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COVID-19 is changing design paradigms

May 05, 2020

By Percy “Rebel” Roberts

What will design look like when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic?

We can’t know exactly what the world and our daily lives will look like when we emerge from the pandemic. But, we can predict that design, technology, and the way we live will be very different. While this new normal may be many months or even years away, it’s time for designers and their clients to start considering the ways—broadly speaking—that the various corners of our lives will be transformed by this outbreak and what new considerations we will carry with us into post-pandemic design.

Enterprise-wide health 

Who looks after our well-being has been a significant question raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Enterprise-wide health sees the value of influencing individual health at the organizational level. Local governments, private companies, and institutions all have an interest in keeping every one of us healthy. We’ve seen wellness arise as a business concern in recent years, as institutional and private employers have grown conscious of how it impacts recruitment, retention, productivity, and profitability. Protecting the business goes hand-in-hand with protecting individual health. Enterprise-wide health is an awareness that the environment affects the employee and that the business or institution benefits from taking a deep interest in helping their people choose the healthiest, most productive way to live.

Pre-check spaces

At present, those of us who venture to a doctor’s appointment or work in a hospital may be pre-checked for fever or other symptoms and required to wear a mask before we can access the space. That pre-check procedure is likely to continue perhaps indefinitely in some contexts. So, from a design standpoint, the question becomes how we design that transition zone with necessary negative air pressure and ensure that those entering are vetted before they reach more public areas. 

The business or institution benefits from taking a deep interest in helping their people choose the healthiest, most productive way to live.

The business or institution benefits from taking a deep interest in helping their people choose the healthiest, most productive way to live.

Virtual education, virtual work

If a city school system needed to find a way to accommodate more students in a booming neighborhood, should it spend money on a new building, or should it invest in technology? What’s the balance between bricks and mortar versus digital infrastructure and bandwidth that it needs to serve its students and stay relevant? COVID-19 has shifted countless communities to temporary home and remote education situations. Education was already going through a technology-driven transformation, but now we’ve been forced to quickly embrace virtual and online education. This will affect our design for education at every level in profound ways. Virtual Reality (VR) and remote work will similarly upend our notions of where and how we work and learn day-to-day and what spaces and technology we require.

Shared spaces

Online education expands the footprint of a university. Major universities already offer accelerated programs with remote learning and concentrated core times, such as three days a month for in-class work. In a post-pandemic world, we may see more of these programs. That opens up time for these classrooms and academic buildings for alternative uses and means academic institutions may need fewer but much more flexible classrooms. The sky is the limit for the utilization of these spaces for educational programs, public outreach, and community education. What does this shared space type look like, versus a five-day-a-week traditional classroom? The design of the building that houses these classrooms may look different than a traditional sort of higher education building too. 

Educational spaces design with more inherent flexibility and types of learning environments can support a wider range of uses and users.

No-touch access, remote controls

Touchless will be the new paradigm shoving aside remaining tactile, mechanical controls. Our smartphone will continue to emerge as a tool to control environments we enter, from the workplace to the ballpark, the parking garage kiosk to residential high rises. Apps and voice activation will give us building access, climate control, and touchless entry to spaces. The smart office will respond to users and give access to bathrooms, storage, and other spaces based on their security level.

Air filtration

Technology can make a big difference in buildings seeking better air filtration. Typically, engineers measure the number of air changes in a room per hour. A living room may get one or two changes per day, while a hospital ER requires 10 to 20 air changes per hour. In the wake of the highly infectious COVID-19, we will see a wave of increased interest in HEPA-filtered air, air change rates, and overall enhanced air quality, even at the residential level.

Core time, distancing, and foot traffic

The office layout and its density are going to change dramatically. We may see employers apply the idea of “core time” and hoteling more widely in the workplace. In this mode, a space might be used Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by one group, and Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday by another set to reduce the overall density of occupation. Core time allows for face-to-face collaboration as well as sense of community alongside the advantages of remote work. Concentrated core time will reduce the number of people in a space at one time. Simultaneously, we are likely to see a strong desire emerge for more doors, more walls, and space between distributed workstations—much different from where we were yesterday. 

Employers might need to extend the workday to allow for this lower density of occupation and time shifting arrangement, which presents us with a new set of design-related needs, such as more task lighting for example. In every place where we find people, from workplace to healthcare, we’ll see an effort to reduce foot traffic. In healthcare, if we could reduce the amount of foot traffic in patient rooms by half, we can likely further boost safety and mitigate infection. We could, for example, move some of this patient room access to serving units or cabinets (sometimes called “nurse servers”) reachable from the corridor. We can further reduce foot traffic through the use of integrative technologies such as instant video chat, observation, and telemetry where healthcare professionals monitor patient vitals remotely in real time. These technologies could also be used to monitor patients at home. Design innovations that reduce access to the patient zone and reduce foot traffic are likely to improve health outcomes. 

Concept for a healthcare space that incorporates suggested interventions to minimize physical contact and unnecessary foot traffic, while still supporting patient care.

Learning from crisis: Turning down the volume on retail

There are things we can learn from this pandemic about what we don’t need or are designing too much of. For years, the designer has seen retail as a way to activate and enliven the streetscape. And for good reason. But with the lockdown and stay-in-place requirements, we may not see retail bounce back to where it was. Likewise, we are seeing fewer cars on the road and more streets used as de facto pedestrian walkways for distancing purposes. Can we do with fewer car-dedicated streets? We absolutely can. Are there ways to activate neighborhoods with ground-floor programs that serve the community, not just retail? Very likely yes. 

Designing for a livable planet, walkable communities

We have seen how a mass embrace of remote work has reduced vehicular traffic, fossil fuel consumption, and smog. Can we learn from this? In many ways, design thinking about walkable communities, transit-oriented development, and the work of pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs—author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities—who championed livable cities, has been validated. Combined with a greater degree of acceptance for remote work in society, designers can keep pushing for pedestrian-friendly environments. We’ve long advocated for urban places where one can walk to any of the basic amenities and services needed for everyday life. The lesson for us designers is to keep on pushing in this direction but continue to seek design and planning solutions that depress the need for the automobile and reduce carbon emissions. In light of what we have learned from the pandemic, designers can agree that carbon reduction, climate change mitigation, and personal health promotion should be our new mantra.

The Scioto Greenways Project is an excellent example of how to create accessible outside space adjacent to the downtown core, in support of the mental and physical health of urban residents and workers.

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