Design Strategies for a Post-Pandemic World

Architects are rethinking bedrooms, kitchens and common areas as the coronavirus changes the way Americans live.
Perla, a CallisonRTKL residential towers under construction in downtown Los Angeles. Rendering courtesy of CallisonRTKL

Spurred by crisis, multifamily architects and designers are reimagining the way that Americans live. The coronavirus pandemic has brought radical upheavals to daily habits and work arrangements across the country, while generating a renewed focus on health and wellness in the built environment. As a result, many designers are thinking about how to provide a living environment that is clean, flexible and responsive to the new demands residents are putting on their spaces.


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Designers are looking to incorporate a variety of spaces, both indoor and outdoor, that allow residents to engage with nature and the community while keeping at a comfortable distance from others. They are contemplating flexible interiors that make it easier to work and learn from home. Kitchens, too, may need a revamp as Americans alter the way they eat, and common spaces will need to be crafted with hygiene in mind.

“It’s really about having this continuum from very private to very public, but incrementally in between, there are all these different levels of communication that’s possible,” David Eisen, partner at Abacus Architects + Planners, told Multi-Housing News.

Eisen argues that spaces such as balconies, porches, yards and terraces are more useful than ever, though they were important even before the pandemic. “It allows you to choose your level of engagement with people,” he said.

Housebound

Indoor/outdoor fitness center at Hickok Cole’s The Jamison at Dakota Crossing in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Ansel Olson

Coronavirus prompted a massive nationwide experiment in working from home, with one survey by MIT suggesting that nearly half the U.S. workforce was telecommuting as of early April. For many workers, the shift may become permanent. Designers are preparing for that possibility by thinking about creative ways to incorporate work surfaces into apartments, even if unit footprints remain the same in order to keep the project financially viable.

One option is to carve out space for “office nooks,” perhaps at the expense of smaller walk-in closets. Split-bedroom units, where the master suite is isolated from other areas, allow for workspaces with more privacy, such as a separate nook or den area. Flip-down desks by the window are another possibility. More natural light is a key consideration in this context, as is better acoustics—think of a work-from-home couple holding Zoom meetings at the same time.

Balconies might also become a hot commodity if people spend more time working or simply living at home. “There’s going to be a desire for more layering of space onto our buildings,” said Laurence Caudle, principal & director of Housing at Hickok Cole Architects. “The desire for access to outdoor spaces—private upper spaces, not just the common areas—is going to grow.”

Daun St. Amand, senior vice president at architecture firm CallisonRTKL, noted that balconies, previously an optional design feature many residents, could drive higher rents in the future if residents decide that quality views and private outdoor spaces are more important.

Healthier communities

Public health has become a central concern for the multifamily industry, amid a nationwide focus on curbing the spread of the virus and strategizing for future pandemics.

“I believe that buyers and renters are going to be looking at this very carefully and asking questions like: what are you going to do for cleanliness and hygiene?” said St. Amand. “You better have a good answer.”

For instance, designers are looking to incorporate hand sanitizers at points of entry and moving to sensor-activated or touchless technology in high-touch areas. “That still feels very residential, but at the same time, people have a sense of comfort going into that space,” said Rhea Vaflor, director of Lifestyle at Hickok Cole. “We’re not living in hospitals,” she noted.

Buildings will probably have to incorporate even more space for package storage as online shopping continues to grow, and in many cases that will include refrigerated lockers for perishable groceries. The safe and hygienic delivery of packages and food has become a key concern, which companies are addressing with innovations such as unattended package lockers.

Eating in

The kitchen may see changes, too, if the sudden popularity of cooking and food storage outlasts the pandemic. Restaurant spending in the U.S. crashed by 51 percent from the start of the year to the end of April, according to the Census Bureau, and a sizeable percentage of restaurants may never open their doors again. Meanwhile, grocery prices experienced their largest monthly increase since 1974 in April.

Intriguingly, frozen food sales nearly doubled in March compared with a year ago, while shipments of standalone freezers in March rose 45 percent year-on-year, according to figures cited by the Washington Post. Americans seem to be placing more emphasis on food storage, especially fresh and frozen, but do they have enough space?

“It’s certainly going to impact design, especially in the short term,” said Jessica Petrino, educator and appliance expert at retailer AJ Madison. Homes typically allocate 30 to 36 inches for refrigerators, she noted. “I would anticipate, especially in the luxury sector, that we’re going to see more cubic footage dedicated to refrigeration.”

Fortunately for designers, refrigerators and freezers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, which lends itself to flexible solutions such as under-counter beverage centers. Another issue, Petrino pointed out, is that Americans are currently cooking more, which could drive demand for more sophisticated appliances such as ovens with a proof mode for bread. Smart home technology and appliances that offer step-by-step recipe guidance might prove useful.

St. Amand cautioned that designers need to think about the staying power of some of the features that seem relevant right now. Many residential units designed in the 1960s and ‘70s had large intercom systems built into the walls, for example, which smartphones and lobby detectors have rendered obsolete.

“You have to wonder about everything you put into the units for the pandemic—does it stand the test of five years from now, is that still useful?” he said.