You probably don’t think about it much, but architecture and design help determine how you do just about everything: play, work, interact with others, stay healthy, move from place to place, consume entertainment or sports, learn, cook, eat, groom and more.
We might assume our urban and suburban environments are enduring, but they are conceived and constructed by human beings, and therefore subject to change. Every day, we come up with solutions to solve problems: tall buildings so we can fit more people into confined spaces, then elevators and escalators to get us up and down the tall buildings, then green space to provide sanctuary and recreation, then mobile hot dog stands so we can eat on the go.
And now we have the COVID-19 pandemic, which is prompting designers and architects to think hard about the built environment and how we can navigate it safely. It’s unclear whether the coronavirus crisis indicates a new reality, one defined in part by more stringent health safety protocols. The current pandemic will subside, but what about the next one? And the one after that?
"I’ve been, in my own mind for a long time, very focused on climate change,” said W. Scott Parker of Charleston-based DesignWorks. “How do we respond to that? Then you have this worldwide pandemic that’s come about on top of that, that’s just changed everything. And then on top of that, you have everything that’s happening with race relations. Major changes are all coming together at the same moment in time. It’s like the world needs to wake up ... and we have to figure out the path forward.”
The implications of the pandemic on design are profound and wide-ranging. Currently, the questions far outnumber answers. Under what conditions can we congregate safely, use public transportation, ride in elevators, fly in airplanes? Can we meet at work in conference rooms, or in classrooms at school? Can we attend concerts? Will “COVID-compliant” become a new touchstone of our design vocabulary?
In Europe, architects and designers have been asking such questions for months. A web series called “THE NEW TOMORROW: Living and Working after COVID-19,” launched by the Bologna-based architecture magazine The Plan, features a slate of architects discussing issues both practical and philosophical. How hotels might reinvent themselves. How we might reimagine what “community” and "society" mean.
The New York Times Magazine published an article in June titled “How Architecture Could Help Us Adapt to the Pandemic,” in which author Kim Tingley introduces us to the ideas of architect and teacher Joel Sanders, among others.
“We sleepwalk our way through the world,” Sanders told Tingley. “Unless a building interior is strikingly different or lavish or unusual, we are unaware of it. (COVID-19) is forcing all of us to be aware of how the design of the built environment dictates how we experience the world and each other.”
The American Institute of Architects has posted numerous reports, guidelines, case studies and assessment tools on its website since May. Most are devoted to the challenges of safely reopening buildings and public spaces, but a growing body of articles and reports contend with long-term changes, too.
In Charleston, architects and designers are starting to think about the intersections between the urban environment, health pandemics, climate change and social ills such as racism. They say it’s all connected: Good design brings people together safely and takes into account unstoppable natural forces.
Ways to build better
Change is twofold, according to local architect Tommy Ray Manuel, who specializes in residential property. First, existing structures will be adapted to accommodate behavior changes. Classrooms, bathrooms, hospitals, office spaces, cultural institutions all could be modified.
Eventually, new requirements will get baked into the thinking and planning of architects, Manuel said. Mechanical systems will ensure fresh air flow. Hallways will be widened. Lighting will change to help guide movement. Elevators will be reconsidered. Windows will open. Entrances and exits will multiply and enlarge.
Some designers already have embraced and incorporated these features. Indeed, the “passive house" building standard, “green buildings,” and carbon-neutral design have been part of the conversation among architects and urban planners for many years.
But in the U.S., the construction of buildings is driven mostly by market forces, Manuel said. It’s a short-sighted approach to the built environment that includes few contributions to the public good, he said.
Perhaps what’s needed is “a top-down approach”: government requiring developers to meet certain standards. If the priority shifts from short-term profits to long-term sustainability, then the financial calculus changes along with the will to embrace a new paradigm, Manuel said.
Ashley Jennings, president of American Institute of Architects Charleston and principal of AJ Architects, said she and her colleagues in the design community are eager to assist policymakers by providing solutions to the COVID-19 crisis.
“What can we do to help you move forward with planning, and figuring out how to get back in business, with certain precautions in place?” she said.
So Jennings currently is focused on short-term adjustments to existing infrastructure that will help with economic recovery. An AIA task force is working with the Chamber of Commerce to determine what needs to be done.
Hospitals need to accommodate more patients and potentially add trauma units. Schools need to safely accommodate students. Can cafeterias and gymnasiums be transformed into learning spaces? How can people circulate through buildings more safely? Can directional signage help?
Eventually, Jennings will turn her attention to long-term fixes, including ways to foster human interaction in a period of social distancing, she said.
“How do we become better designers and better stewards of our community, rather than working just to line a developer’s pocket?” she asked. “How does design become something that’s more intuitive for everybody, more equitable for everybody?”
Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architectural Center in Charleston, also is working on immediate issues but thinking about the big picture.
“Not only is architecture going to change, we don’t yet understand the extent of the changes we’re going to endure,” he said.
There will be other health crises, more environmental impacts, cycles of economic hardship and civic unrest, all of which cannot be separated from our built environment.
One reason the coronavirus is so terrible is because of our mobility, Huff pointed out. It has become very easy to travel far and wide quickly. How might that change in the future? And if we spend more time at home, how should we modify the way we build houses, neighborhoods, parks, retail stores and industrial centers?
What’s more, how do we ensure that new approaches to design and architecture are inclusive? The history of urban design is, in part, a history of racism and discrimination, Huff said. It has resulted in housing projects and food deserts. It has contributed to separation and marginalization, failing to address the challenges of the poor.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act referred to the dignity of the individual, Huff observed. In so doing, it provided a basis for all design.
Scott Parker said Charleston architectural tradition and natural history can help show us the way. Old single homes took advantage of breezes. Trees provided shade. Orientation kept the heat of the sun away from the front of the houses.
“How we used to do things makes sense for how we need to do things today,” Parker said.
But some behaviors and practices will likely change significantly because of the pandemic, he added. People will work from home more, and that will prompt architects to include more workspace in private houses and less enclosed space in office buildings.
“Is this going to change the workplace forever? Why drive an hour to sit in front of the same computer you use at home?” he said.
The office might be transformed into a more collaborative space, then, where colleagues convene with purpose, he said.
“As we think about our public spaces, being able to come together is going to be so, so precious going forward.”
Much remains uncertain about how designers will adapt to new economic, environmental and health-related realities and how social justice issues, pandemics and climate change will change the way we live.
“Mother Nature’s (mad) at us right now,” Parker said. “We’re not treating her very well right now, We need to have more respect for the planet and her natural systems, more respect for the people. It’s like this awakening that needs to happen. ... It certainly has given me a chance to think about and evaluate what’s important, and hopefully it has for a lot of other people.”