods and cities to be better and more resilient for the future.  

Many businesses are now realizing that their staff can work from home and be productive, without negatively impacting on the performance of the company. While there are still issues around a permanent remote working future, this is certainly where we are headed. We will see a shift in the typical workplace environment, from contactless pathways in office buildings to flexible workweeks or staggered start and stop times, with some suggesting there could be a mix between office work for connecting with others and virtual arrangements for the bulk of the day to day tasks.  

There has already been a lot of discussion about the merit of open plan office design and the concept of hot desking. It might be tempting to think simply of providing more square meters per person, but the larger picture is that the cost of building office space is unlikely to change and businesses will no doubt face a challenge of higher rents. Meaning a rethink of the overall need for office space at all, thereby, focusing more on the reuse of these buildings as we move to remote workforces.

The design questions for architects are really about how to reconcile the benefits of human interaction in the workplace with the health risks associated with maintaining adequate social distancing. Design consideration for the selections of materials will need to be thought through. For example, smooth surfaces are easier to clean and maintain. We will need to evaluate new anti-bacterial product technology, the construction & arrangement of tapware, door furniture, lift call buttons etc., the frequency and locations of handwashing & sanitization facilities. Perhaps touchless tech such as infrared controls or voice activation might become more appropriate alternatives to the typical design standards we currently see.

Another phenomenon associated with the Covid-19 pandemic is that restrictions on travel and industry have resulted in less pollution in the world’s densest population centers, where pollution is a major negative environmental factor, as well as a health risk. Whilst not specifically just Coronavirus related, a broader issue of healthier environments presents itself again. People want to feel better about the environments they live in. As we spend 1/3 of our lives at work, safe and beneficial workplaces are important. Therefore, air filtration technology, operable windows coupled with heating/cooling systems will come into stronger focus, along with greenery and integration of outdoor spaces, non-toxic materials, the ability to ride to work, and the appropriate infrastructure to do so.

The typical high-rise office-building model will need to be reviewed. Practicing social distancing puts into question the concept of moving people vertically in a multistorey building using lifts. Travelling to work on crowded public transport poses similar questions. This could be answered by looking at density and decentralisation. 

This “new normal” shift in design cannot just be limited to architectural or engineering fields. There is a great opportunity for urban planning to play a role in reshaping our cities to be safer and healthier environments. There is also the task of implementing policies at a government level to encourage remote working initiatives or move work closer to where we live in - reducing reliance on public transport and personal car travel. These are issues that go beyond the ability of just architects, but must be influenced by the industry as a whole.

Our politicians, planners and local councils need to play their part. Why not look at the way development is controlled? Zoning of land and more flexible planning controls are, at times, an obstacle to allowing cities to evolve and develop in a way that would get us on a path to healthier, more socially inclusive, and prosperous places.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that as a society we can do better and we can all play our part.

Article written by:

Nicholas Failla

Nicholas is a content writer and graphic designer who is passionate about cities, architecture, urban planning and sustainable communities.

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