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Dinner in a “snow globe”—one designer’s plan to help restaurants during a COVID-19 winter

November 11, 2020

How might we stimulate safe and accessible outdoor winter dining during the pandemic? Chicago design competition offers options.

Dining outdoors has emerged as a safe way we can support our local restaurants and get out of the house during the pandemic. But winter is coming to cities across North America. And the Independent Restaurant Coalition says that the US is already at risk of losing as many as 85% of independent restaurants by the end of 2020. The restaurant industry and cities are looking for solutions that can support these businesses and maintain a vibrant urban or suburban living experience.

How can we make outdoor dining safe and comfortable and support the hard-hit restaurant industry? Sounds like a design challenge to me!

The City of Chicago recently hosted a winter dining design challenge and with a couple days to myself over the Labor Day weekend, I created and submitted a design, Nosh Pods, which was judged among the Top Ideas phase of the competition.

How can restaurants in wintry cities like Chicago provide outdoor dining? A recent design competition wanted to provide answers.

The point of the challenge was to generate ideas for how Chicago could facilitate dining outside safely with social distancing in mind during the winter months. Led by the City with support from BMO Harris Bank, Illinois Restaurant Association, and IDEO, the City of Chicago Winter Design Challenge asked designers to submit concepts that would stimulate and encourage safe outdoor dining and entertainment during cold winter months. Designers were asked to submit their concepts in three categories:

  1. Outdoor, standalone structures
  2. Indoor-adjacent spaces
  3. Cultural shifts making winter dining more appealing

All the concepts had to comply with local COVID-19 guidelines. BMO Harris Bank’s support includes opportunities for a winner in each category to pilot their idea at restaurants and bars in the City. 

Colleagues in my Chicago office considered teaming up on a submission, but with limited time for collaboration we chose to submit individually. Initially, I played with some ideas using shipping containers, but I wanted to create something original and better suited to the design brief. The snow globe was my inspiration. I quickly worked out the layout of the snow globe design concept, which I soon began to call “the Nosh Pod.”

The design for Nosh Pods by author and Chicago designer Justin Harris feature brightly painted exteriors to contrast with the winter landscape.

Playful and bold

The snow globe was meant to playful, inspired by the idea of a snowy wintery Chicago and an outdoor enclosure for enjoying it. I wanted the Nosh Pod to look intentional, not something thrown together and just placed ad hoc.

The Nosh Pod is bright red. When I think about how drab the landscape can be in Chicago during winter, I thought having something bright would stand out and be welcoming. It’s like having a backdrop of a snow-covered landscape with a tree with red berries in the foreground.

An octagon

The Nosh Pod is very deliberately an octagon with six seats. The octagonal shape nods to the globe. Restaurant dining rooms typically have table seating for an even number of patrons—two-tops, four-tops, sometimes six or eight-tops in industry parlance—so I wanted to make one of those dining experiences possible. I felt like six is a good size. It allows the restaurant to serve a larger party so that the time, effort, and expense of implementing the outdoor dining pod is worthwhile. 

Nosh Pods offer seating for up to six people and are heated.

A practical approach

I needed a practical approach for implementation. How can I design an object that references a snow globe but is also easily reproduceable offsite? And how can I integrate seating as part of the construction and create a continuous surface for ease of wiping down? Those goals really started to inform my design approach.

The Nosh Pod’s simple plan and wood frame construction allows offsite prefabrication of the assembly, which is easily transportable. And its polyurethan coated tabletop is easy to maintain.

Equitable and accessible

It was important for me to design something that was equitable—able to accommodate someone in a wheelchair or with an assistive device. The challenge became how to achieve that universal accessibility without sacrificing the dining experience. I studied the geometry for that. And the octagon, truncated in this case, makes that possible.

It was important for me to design something that could be brought to any restaurant—including mom and pop operations—that might not have outdoor dining space of their own.

Flexible and reconfigurable

I liked the footprint that the octagon offered, which could be grouped in a circle or lined up. It offers the restaurant user flexibility in configuration that can produce a visually interesting grouping.

It was important for me to design something that could be brought to any restaurant—including mom and pop operations—that might not have outdoor dining space of their own. So, I thought about the placement of the Nosh Pods within the footprint that fits in the standard Chicago parking space on the street against the curb as a way to maintain accessibility and use streetscape rather than depend solely on the availability of sidewalk or outdoor dining space.

A group of Nosh Pods can fit in parking spaces near a restaurant.

Simple yet detailed

With only 18 hours to pull together from sketch to submission, I ruled out more complex solutions and submitted a concept I was comfortable with.

While mostly conceptual, I’ve also included details like time-delayed infrared (or UV) lighting—a detail inspired by my conversations with healthcare workers about light in infection control. (Read more about UV lighting in building infection control.) I also included an electric radiant heating strategy, cooling for multi-season use, and ventilation schemes, even wireless music/sound capability—all the aspects necessary to deliver occupant comfort and safety, while providing a rich dining experience.

As a designer, I’m concerned with technical aspects as it relates to construction. I like the challenge of making concepts buildable. That was at the forefront for this design, to create something that if given to a contractor, they could construct quickly and easily, without a lot of questions.

With the current surge in infections, this winter will be especially tough on city dwellers. Small businesses, especially restaurants, will need to be flexible and adaptable to survive. I am excited to see how restaurants accommodate more outdoor dining, and I look forward to dining safely and comfortably outside soon.

‘Nosh Pods’ was selected from 640-plus submissions for the 60 Top Designs. Read the Top 60 Innovative Designs booklet (Justin’s design is featured on page 54) here

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