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Business

How coronavirus is changing our office spaces

The pandemic has driven millions of white-collar workers out of the office. With many saying working from home is here to stay, what does that mean for the future of architectural design?

An open-plan office used by a startup in Berlin

The coronavirus outbreak has raised major questions about what workplaces of the future will look like

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered the way humans relate to their space, and for architects and those in building construction, it's starting to change how they alter the space itself.

Millions of office workers around the globe have transitioned to working from their homes since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. As offices sit empty and work ticks along all the same, many employers are thinking twice about the high cost of a communal working space.

Google, Twitter, Microsoft and many, many smaller companies have said they plan to keep some or all of their workforces working at home even once the pandemic is over. Health experts have also suggested this won't be the last pandemic we have to deal with.

This sudden blending of the office with the home is of particular concern to the people who design them.

Many questions, many answers

"One fascinating aspect of the current COVID crisis is the opportunity to observe changes and adaptations within our industry in real time," TJ Chambers, a project designer at USA Architects in Pennsylvania, told DW. "Architects are generally problem-solvers who are tasked with digesting large amounts of data and configuring solutions that meet a variety of objectives established at the outset of a project."

The pandemic has provided no shortage of problems for architects to solve.

"In the midst of a global health crisis, we find ourselves asking a lot of questions," says Chambers, whose firm focuses largely on schools. "What happens when the home also becomes a work space? How can public spaces be reimagined to alleviate the ongoing struggles many businesses face in such a climate? What can we learn from this pandemic and apply to future challenges?"

Along with questions, the pandemic has given architects plenty of something else — time. Nonessential building projects around the world were shut down due to lockdowns, and firms in many countries have reported a fall in demand for new work, local surveys show. A poll of commercial real estate developers in California also showed firms expecting a lower demand for office spaces going forward, with so many people now working from home. If there is new work, that's where it's focused.

"In the short term, there has been a shift in project types as people spend more time in their homes, as they move out of cities or need to create office spaces at home," says Vonn Weisenberger, an architectural designer at SKOLNICK Architecture + Design Partnership in New York City. "I think the money has drastically shifted to private, personal projects like homes and apartments."

The working home

Those with the money have done some interesting stuff since the pandemic began. Examples include an architect in Brazil, who created a detached office sunk into the grass of the front yard for a client who wanted the sensation of commuting to work. For his own use, a Boston-based designer reworked an earlier idea of building a playhouse for his kids into a two-story office for himself. Some clients are requesting home office space that includes an attractive backdrop for zoom calls.

A lot of the demand for home remodels has included adding offices, gyms, and flexible work space. According to a survey from the American Institute of Architects, 68% of architects reported requests for home offices last year, versus 29% in 2019.

"Design is going to be much more personal and in some ways technical, as people use their homes for work, school, and beyond,” designer Christiane Lemieux told the magazine Architectural Digest.

Many designers are interested in the potential of multi-use spaces. Adjustable walls and screens can create space or privacy as needed. Sound-blocking insulation in interior walls is also becoming a must-have, as households struggle to field simultaneous video conferences.

Hygiene has also taken on a greater role in both residential and commercial building design. Air purification systems and sanitation stations are on the list of things to consider, and there is even talk of installing lighting based on UVC, a type of bacteria-killing radiation found naturally in the sun. Unlike UVA and UVB, UVC, which can be artificially produced, does not cause skin cancer or burns.

Hard-floor surfaces and washable wall treatments could come to be favored, as they are easier to clean, as could materials like porcelain, quartz and granite, which may have antibacterial or antimicrobial properties. There might even be a shift towards curved wall surfaces in place of corners, which are harder to disinfect, says American architect Stephen Chu. 

"Interestingly, these changes may lead to an overall stylistic shift as well," he told Boston magazine.

Coronavirus kills the open office

Such a shift has happened before. Modernist architecture, known for its hard, clean lines and bare walls, emerged in the 20th century following a tuberculosis epidemic that put many in similarly austere sanatoriums. 

The Swiss hotel Schatzalp in Davos

The hotel Schatzalp in Davos, Switzerland opened as a luxury sanatorium in 1900

The pandemic is also challenging the reign of open-concept design. The style, which favors the use of a few large, open spaces in place of many small, enclosed rooms, has been popular with home and office designers in recent years.

Bosses love the design for cutting costs and increasing collaboration. But many employees find open-plan offices distracting and impersonal, and have long complained that they increase the spread of illness. Now, the fear of a deadly virus outbreak might be enough to kill the trend for good. With everyone spending more time at home, families and housemates have also learned the value of a good wall.

Workplace surveillance

Within design and public policy circles, the pandemic has advanced discussions about "Sick Building Syndrome," a condition in which people are made ill by the buildings they inhabit. The pandemic has highlighted the urgency of having working and living spaces that are good for humans, both physically and mentally.

"The idea is that through both active and passive strategies, such as introducing more natural daylight, incorporating natural materials, creating visual and physical connections to the outdoors, and employing automated smart building systems, we can improve the quality of life for those that live, work, and learn in these spaces," Chambers explains.

Democratizing design

Weisenberger also notes this increased focus on creating healthier spaces. The pandemic has led to a huge rise, he says, in designers doing pro bono work for small businesses and organizations that wouldn't normally be able to afford professional design services.

One such initiative is Design Advocates, of which Weisenberger himself is part. The project emerged last spring when the decreased workload inspired a few architecture and design firms in New York City to band together to address the needs of local communities during the pandemic. The architects have since worked on projects like redesigned outdoor dining spaces, reconfigured homeless shelters, and outdoor game and furniture structures that can be used on streets closed to traffic.

"I think the biggest and most important changes have been and will continue to be public and outdoor spaces," says Weisenberger, pointing to similar initiatives by other design collectives. For him, the industry's increased focus on democratizing access to good design is linked to the social justice movements that coincided with the pandemic in 2020.

"I worry that once the pandemic is over, a lot of the things being talked about, like ensuring everyone in an affordable housing development has a balcony, will get thrown out the window because it adds cost," says Weisenberger, describing himself as a cynic.

Chambers, on the other hand, is hopeful. "Ultimately,  I see this pandemic having a profound impact on the way the world operates," he says.

"We can better utilize our time, reduce the amount of commuting we do as a society, and work more efficiently. Thus, we can have more time to dedicate to our families, our passions, and our lives outside of the office. Perhaps that's me being an optimist in an uncertain time."