Architects and Designers Will Need to Adapt Buildings and Interior Spaces for a COVID-19 World


In normal times, there is a natural evolution of trends. These can ebb and flow as one jumps ahead and another takes a step back. We’ve seen topics, like sustainability, durability, security and indoor environmental quality, jockey for position in recent years.

New interior layouts and decreasing density will bring a sense of confidence back to employees as they embark on a phased return to the office.

But there are times when circumstances step in and propel an issue forward. With the spread of COVID-19 around the world, the building community is now faced with a major challenge: How can buildings be made safe for people to work, interact, shop and socialize?

“We’re trying to understand design strategies that will bring a sense of confidence back to building space so the public will feel that they can re-engage and do things like go back to work safely,” says Kevin Heinly, principal managing director of Gensler’s San Diego office. Heinly is also the Global Work Sector co-leader for the firm and sits on Gensler’s COVID-19 task force.

“We’re looking at the reality that people will have a different view of shared spaces and this may change their experiences,” says Susan Chung, Ph.D., director, research and knowledge management at the American Society of Interior Designers. “Will the idea of personal space and proxemics change, and will that create a new way of thinking about density in a space? How do you ensure that people have the confidence that a space they are entering is healthy and does not put them in danger?”

Focus on Wellness

Although COVID-19 has moved occupant health and wellness ahead of other issues in building design and operation, the concept isn’t new. LEED has addressed the idea of indoor environmental quality, and the International WELL Building Institute’s rating system has been attracting more attention in recent years. On the manufacturer side, health product declarations, or HPDs, encourage transparency and the development of products that support the health of building occupants.

But the pandemic has radically changed the game. No longer are these measures a matter of preference. Now, creating space that is healthy and safe enough to confidently occupy is a matter of physical and economic life and death. First and foremost, owners, landlords and employers need to address a few basics to get people back into shared spaces.

Density: It is well known that COVID-19 spreads through airborne transmission and it is important for people to be able to social distance. Because many building types have traditionally been designed to maximize real estate by flowing as many people as possible into the smallest area, some changes in design, behavior and practice are required.

Future space typologies

“We know that with social-distance mandates in most states, we’re going to see phased returns with less density,” Heinly predicts. “In an office, we may initially see only half of the workforce going back. If there are benching workstations where employees sit just 5-feet across from each other, you’d have to de-densify the seating. Perhaps seats or desks will be staggered to maintain social distance.”

“We need to examine what needs to be implemented to change behavior in the space,” Chung says. “A physical component like distance markers could be used in spacing things out and making sure people are farther apart. I also think about circulation patterns. You can widen pathways or create multiple paths to and from destinations, with visual guides, so people are less likely to cross close by each other.”

Although layouts and interior flow can be adjusted, decreasing density ultimately means having fewer occupants in the space at a given time. For retail and restaurants, that may mean a limit on how many patrons can be inside. For offices, this adds fuel to an existing conversation about working in the office versus telecommuting. Employers will need to seek a new balance. Employees may work from home some days and in the office on others.

“Some companies who didn’t skip a beat with employees working from home may realize they can reduce their office footprint by 25 percent and save money on real-estate costs,” Heinly predicts. “But we are firm believers that the office is not going away. It is very important to the culture of an organization. It is a place to learn, socialize, meet and collaborate. We may just discover the office doesn’t have to have as many desks.”

IMAGES: (c) Gensler

About the Author

Allan Barry
Allan Barry writes about architecture and sustainability from Chicago.

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