Yes, Architects and Designers Are More Important Than Ever 

Let’s not sugarcoat things. The past eight to nine months have been chaotic, to say the least. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, the state of the world was identified as uncertainty, confusion and downright scary.  

In addition to the anxiety we have about our loved ones’ health, the pandemic continues to change the way we spend our days. Cities and towns remain in partial lockdowns, many businesses of all sizes are still required to limit the number of persons on premise, layoffs and furloughs of employees endures for many of us and working from home has become the new normal. 

It’s within these boundaries that we pose the question: Are architects and designers more important than ever? 

We say a resounding YES! 

To paraphrase one architect, 9/11 did not stop us from flying, but it completely changed the way we fly. The current pandemic may cause major changes as well: living and working spaces will change and so will the way we design them. 

Fact is, history has revealed that the value of architects/designers increases during such turbulent times  

That’s because architects/designers have proven to be natural problem-solvers, so they are well positioned to tackle the concerns their clients have in light of the coronavirus and other such calamities, and to come up with effective solutions. This is true now more than ever because clients most everywhere have to rethink the entire designs of their buildings and workspaces 

Moreover, as was the case prior to the pandemic, clients continue to look to architects/designers to enhance energy efficiency, create spaces that are flexible and lessen maintenance costs.  


A bit of history 

As Rami el Sanahy, a principal at Boston design firm OverUnder, points out, this won’t be the first time in history that cities and buildings will be reimagined or reshaped in response to an increased understanding of disease. 

As a prime example, the bubonic plague, which wiped out at least a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century, helped instigate the radical urban improvements of the Renaissance.  

Cities cleared nasty and cramped living quarters, expanded their borders, established early quarantine facilities, launched larger and less cluttered public spaces and utilized professionals with specific expertise, from surveyors to architects. 

Likewise, 18th century yellow fever and 19th century cholera and smallpox outbreaks helped trigger innovations such a citywide sewer systems, indoor plumbing, disease mapping and early suburbs. 

In fact, this sanitary reform movement led to straighter, smoother and wider streets that were necessary in order to install underground pipe systems. Plus, such wider thoroughfares could be washed down more easily. 

In the 20th century, tuberculosis, typhoid, polio and Spanish flu outbreaks inspired added urban planning, slum clearance, tenement reform, waste management and, on a larger scale, Modernism itself, with its airy spaces, single-zone zoning (e.g., separating residential and industrial areas), and cleaner surfaces. 

It’s quite clear that the coronavirus will have – and is already having – an equally profound effect on today’s “built” world. It’s shaking loose beliefs of what is “normal” and it’s pushing forward promising but still emerging techniques. 

For example, most everyone predicts that public spaces will move toward more automation to lessen the possibility of contagion, with COVID-19 speeding up development of various sorts of touchless technology – automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, cellphone-controlled hotel room entry, hands-free light switches and temperature controls, automated luggage bag tags and advanced airport check-in and security presently top the list. 


Architects/designers, the home and the new office 

During quarantine, many of us were forced to work from home. Of course, there were people who, when permitted to go back to work, sprinted to reunite with work colleagues and to drink that first cup of office coffee.  

But there are also those who did not want to return to the office or, on the other hand, whose employers decided that it worked out better for everyone concerned that working from home would be the new norm, at least for now. As a result of the workplace at home, spatial organization will change, with home workplace no longer just a desk with an office chair and a lamp inserted somewhere in the corner of the living room or under the stairs. Now, it’s more likely to be a totally separate room with larger windows, blackout curtains and comfy furniture. 

Along with eye-catching home offices, more attention will be given to improving health strategies like better natural lighting, improved ventilation, less toxic substances and the inclusion of plants and other natural materials. Spaces for exercise could also become standard. 


What about those that do go back to work? 

The lessons learned from working from home during COVID-19 offer an unparalleled opportunity to reconsider the future of the physical workspace. Only one in 10 U.S. office workers had worked from home regularly before this pandemic, and less than one-third had the choice to work from home. While many of the effects on the workplace are still unfolding, some notions are emerging: (1) Most workers want to come back to the office and (2) workers expect crucial changes to the workplace before they comfortable retuning. 

Natasha Sandmeier, an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at UCLA declares, “A priority should be securing the safety and health of those workers and students who don’t have the luxury of working comfortably from homes, or their choice of work environments. My hope is that we, as architects, insert ourselves as authors of the less glamorous, less photogenic, but-no-less-essential spaces and narratives of the kitchens, abattoirs, factory-line environments, medical and science labs, prisons and social-work spaces that are the true drivers of our reality. Imagine a world in which these spaces are the focal point in our culture and media landscapes. It would fundamentally transform the ways in which architecture is talked about, taught and practiced.” 


