The challenges of post-quarantine design

What will buildings and public spaces look like “after” Covid-19? Architects and designers started to think about this soon after the first wave of shutdowns began in mid-March. There are a lot of ideas and opinions, ranging from “nothing will change” to “everything will change” – and every possible angle in between. We are not just thinking about what our clients’ spaces might look like: we are also struggling to determine how our own offices need to evolve to make sure everyone can safely return to work.

Cushman & Wakefield has proposed a new concept for commercial office space that is largely based on physical distancing.  Featuring a distinctive dark carpet circle around each desk, the design concept tries to reinforce the need for each individual’s “bubble”.

The concept of the 6-Feet Office from real estate company Cushman & Wakefield is taking the idea of physical distancing back to work.

That concept would certainly impact the amount of square footage that a company needs, and consequently its bottom line.  To balance the increased real estate costs, will people be encouraged to keep working at home? Perhaps some will come to the same realization that I have: that I need the structure of my office.

Our new, larger office….

Will the large, open office go away and be replaced with something more protective, like clear panels around each desk? Or maybe a return to tall cubicles and private offices (the same office landscape that it replaced)?  Some large companies are thinking seriously about going back in time with their office design.
What about hospitals?  Houses, offices, stores, and parks? Restaurants and bars? Is this the end of the big box store, or the end of the family-owned Main Street shop? Will retail stores have to keep limiting the number of people who can come in at a time? How will small shops be able to function if physical distancing remains a long-term requirement?

A few days ago, my partner and I did a Home Depot run to get supplies for our new office. There was a line outside to get in, and staff at the entrance and exit to keep track with counters. Only 100 people could be in the store at a time. We saw only a couple of people without masks (there were signs at the entrance requiring face coverings).  Only one person freaked out because he couldn’t walk through the Exit door like he always did (while accusing the staff who stopped him of being “the Police”).

Will grocery stores look like this permanently?

We don’t usually do single-family residential projects, but it will be really interesting to see what happens after people spend weeks staring at their kitchens, or home offices, or front vestibules. What will change? What should change?

What about interior finish materials?  A colleague asked me recently about seating fabrics in public areas:  will we now have to use only anti-microbial or healthcare-grade vinyl fabrics, for cleanability and disinfecting? What about wall surfaces, countertops, and door hardware? Will copper make a comeback?

We have so many more questions than answers right now, and that’s totally fine.  It’s a good time to question everything we know about built space and urban spaces*. In fact, question everything we know about everything we design and make. As one friend said, it’s a good time to step waaayyy back and push the “reset” button. 

The only thing that I am certain about in my practice is that our design work will need to be more thoughtful and people-focused than ever before.  It will be innovative out of sheer necessity, because we have never been through this before.  We have a lot to learn.    

*follow urban design Twitterers like Brent Toderian and Kaid Benfield for more on that topic.   

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