Coronavirus vaccine Not everything will change, of course
While Laila made changes to her life relatively quickly after the pandemic hit, architecture, in reality, moves slowly. Buildings typically take five years to design, finance and construct.
Many people can’t afford to move house – or spend money on home improvements. And in the teeth of a recession, many employers won’t have the money to relocate or reorganise.
If Covid-19 dies out in the coming months and a vaccine is found quickly, many homes and workplaces could return to something like “normal”.
But aspects of Laila’s imaginary life may become reality for many of us, particularly if there are continued outbreaks and no vaccine is found.
Coronavirus vaccine Financial pressure to change
Many architects believe a major shift towards working from home will be the most significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the built environment.
Why? The short answer is money, says Prof David Burney, who served as New York City commissioner for public architecture under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“Companies can cut their bills for office space dramatically by increasing the number of staff working from home – and they will do it,” he says.
“We’re already seeing some in the commercial real estate business in a state of panic. They can see the demand for office space declining.”
Coronavirus vaccine The shift away from the city
“I think we could see a lot of existing buildings become unmarketable,” says Hugh Pearman of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba).
Large-scale office spaces, particularly in high-rise buildings which are hard to modify, are already becoming less attractive.
“And there will be pressure to flee the city,” he says.
Mr Pearman points out that health concerns have driven key architectural developments in the past.
Worries about disease and poor air quality triggered population movements away from city centres in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the growth of suburbs was a direct consequence.
Coronavirus vaccine Making the home work
If pre-Covid homes were all about relaxing and recharging, post-Covid homes will be part home, part workplace, says UK architect Grace Choi.
“Many more people are going to want more space in their homes to work, or at least some versatility in the space that they have. We’re all going to need to configure our space in a more intelligent way.”
Ms Choi says her practice is already getting many more inquiries from builders about homes with office spaces and garden studios, as workers find that perching at the kitchen table with a laptop just doesn’t cut it.
Homeworking doesn’t suit many jobs, of course, and thousands of offices are here to stay. Architects envisage that creative thinking and new technology will help keep them relevant.
Coronavirus vaccine The rise of touchless tech
“The days of sitting there hammering away on a laptop are gone – you can do that from home,” says Dale Sinclair, architect and director of innovation at AECOM.
“What’s really exciting is that going into the office will be for collaboration, generating ideas with colleagues.”
Mr Sinclair is one of the many architects predicting vastly more automation in offices, particularly “touchless technology” or “contactless pathways” and a greater use of data.
“Buildings are going to have a huge amount of technology: people using their phones to navigate through them, face recognition, voice activation. And we’ll see many more robot assistants and sensors picking up data,” he says.
“This whole area is going to really take off. We’re already using this technology in hospitals – and Covid-19 is massively accelerating the move towards using it in other places.”
Information from fixed and wearable sensors could be used to adjust air temperature and humidity in the fight against some pathogens.
Air conditioning systems using UV light to kill bacteria and some viruses are already in use, with light sources in the coils at the centre of the system or in the ducting.
Coronavirus vaccine Can open plan survive?
The downside of the open-plan office is obvious during the pandemic, but some experts believe that open plan could survive if measures to limit interaction are in place.
Where partitions are essential, architects and designers are trying to minimise their negative impact on social interaction.
Can they be removed when there’s little threat, but reinstalled if there is an outbreak?
Can they be clear, rather than opaque, so that staff can still have eye contact with workmates?
For Ben Channon, head of wellbeing at Assael Architecture, biophilia – our in-built affinity with the natural world – is the way forward.
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“We can use rows of plants to separate people. People are quite scared – they’re not going to want to come back to a plastic cubicle that smells of bleach. In the right circumstances plant screening can be a much better solution – and can also help with air quality.”
Mr Channon advocates using naturally antimicrobial materials like copper and its alloys, in high-touch areas like door and drawer handles.
Copper is expensive but “businesses are seeing the cost now of what happens when they don’t have these things,” he says.
Coronavirus vaccine The shape of things to come
While remote working for many may be the legacy of Covid-19, coming together in the real world is still fundamental to human psychology, says Sadie Morgan from London-based firm dRMM.
“Taking risks and creativity, essential for businesses, generally happens in groups, real groups – not in a virtual space – when you can see people directly and be in the same space.”
Grace Choi agrees. “We shouldn’t underestimate the need to get together to exchange ideas.
“We miss body language, cues for when to speak, fluid conversation and the connections between us.”
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