Architecture Design in a Pandemic Era
Updated: Mar 28, 2022
By Ricardo Escobar. B.Arch Candidate. Boston Architectural College. January 2022.
Table of Content
Healthy Design Standards
1.1. What is a healthy design
1.2. Role of healthy design in a Pandemic
2.1. What is a pandemic
2.2. The response to the Covid-19 Pandemic in architecture
Redefinition of design through the pandemic
3.1. Design Challenges of Covid-19 Pandemic
3.2. How Coronavirus reshaped architecture
Design comparison between before and after the Pandemic
4.1. Interior Space Precedent Analysis
4.2. Exterior Space Precedent Analysis
4.3 How healthy design redefined measurements
New Healthy Standards and Normality
5.1. New Laws for design
5.2. New post-pandemic culture in design
After the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020, new challenges arise worldwide to maintain people safe from the spreading from this viral disease, and the healthy design is redefined on interior and exterior spaces to create appropriate conditions for people's wellbeing. Density of population in cities and indoors spaces becomes the main issue to control the pandemic.
After the COVID-19 outbreak, cities from all around the globe locked down, and architects and designers began to find solutions of healthy design, to adapt facilities to respond to the global emergency. Healthy design became a crucial need to help society adapt to this new normality provided by this environmental context that is the pandemic.
This research focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, making a comparison between interior and exterior spaces before and after the pandemic outbreak. It utilizes the characteristics of building (situation), dose (exposure), and occupant (effect)(1) suggested by Philomena Bluyssen, and spots crucial factors that influenced the response to this pandemic, as nowadays architecture is focused on users density to maximize occupancy and this affected the control of the pandemic.
The redefinition of healthy design as a result of this pandemic, evolving and generating new needs and requirements from lawmakers, officials, and consumers, suggests recommendations for how interior and exterior spaces will be designed in the future of new post-pandemic normality.
1. Healthy Design Standards
1.1. What is a healthy design
Before the pandemic, A.J. McMichael, an editor from The Australian National University, defined healthy design as:
“Adequate living conditions thus necessitate healthy environments and promoters of active lifestyles environmental context strongly influence individual and collective health.” McMichael, A.J. World Health Organ. 2000(2)
From McMichael’s definition of healthy design, it can be inferred that spaces are designed to comply with a specific function, and when a new environment context produces new space needs through requirements, and the ability of the space to adapt to what is needed during an environmental context (such as pandemics, storms, droughts, etc) is what makes a design healthy.
Another definition of healthy design, representing a series of characteristics, is based on an article written by the Italian Society of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine. These design characteristics suggest the strengths and weaknesses of urban green areas and infrastructures, and the article makes recommendations of how these outdoor structures should make the community interact, and be approachable, suggesting this conceptual guideline of design to create community engagement (3).
Therefore the term “healthy design” is something that possibly can make an individual or a large group of people feel connected with nature, having these open plans, natural ventilation and light, and social outdoor interaction, making a similar relation with environmental design. But healthy design based on McMichael’s definition is different compared with the Italian Society of Hygiene. Healthy designs early in the 2000s (based in the Italian society of Hygiene) represented for designers and users the function to create interactions because people wanted a portion of nature in the chaos of the city, therefore the Italian definition became more popular to consume, while McMichael's ideas are stronger suggesting that designs should be adaptable to diverse environmental contexts as a design response to protect individual and collective health.
1.2. Role of healthy design in a pandemic
The Journal of Infectious Diseases defines a “pandemic” as an infectious disease that is affecting a large portion of the population in every continent of the globe and with an explosive transmission rate, meaning it spreads quickly (4).
Usually, the factor that plays the bigger role in the impact of a pandemic is its transmission rate. Therefore, authorities must understand the links and channels of the spread, and then take actions to prevent or slow its spread.
To understand a pandemic, Christian Yates, a Senior Lecturer in Mathematical Biology, proposes the SIR model, as the acronym of three categories to label people in a pandemic (Susceptibles, Infectives and Removed):
“People who have not yet had the disease are labelled “Susceptibles”. Everyone is assumed to be born susceptible and capable of being infected. Those who have contracted the disease and are capable of passing it to susceptibles are the “Infectives.” The third group is euphemistically referred to as the “Removed” class. These are the people who have had the disease and recovered and are now immune or those who have died. These “removed” individuals no longer contribute to the spread of the disease.” Christian Yates (5).
The SIR model helps to understand the spread, impact, and demographics of a pandemic. By applying it, actions could be taken to protect the “susceptibles” from the “infectives” and make design adjustments that protect the users from spreading the disease or becoming infected.
Also, using McMichael’s definition of healthy design, a pandemic could be understood as a new environmental context that hits reality. As a consequence, new requirements are needed and the space should be adapted to meet those needs. This means that a pandemic redefines healthy design by presenting the need to prevent or stop the spread of the disease.
The next diagram represent the actions needs to be taken to respond to a pandemic using a healthy design approach:
Scheme 1. Architectural design adjustments on a pandemic response using a healthy approach.
The scheme's round shape represents the cyclical nature of the interaction between pandemic response and healthy design, as the present and future environmental crises will impact healthy design standards. As a first step, healthy design standards pre-pandemic responds to all the lessons learned and applied before the crisis that could benefit or impair the pandemic response. Later, a pandemic outbreak that redefined needs, introduces new needs and requirements to stop the spreading, and a public and global response turns into a new context awareness, which creates a functional (efficient) response providing design adjustments. Thus, by making a comparison of obsolete and new approaches of healthy design, new knowledge can be gathered to set new healthy standards that will become a new standard for healthy design and laws that might contribute to future pandemics responses.
