An article by Deji Adejuyigbe

These days, hearing “Excuse me, two meters apart!” then looking down at the floor markings have made us all more spatially aware than ever before – well, that and the ongoing global pandemic.

The coronavirus has shown us that our current way of living and the spaces we dwell in have in fact aided and abetted the spread of germs. Within a matter of weeks, we have all gone from shaking hands to awkward greeting gestures, obscure definitions of personal space to physical barriers. And now ‘harmless’ coughs in public are met with contemptuous glares.

These days soap, disinfectants, and hand sanitizers are your new best friends in the fight against COVID-19 – but perhaps, Architects should be our new best friends.

Can Architects really do anything to help?

Most people would not typically associate Architects with the cure for anything. But Architects aren’t just designers, they are problem solvers. Spatial adaptation to a pandemic is a necessity, and we are pretty good at it.

In the early 20th century, European Architects saw design as a sovereign remedy to the scourge of tuberculosis which plagued overcrowded cities where germs and bacteria thrive. Architectural intervention played a hand in remolding inhabited spaces into safer environments.

Diseases are often associated with dark, unsanitary, damp and congested environments, and as such, spatial redesign tends to gravitate towards ideas contrasting this. Aided with developments in medical treatment of course, much of modernist Architecture seems to portray a desire to eradicate dark, murky corners where bacteria lurk and build upwards off the ground.

Buildings by Architects such as Alvar Aalto used materials and design methodologies that were uncommon at the time but were actually similar to that of a hospital when examined further. White walls, bare floors, and clean metal fixtures to encourage a hygienic lifestyle. Modernist Architecture often utilizes panoramic windows which  track the path of the sun through the day, maximizing sunlight to kill tuberculosis bacteria. This is just one of several ways Architects help to design safe environments.

As the world slowly reopens and we remerge out of isolation, there is a need to adapt to the new realities and question our built environment. The coronavirus has altered our perceptions and our priorities so we must act in order to be safe. No one knows for certain what the future will look like, but we do know what methods have played huge roes in keeping us safe. And now, designers and Architects must innovate for us to move forward safely.

The Healthy Household

Whether it’s the lockdown or a self-imposed quarantine that’s got you trapped at home, you may have found yourself scrutinizing your personal surroundings lately. The shortcomings of our homes as flexible spaces that function as a workplace, lounge, dining and bedroom have been magnified tenfold: experiencing the lack of ventilation in one room and the cold floor tiles in that other dimly lit room for days on end could easily lead people to consider healthier building design strategies. Want to design for wellness? Think large windows, spaces for exercise, access to nature, improved ventilation, daylight and even a few potted plants. These kinds of changes represent a quick and positive impact on our perception and how we feel within our homes.

Spending long periods in one space without change quite easily have you feeling constrained and bored. But imagine if you could alter your space to suit your activities at that moment. By designing homes with the same principles we apply to museums and exhibition spaces, you could do so much with very little. An open space with moveable partitions on rails, furniture on wheels and acoustic divisions could allow for a quick makeover in turning a part of your living room into a convenient workspace for your mid-afternoon Zoom calls.

source: dezeen
source: dezeen
source: dezeen

The form of the home will follow its function in real-time as each activity demands a suitable space. It is about maximizing how much you can get out of a single space, removing the limitations that static walls invoke and being able to switch between personal bubbles and larger spaces keep things fresh. These kinds of techniques will likely be widely adopted to create versatile dwellings with the added benefit of accommodating social distancing. This strategy might even expand to offices and schools. 

The Fluid Workplace

Before coronavirus, we assumed the office to be the most optimal work environment for productivity away from distractions. These past few months our collective work-from-home experiences have challenged that notion. Lockdown extensions and pressing deadlines in a dwindling job market have forced us to adapt quickly and efficiently. As more businesses reopen, ad-hoc strategies will need to be put in place as we reconsider the future of the office model post-COVID-19.

Staying safe within organizations does not have to be about building glass booths. We could utilize invisible and virtual barriers to keep workers safe. If independent work behind a desk can be accomplished at home, then the office should be designed for situations that require in-person collaboration. The post-pandemic office space will encourage a flexible work environment by allowing employees to expand and reconfigure demountable walls within a modular layout to suit their needs through-out the day.

These days all most of us need is a computer to work effectively. As most of us get better at working remotely, more of us will expect to do so more often. Therefore, focused work could take place at home and offices would be redesigned for collaborative work and meetings where virtual meetings will not be as effective. The key would be to combine working from home and office life in a way that strengthens wellbeing and enhances performance.

Can we redesign cities amidst a pandemic?

Fear of the coronavirus spreading prevents us from using our public spaces. Using them as intended puts us all at risk, but how can we be together while remaining apart?

When designing to co-exist with the coronavirus, distance, flexible spaces and compartmentalization are key guidelines to follow. But an immediate and effective strategy would be population control within public spaces. Without early mitigation measures, densely populated cities have proven to be particularly adept at spreading the virus amongst inhabitants.  The rapid spread has left us considering putting city-wide human zoning regulations into practice.

Simple Design Tools
One might think navigating the space between social distancing safety protocols and the integration of these strategies in cities en masse would naturally require significant design intervention, but the solutions are quite simple.

Outdoor Congregation

One easy solution is altering outdoor spaces with floor markings to indicate safe zones individuals can occupy without coming in contact with one another instead of physical barriers. They have proven to be quite effective outside grocery stores. It would be worth testing out in parks or sporting grounds as the markings make us more conscious of how we use public spaces. People could even be encouraged make a game out of it.

source: shift architects

Indoor Congregation

Meeting without putting yourself and others at risk is a pitfall mass transportation and indoor activities face. Institutions such as schools and churches have had to adopt a completely online model in the meantime to function.

With social distancing measures in place however, many indoor services would have to reduce their indoor capacities when they reopen. Many businesses do not have deep pockets for massive renovation schemes and would have to come up with clever strategies to keep both employees and guests safe.

By simply utilizing a hybrid of indoor and outdoor spaces, restaurants would be tremendously reducing the risk of recycled contaminated air within a singular confined space.

Minimizing the number of contact surfaces a guest has to use keeps everyone safe, automated doors or a doorman would do the job. 

Reducing occupancy capacity and employing single route circulation of people through spaces will reduce the likelihood of unnecessary surface contact.

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By passively occupying the spaces we use on a daily basis we’ve allowed ourselves to fall victim to the risks of infection. Now our hyper consciousness of the coronavirus threat has left us rushing toilet paper aisles and dreading doorknobs.

The cure for the coronavirus is not going to be developed by Architects, but Architecture and spatial design can help provide a safer and healthier living experience for us all right now and in the near future, while we wait for those who can.