The pandemic has exacted a huge societal cost and forced a rethink of nearly every industry, most certainly architecture, said Wesley Walls, AIA, principal with Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects in Little Rock.
However, generational shifts such as this can and often do result in a refreshed and even improved way of viewing the world and the built environments in which we live, work, worship and play,” Walls said.
Walls said the pandemic will serve as a reminder to architects about the value of fundamental, logical design strategies as simple as designing out-swinging restroom doors to limiting physical touch post-hand wash, or perhaps rediscovering the value of operable windows and access to fresh air.
“Thankfully, many automated building features well-suited for limiting physical contact and transmission such as operable doors and motion-sensor lighting systems/plumbing fixtures were already in place due to energy code requirements,” Wall said.
With respect to workplace environments and office furniture systems, there had been a recent shift toward “benching” configurations, where the layout was linear along a shared worktop with little to no physical dividers. For obvious reasons, this is no longer a desirable trend. Wall said additional attention must be given to physical dividers, orientation of workstations and even the way people circulate through a building to mitigate transmission.
One area that may take some time to ascertain the long-term impacts is whether HVAC systems should include more air circulation and sanitation. Bringing in more fresh air can also increase energy costs.
“Building HVAC systems are complex and expensive, not just initial costs, but to operate,” Walls said. “A lot of research on creating healthier building environments should be forthcoming about the most effective way to balance the need to maximize filtration and circulation while minimizing energy costs. While there are some effective retrofit strategies, the results from these studies will take some time to trickle more permanently into marketplace applications.”
Ultraviolet light air sterilization systems and other technologies which remove bacteria and reduce other particulates from rooms have been available for quite some time, but are now being perfected because of COVID awareness, said Ryan Biles, AIA, an architect based in Lonoke.
Biles said mechanical contractor Russell Ivy of Lonoke Service Company recommended that his team consider this technology at The Grumpy Rabbit restaurant in Lonoke when it was designing the project this past spring.
“Because of his awareness of the technology and restaurant owner Gina Wiertelak’s desire to prioritize patron health and comfort, the system was installed as part of the building construction rather than as an afterthought or retrofit.”
Working indoors is inevitable for most of the year in most of Arkansas, but when given the option to work in a shaded outdoor space with wifi and access to other meeting spaces, Biles believes most employees would prefer this. He expects developers and architects to consider and embrace ways to increase flexible outdoor space in designs for new and renovation construction.
“I would like to suggest a shift in emphasis to quality outdoor spaces and well-designed landscapes that focus on human comfort and habitability,” Biles said. “This means careful consideration of proportion, screening, separation from parking areas and views, as well as the access to fresh air and room to stretch out. If architects consider the current emphasis on public health as a defining shift in our approach to design, I think we can raise our collective awareness and subsequently our design approach to consider the best way to create indoor and outdoor spaces that allow users to be good neighbors.”
Architects are experiencing a moment when they can step up to the plate and advance great solutions for their clients with the willingness to shift thinking to adapt to a new, dynamic reality, he added.
“I believe that the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 is making a systemic impact where temporary measures and quick-to-market innovations developed as a response to the spread of disease may find a permanent home in the library of solutions from which architects derive and innovate for our clients.”
The big picture is that the disruption of the pandemic and resulting impacts on the daily routine will play a large role in how towns and cities are shaped going forward, and for the long term, said Brad Kingsley, AIA, a principal with Hufft who leads the company’s Northwest Arkansas studio.
“As we continue moving to digital platforms for interaction and the exchange of ideas, the fabric of the physical city will change and adapt,” Kingsley said. “What will be more important than ever is to design places where people can come together and create real, meaningful connections.”
He expects the biggest changes in office design will be influenced by the “work from home/work from anywhere” model that was accelerated by the pandemic. Technology integration will be the dominant factor in creating hybrid environments that facilitate in-person and remote collaboration equally. Kingsley expects that there will be a lot of existing spaces that go through retrofits, and audio visual and acoustics will be important considerations.
“I don’t think total square footages will necessarily reduce, but I do think there will be more thought to how spaces can be used differently and more efficiently,” Kingsley said. “For new construction, it will be more important than ever for employees to be in urban environments where they can easily come and go. The convenience of suburban offices, where people used to spend eight hours of their day, will not be as desirable or seem as convenient as they once were.”
Kingsley said the biggest changes in restaurant design, especially in fast-casual and café concepts, will be at the customer touch points, like how food is delivered or how trash is disposed. How can food service providers reduce the number of times items are passed around?
“Like offices, I think other disruptions will come from the acceleration of people working from anywhere,” Kingsley said. “This shift could really change the scale and location of fast casual and café establishments. I think these spaces will be more integrated into existing neighborhoods and commercial centers as remote workers come and go more frequently. More flexible seating and technology integration will need to be provided, maybe even meeting space inside a café. I think restaurants will become hybrid work environments, with the goal to keep a customer there all day.”
He also anticipates that adaptive reuse will be dominant though there’s still uncertainty in how new office space will be used. He can see companies being more comfortable retrofitting existing spaces instead of investing in new construction. The same thing could be true of universities.
“Schools still have the same amount of real estate, so utilizing and monetizing that space in the future will require creative adaptive re-use,” he said.