These have ranged from hotel owners giving their rooms to NHS workers to, at local level, people helping those in need with a simple task such as the weekly shop. Across the cultural spectrum, many people are putting themselves forward, using their skillset to make a difference.
In this time of crisis, designers are also looking to make a difference and provide that positive impact. As designers, our job is to approach problems and provide solutions, and thus, the problems caused by COVID-19 have been no exception. In fact, designers and construction professionals will be instrumental as we try to manage the impact of COVID-19, as their innovations will enable the UK to adapt to the restrictions imposed by coronavirus and allow us to continue to live and work together.
The Social Contact Pod, a collective effort between Scott Brownrigg, Hoare Lea, Constructional Timber and Ramboll, is a great example of a group of designers coming together to provide a solution which many of the more vulnerable members of our society will need. Although protecting themselves from coronavirus requires isolation from family and friends, a physical connection with loved ones is essential in maintaining one’s mental health and wellbeing. The ‘Pod’ enables such connections, whilst also providing security from contamination.
The Pod is one example, but there are countless more. In Ramboll alone, we have had many a creative mind come up with innovative design solutions, from forming 20,000 PPE visors out of office stationery to building ‘prevent infection’ apps. Designers seem well adept at applying their skillset, generally fine-tuned to a specialist subject, to a wider social application. It is design innovations such as these that will not only see us through this crisis but continue to have a positive impact going beyond the pandemic.
When we emerge from this crisis, there will be challenges we will need to face, including the changes to social trends and implementing climate change initiatives on route to a net-zero carbon future. Design and construction professionals are going to play a key role in shaping this new world, enabling us to connect and interact with each other.
During this period, many employers and employees have now found that working from home is a feasible option for many people. In fact, many companies have rapidly adapted to make this possible. While it may not be feasible for most people to continue working at home to the same extent beyond the COVID-19 crisis, it is reasonable to assume that we will see a trend of more people working from home than pre-COVID-19 levels. Trends such as these will no doubt be tightly monitored in the coming months and/or years.
From a designer’s perspective, we need to consider the implications of such a possible trend. Should the design and space planning of our new homes include dedicated workspaces/study areas built into the design? While housing design guidance does note that living spaces can be converted to work zones, this feels more of a temporary fix, rather than a long-term solution. One practical idea could be increasing floor areas in our new homes in order to provide a comfortable working standard.
It is also possible to extrapolate this potential trend from the view of a home space design to the wider scope of the neighbourhood and community designs. If we spend more time working at home, the majority of our physical social interactions will switch from work colleagues to members of our local communities. Designers would then need to innovate new communities, or revitalise existing urban areas, creating spaces that encourage connections to our surrounding neighbours. These are places that improve social trust and mental health and can cater for young to old, nurturing and encouraging community bubbles that also care for our most vulnerable.
So, what then happens to our workspaces? Do we increase our home spaces and decrease the space required for our offices? The housing crisis is still here, and new homes are still needed. If we move some office space previously set towards commercial buildings into our homes, then surely fewer office buildings will be required. If this is indeed the case, then perhaps we do not necessarily need to focus as much on new buildings, but instead on reusing and refurbishing the stock of existing buildings already available where possible.
The design challenge then will be in adopting a suite of many building types of various usage into flexible working space within the constraints of an existing frame but to today’s acceptable standards. Reusing, as opposed to rebuilding, is not a new concept, and the sustainability credentials are well known. Indeed, in committing to making London a zero-carbon city, a London Building Stock Model is being created to provide a snapshot of all of London’s buildings, including information on energy performance. Such data will be powerful in targeting and upgrading buildings of inefficient energy use into modern low-carbon spaces.
It is possible to speculate on many aspects, industry requirements and cultural trends in a post-COVID-19 future. Whichever direction the country chooses to go, it is sure to be an interesting time with many challenges to be met and overcome through design innovations. It is quite possible that 2020 becomes, in reflective hindsight, the starting point of a cultural paradigm shift, that kick-starts in earnest our route to a net-zero carbon goal.