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How Might COVID-19 Change the Built Environment


Outside of the direct health issues and the impact on the economy, how COVID-19 might change the built environment, and that very much includes housing, has been a big topic and set to remain so.

That’s easy to understand as the impacts look wide and varied, and in many cases the possible changes will be with us for a very long time. The built environment takes a lot of time and effort to change, but those changes do tend to hang around for decades.

This won’t be the first time in history that cities and buildings will be reshaped in response to a major event, think of the Great Fire of London, the Black Plague, the big earthquake of 1989 in San Francisco or in Newcastle also in 1989, and the two World-Wars.

However, this time around COVID-19 is spread virtually across the entire world and its impact is universal not isolated to a city or region. The built environment is set to change how and where we live, where we work, how we teach our kids and look after the elderly and how we shop and entertain ourselves, and that’s just for starters.

It’s therefore impossible not to pay more attention to our built realm and given the fact so many of us are in self-isolation at home or may soon have to – when combined with working from home we’ve already seen some immediate impacts.

DIY home improvement projects are on the rise; there’s been a frenzy to create home offices and we’ve also seen a big jump in online shopping as we stay away or are locked out of shops. And as WFH looks set to continue in one form or another, the idea of working from the kitchen table has lost any of its appeal and it appears that bigger homes are back in style.

This trend, however, might be short-lived as the conversion of a bedroom into a home office, or the creation of a study in what might have been a linen cupboard are quick solutions, as we move on the design options in all homes and that includes the smallest apartment, need to be much better thought out.

One immediate result is many in the design community have found it necessary to re-evaluate their work as we get used to a world that may never be quite the same, especially when it comes to how we use large public spaces, like airports, hotels, hospitals, gyms, and not forgetting the most talked about topic – offices.

Even though we’ve seen some sporting codes work within COVID-19 restrictions, the idea of any shoulder-to-shoulder fan contact looks a long way off and may even be optional well beyond the current season. Immediate impacts will include greater hand washing and sanitizing, as well contactless tickets and catering.

Open-plan offices were already on the decline well before COVID-19 and today it appears that employers will be taking the best of what been learned from WFH to help create office spaces that allows for a balance between WFH and productive, meaningful collaboration. Whatever the result, offices are facing different times and one direct impact on the housing market is that buyers appear willing to accept longer but much less frequent commutes.

That trend may reshape the popularity of more ‘remote’ suburbs, the demand for inner-city apartments and regional towns. Associated with this trend is that we’ve talked for a long time about how technology was going to change how we commuted and lived. That has now leapfrogged into reality right down to the fact that how we do get to work now involves much more bike and walking. Public transport the holy grail of the past two decades looks a little less relevant.

We’ve watched cities become more popular and seen commercial real estate boom whilst retail is being devastated – as we are now forced to work apart all of this is being tested.

If virtual working builds on its recent success, and as some would suggest more productive, it’s going to fundamentally change the value proposition of cities and where we live. One word and an idea starts to spring to mind and that’s ‘flexibility’.

Today almost everyone predicts a wider move toward more automation across all types of touchless technology, such as automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, mobile controlled hotel room entry, handsfree light switches and temperature controls, more automated luggage bag tags, and advanced airport check-in and security. Already a number of major office building owners have announced such moves and has one international hotel operator.

What this will also greatly aid is a move away from nine to five, five day working weeks to the automated 24-hour office and city. Again that will have a very big impact on where people live. It’s a trend that may even impact the idea of big toll generating road projects as demand shifts across 24-hours and again become more flexible.

On a more sober note and perhaps one that going to be less socially popular, could see some big venues where in addition to common metal detectors there will be temperature screening and disinfection.

Technology and design changes are also set to focus on schools and aged care, two areas that have come under considerable pressure are likely to see big changes. In both cases with so much personal contact we may see designs that allow for antibacterial fabrics and finishes, including copper, an area that’s already seen benefits of local Australian miners.

Further flexibility may also encourage the ability for some buildings and facilities to be quickly torn down and disinfected and re-used. We have already seen this as pop-up hospitals have been seen all over the world because of the inability for traditional hospitals to accommodate a big increase in the number of patients.

From a design perspective, an ability to make a normal patient room more flexible to increase capacity or be easily converted into an ICU is an obvious goal. And at a far more common level the same sort of flexibility with the family home also makes sense if for far less urgent motivations. Home with flexible layouts and easily moveable rooms might become more common and no longer just a gimmick.

This flexibility would almost naturally extend beyond help making WFH easier but make it easy to accommodate areas to improve our health like a yoga room, library or gym.

Clearly home builders, architects and designers are starting to help people think about their homes. Like transforming a collection of inflexible rooms into spaces that are flexible and easy to convert. And while this may actually make homes at least a little bigger with more storage, many buyers are already indicating a desire for flexibility.

Future developments are also certain to include designs with much more open spaces that enable and encourage people to spread out, to exercise and socialise without competing for space, even if the model proves more expensive and less profitable, which is an issue planners and council must now address.

Even as we remain in the grips of COVID-19 the idea of giving up on urbanity and density is a doubtful solution however, much better planning and environmental awareness will be paramount.

There’s little to suggest that we’ll ever get to the point where we completely avoid public gathering, and the magic of sports and the need for mass entertainment.

While drones delivering everything from medicines to coffees might enforce being at home. Those homes will need to be healthy and flexible places. The idea of a work-life-balance might just be more in reach than we ever thought possible, as technology and the reimagination of the working week into a flexible 24-hour mix of WFH and commuting to the office and other social places becomes a reality post COVID-19.