By Caitlin Faulds
BU News Service
Nearly one year into the coronavirus pandemic, many architects believe COVID-19’s impact on building design may be set in stone.
“There’s a strong connection between public health, architecture, interior design and urban design and many people do not fully appreciate those relationships,” Dak Kopec said, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Las Vegas.
The average American already spends almost 90% of their time indoors, according to a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory survey. And with social distancing and stay-at-home mandates starting in 2020, Kopec says it’s likely that many have spent most of their time in one place — the home.
“Their home is their work environment, their safe haven, their place for their family, their recreation,” Kopec said. “It is everything.”
Kopec, who directed a human health design program at Boston Architectural College, says the coronavirus could change architecture trends for decades — and this wouldn’t be the first time that disease has impacted design. In the early 1900s, small-windowed porches were added on to homes across the country, including the Boston area, to help treat tuberculosis patients. Built-in closets and tiled bathrooms both were born of a desire for easy cleaning.
In recent years, open-concept layouts in which a single room serves many functions have grown in popularity. But with more time being spent in the home — and many carving out home office space — Kopec says people could benefit from more physical boundaries.
“I think we will have to go back to early 1900s design, which is based off of greater segmentation of spaces,” Kopec said.
But Kopec warns that finding that space and ways to separate it could be difficult — especially in urban areas. In the 2010s, micro-apartments proliferated in Boston. These under-450 square foot apartments maximized urban land use and lowered property prices, allowing young buyers to gain a foothold in the market.
“Urban living has always been about densification and density intensity,” Kopec said.
But with the average person spending about 12% more time in the home, according to a recent Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Report, Kopec sees less appeal in these densely packed micro-apartments. He now compares life in such a tight space to “solitary confinement.”
“There’s that psychological aspect of once this is over, how are people going to be thinking about their micro-apartments,” Kopec said.
According to research published by the University of Texas Arlington, higher density living increases the chances of disease transmission. Kopec says that this could also be an issue for the future of the micro-apartment.
“You have more people in occupation of the transitory spaces – hallways, stairwells, elevators, even lobbies,” Kopec said.
Tamar Warburg, Senior Associate Director of Sustainability and Resilience at Sasaki Associates—an architecture and design firm based in Watertown, Mass.— sees COVID transmission as a force that could reshape not only individual abodes, but entire cities as well.
As Warburg said, urban density “depends upon shared resources,” which makes social contact in an urban environment unavoidable. She questions how cities like Boston will cope long-term with issues such as overcrowded park space posing a health risk and public transport. Warburg says her design firm is already seeing a shift in client needs.
“I’m on phone calls every day where people are saying, ‘How should we rethink our building projects or our planning projects?’” Warburg said.
Sasaki, Warburg says, is uniquely up for the challenge due to their track record of health-first builds. The company recently completed a WELL-certified project on Kendall Square which was built to optimize indoor air quality and ventilation. Similar design elements could be used to update apartments that still rely on “old school” air supply systems that circulate “shared air” between units.
Patti Seitz, Professor and Chair of Architecture at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, says building innovations could certainly improve health, but equal weight needs to be given to community-specific needs.
“It adds the voice of the user,” Seitz said. “Without that, who are you designing for?”
Seitz embraces community collaboration in her work, often sitting down with clients at barbeques to ask them what they value in their spaces. She says this level of interaction should be key during and after coronavirus, as the industry grapples with new design priorities.
As COVID-19 draws on and people continue to use their space in different ways, Kopec believes that society, as well as the architecture and design industry, may be fundamentally altered.
“That temporary turns into a permanent,” Kopec said. “[It’s] a new way of life.”