The effects of COVID-19 on architecture: Predictions from tomorrow’s designers

This story is published in partnership with the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in the middle of the spring semester, it added a whole new layer of significance to the assignments in Assistant Professor of Architectural History Lidia Klein’s spring seminar. The curriculum for the graduate course, Architecture and Production: from Assembly Line to 3-D Printing, challenged students to investigate “changes in methods of architectural production from the 19th century to the present,” placing those changes “within social, political, cultural, and economic contexts.”

Now, with society, politics, culture, and the economy turned upside down, the prospect of radical and imminent change to architectural production – and a myriad associated practices and outcomes – has given their coursework an unanticipated urgency.

For the students’ final assignment, Klein asked them to imagine the consequences of COVID-19 on architecture. What alterations in production and space might result from the pandemic?

The students’ essays foresee a range of changes – from the macro to the micro – that could shape our lives for years to come. Here are nine predictions:

Post-pandemic construction will incorporate more prefabricated pieces and pre-approved building designs.

According to Aleah Pullen, “there will be an emphasis on the speed of planning and construction.” Currently, she wrote, “all design projects go through a strenuous process of design, budgeting, redesign, and drawn out construction.” COVID-19 could change that.

“The average hospital build has a timeline of about six to 10 years before the facility is open,” Pullen wrote. But a recent emergency hospital construction project in Wuhan, China, used pre-fabricated pieces and a floor-plan approved for an emergency hospital built in another town during the SARS epidemic. The result? “What takes 10 years was constructed in 10 days.”

There will be a push for adaptable, multi-use design, especially for large buildings.

The recent scramble for field hospitals in harder hit communities led students such as Chante’ Lombre, Noah Nelson, and Hisham Anabtawi to predict that flexibility and adaptability will become much more important. Lombre described “larger spaces with semi-permanent walls, to divide spaces,” in public buildings. Stadiums, concert venues, and arenas, in particular, will be “multi-functional,” wrote Nelson: “With the construction of an adaptable and multi-functional stadium, for example, this could allow for a massive “pop-up” hospital to be brought into a space at a moment’s notice.” And Anabtawi suggested “designing hospitals that can expand and contract on demand, depending on the intensity of the problem.”

Stay-at-home orders will influence home design.

Pullen anticipates “a push for self-sufficiency in the home.”

“People are working from home, working out in the living room, and turning to old-style preservative methods to store perishable foods,” she wrote. “Homes will include maker spaces for DIY projects, dedicated home offices, larger yards for gardens and outdoor activities, dedicated home gyms, and the additional food cellar.”

Austin Johnson projected that space for teleworking and homeschooling children will become mandatory, and that floorplans will prioritize technological tools for those tasks: “Working from home for me has meant slower Internet, due to where it is situated in relation to where I am working. I believe every place will be taking where you will work (in a) home into consideration when designing.”

Offices, restaurants, and retail spaces will also look different.

Will co-working spaces be a thing of the past? Several students forecasted a radical change to office space. Anabtawi noted that architectural firms like Cushman & Wakefield “have come up with the new ‘6-foot office,’ where all the personal spaces are increased to six feet part.”

Joel Labombard was reminded of the layout in IKEA, “which is designed in a one-way system, leading customers counter-clockwise along what IKEA calls ‘the long natural way.’” His prediction? “Many stores will adapt the IKEA standard pushing all customers in one direction.”

And Danielle Scaccia suggested that privatized rooms may be preferred over large gathering halls: “For example, restaurants could follow an Asian culture of individual rooms over an open eating area.”

(The American Institute of Architects recently released a re-occupancy assessment tool to help provide guidelines for limiting exposure to the coronavirus in buildings.)

Health concerns may give rise to new building codes and regulations.

Chante’ Lombre wondered whether the need for social distancing will affect occupancy standards, while Bailey Bostian recommended greater oversight of indoor air quality.

“We already have so much responsibility to keep people safe within our buildings, why not add one more factor?” she wrote.

Security and surveillance will only get tighter.

Nicholas Rawlings speculated that the post-9/11 security measures that we now take for granted might serve as a precedent for COVID-19-induced security and surveillance.

“Already, companies such as Amazon and FedEx are installing thermal cameras to detect fevers among their workers,” he wrote, citing an April 20 article in the Washington Post. “And the town of Westport, Connecticut, has deployed a drone ‘which can measure body temperatures, read heart rates, and detect for coughing and sneezing from 190 feet away,” he added, quoting an April 22 article in the New York Post. “As antibody testing becomes more widely available, we could even see blood screening becoming a prerequisite for entry into stadiums, arenas, and other public gathering places not unlike the genetic verifications portrayed in the 1997 film Gattaca,” Rawlings concluded.

Design is in the details. Look for more touchless technology and antiviral/antibacterial materials.

Rawlings also expects that touchless technology, such as automated doors and voice and motion-activated lights, “will become increasingly prevalent as architects, developers, and building managers seek to remove opportunities for viral transmission.” And for surfaces that must be touched, “architects will also attempt to more actively suppress infectious agents in their projects by employing antimicrobial materials such as copper and ultraviolet disinfection technology,” he wrote.

Look out, too, for changes to the design of spaces between buildings.

Several students envisioned a demand for more parks and open spaces. Danielle Scaccia wondered whether there will be “a suburban sprawl effect as people want to keep more distance from one another should another pandemic come through.”

On the other hand, she wrote, “there could be a city boom, where people choose to move inward more to allow for the sense of community from their balcony,” citing recent videos of Italians’ balcony serenades.

This is not only a question about space, but about society.

In her response to her students’ essays Klein encouraged them to think deeply about the social consequences of their predictions. What will happen to human interaction if we spend more time at home and stay socially distanced when in public? What will it mean if we no longer encounter and engage with people who are different from us, as we shop or attend a concert or have a picnic?

“Can a collection of individuals be called a society? Space is where human interaction happens. Can we have a healthy society without any (or barely any) platforms to interact?”

Meg Whalen