Currently, employers care about workplace productivity. Many require designs that balance privacy and collaboration. A skilled architect can design spaces that allow employees to work closely with one another while still providing the privacy necessary for high productivityDensity is also a chief concern for companies right now. Some may be looking to move away from the open office layout because it makes it difficult to impose social distancing guidelines. 

The changes that will make people comfortable coming back to the office also offer an opportunity for architects and designers to address problems that were present prior to the pandemic, from issues with too much noise to challenges related to mobility and unassigned seating. 

MASS Design Group’s Michael Murphy exclaims, “I think it’s clear to all us now sitting in isolation and working in our when homes is that the buildings around us are playing a very direct role in the epidemic. It’s the spaces around us that are the container of the possibility of contamination. I think that the role it could play for us to design the space, repurpose it, or convert it in a particular way to make us less sick, less contagious and more healthy.” 


Architects/designers and the importance of ventilation 

Perhaps the most effective healthy building tool during the pandemic has been the emergence of advanced ventilation, particularly in hospitals. These technologies include negative air pressure (which keeps pathogens from spreading to other parts of a hospital), displacement ventilation (in which cooler air enters from below and lifts contaminants), clean air ventilation (which brings in fresh air rather than recirculating existing air) and various filtration and humidity systems. 

Such techniques will likely become standard in hospitals even after the pandemic, but might architects/designers also expand them to wherever people congregate, like homes, offices, factories, warehouses and schools? 

Perhaps they could save lives where occupants have no choice about social distance, i.e., prisons, homeless shelters and refugee facilities.  Maybe they could be complemented by germ-resistant strategies like antimicrobial polymer surfaces, copper alloy surfaces (which naturally kill germs and viruses) and flexible spatial designs to accommodate social distancing. 

Update: Did you know that this past June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s shopping malls will be required to use air-conditioning systems capable of filtering out the COVID-19 virus? To meet this requirement, HVAC systems will have to be equipped with high-efficiency HEPA filters designed to filter particles as small as 0.01 micron (the COVID-19 virus is about 0.125 microns in diameter). 


Architecture/design and land use 

Outdoor spaces are gaining renewed attention. 

Outside neighborhood grocery stores, we see neat yellow marks on sidewalks organizing masked shoppers into lines at 6-foot intervals. With many indoor gathering spaces still closed or limited in their capacity, people have poured into outdoor ones like parks. 

It looks like public parks, the legacies of 19th century movement to restore health to overcrowded industrial communities, show all the signs of a sanctuary to city dwellers otherwise restricted to their homes. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about how parks have become overcrowded shelters for cooped-up city dwellers and, more to the point, New York City officials have closed a number of major streets in all its boroughs to open up more space for exercise and recreation. 

Shelter in place orders also shined a light on the fact that many city dwellers don’t have a safe shelter to go to. As an example, New York scrambled to convert spaces like the Javits Center to temporary treatment centers. Curbed wrote about how, like in past pandemics that have shaped the design of cities, COVID-19 may influence how urban designers plan our cities. 


Interior designers and climate change 

Note: While the pandemic has certainly changed the manner in which we might envision such things as buildings in which we live and work, the role of architects/designers also continues to be challenged by the climate crisis. 

Wildfires. Superstorms. Drought and disease. This isn’t a sci-fi apocalypse, it’s the nightly news. 

Scientists warn that the consequences of a warming planet already plague us, and we have just a few years to make a difference before things get far worse. Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time.   

But there’s hope. Buildings are a major contributor to global warming, even more so that that stock culprit, the automobile.  The operational carbon of buildings – meaning the emissions caused by HVAC, lighting and other energy-consuming operations – is the biggest problem to tackle. Architects/designers can lead the way with envelope improvements and other system efficiencies to get these emissions down.  

For buildings that are already in place, deep energy retrofits are a critical need that architects/designers can help meet. 

While architect/designers won’t be able to fully reverse the impacts of climate change, they can guide the design teams and clients on climate-adaptive strategies. 

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 In conclusion 

Pandemic could be the catalyst that changes how we think about architecture at every scale, bringing back the original reasons we design – to create environments that not only shape everyday life but that are also symbols of human advancement. In the end, isn’t this the final aim of every designer: to save people through beauty. Today, more than ever, we understand the importance of space, and the beauty that can be achieved through its effective and adaptable use. Only when we return to that beauty which we had taken for granted, will we feel alive again.  

. . .Giovanni de Niederhausern, Senior Vice President Architecture, Pininfarina USA