2. Pandemic Outbreak
2.1. The Covid-19 Pandemic
The World Organization of Health defines COVID-19 as a disease caused by a new coronavirus, which has not been previously identified in humans. In most cases, COVID-19 causes mild symptoms, including dry cough, tiredness, and fever, though fever may not be a symptom for some older people. Other mild symptoms include aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or diarrhea. Some people become infected but don't develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell. Most people recover from the disease without needing special treatment. Around 1 out of every 6 people who get COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and has difficulty breathing (6).
The COVID-19 became a pandemic in March 2020, changing the whole world with lockdowns, economic crises, exposing new facilities requirements and making isolation a new reality for billions of people.
2.2. The response to the Covid-19 Pandemic in architecture
Rephrasing architecture as a solution to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic includes two redesign proposals based on actual first response facilities and common living spaces in the architectural building. Noha Hossam Zaher, faculty of the interior design and architecture of Mansoura University, Egypt, suggests Design Strategies and solutions for this emergency:
“First, design strategies and solutions for cities in a state of emergency on how to respond to the increased need for facilities adapted to respond to a pandemic, such as hospitals, isolation facilities, and cemeteries.
Second, design for living spaces such as homes, workspaces, apartments, public spaces, hotels, etc., not only to serve human needs but also to double as a protected environment for people as they are practicing self-isolation”. (7)
This explanation of priorities is a simple guide of minimum requirements of infrastructure to have an immediate response to a health emergency, and emphasizes that first response must be prioritized, focusing later on in common living areas that involve normal human activities.
3. Redefinition of design through the pandemic
3.1. Design Challenges of Covid-19 Pandemic
After the outbreak of a health crisis new factors become a priority in healthy design and common design at all; the following mind map represents the immediate overlapping of healthy design and a health crisis.
Scheme 2. Architecture in Pandemic
The black solid line represents a direct connection between each health crisis and a healthy design separately because there is no context that generates influence on each other. The dashed orange arrow represents the Pandemic context relation, and we start seeing immediate connections making the sentences:
1. Community outdoor spaces represent a risk for the spread of a virus in a health crisis.
2. An efficient healthy interior space should be prepared for a response in a health crisis.
Therefore we start creating all these hypotheses that will redefine architectural design in a pandemic. By making sentences of the dashed blue arrows that represent a direct connection without a pandemic context, it helps to be prepared before the health crisis happens, and we start to create the sentences:
3. “In a health crisis, first we have to understand a pandemic, to implement measurements as an efficient response to decreasing spread.”
A design redefinition is something that needs to happen when a new and massive factor comes into place; the design changes require an efficient response as a design addition or adaptation needed to be done to architecture to prevent or improve a specific action. Therefore, making sure designs can be flexible from the beginning is a good strategy for adaptation in the future.
After a better understanding of the pandemic and the restrictions that it imposes, new design challenges begin to arise; the designer Bobby Berk assures us that new interior spaces will be a reflection of a new reality by adding new materials and cleanliness to mitigate the spread of coronavirus and proposing new floor plans that will have separate spaces to decrease home-bound activities and focus on personal well being (8). The modern architecture embraced this open-plan interior design that was mean to improve collaboration and experience making spaces multi-efficient, and we can have an example of a kitchen; usually the kitchen used to be a isolated space that was meant specifically for cooking, but nowadays the kitchen can be considered the central part of the house where people share common activities, make memories, and share space. But after the pandemic this context of collaboration and bonding is affected by social distancing, and we go back to partitions, through individual spaces and therefore bonding becomes a challenge.
3.2. How Coronavirus is reshaping architecture
Samuel Flora, professor at the University of Reading (United Kingdom) assures us that after the pandemic outbreak a new opportunity arises making future resilience and climate change awareness an elemental design element on every interior and exterior space. Flora argues for creating flexible spaces with home bedrooms becoming home-office space, and increasing the digital requirements for every work activity, making digital inclusion a priority. He says:
“The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink density and the way people move around their neighborhoods. Travel and health need to be seen as an integrated agenda. Public investment is needed in integrated transport systems to ensure access for all.” Samuel Flora, 2020 (9)
Density has become the main issue while maintaining social distancing to decrease COVID-19 cases, because before the pandemic the design approach for lifestyle, work and recreation was meant to have the maximum capacity and efficiency in a space; after the pandemic decreased density and increased healthy design is the phase of post-pandemic architecture.
4. Design comparison between before and after the Pandemic
4.1. Interior Space Precedent
Philomena M. Bluyssen is a Ph.D. faculty of the Technological University of Delft, Faculty of Architecture, Delft, Netherlands. In her book Healthy Indoor Environment, she describes the characteristics of healthy interior space, saying that a healthy design can identify the Situation, Dose, and Effect, considering the situation as building characteristics (such as thermal, lighting, air, and sound), dose as exposure (to the previous characteristics mentioned) and effect as the result to the occupant by being exposed to these characteristics of the space. The following table explains the relationship between Building (situation), Dose (Exposure), and Occupant (Effect). Therefore by utilizing this relationship, we can use it to create a case study guide on an interior and exterior space to create an analysis (10) shown in the table below:
Table 1. “Needs and opportunities in The Healthy Indoor Environment: How to assess occupants’ wellbeing in buildings”(11)
The situation, characteristics, and processes presented in previous tables are key to identifying a Healthy Space; this provides a clear checklist to identify a safety context in a pandemic and to be able to have an efficient intervention to improve safety. Taking a pandemic as an Environmental factor that will directly affect the psychosocial and personal being in interior spaces.
In the following image, the interior office space represents a healthy design previous to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the interior design-focused Futuristic approach with a floor plan that is flexible and could be rearranged, also with semi-open spaces that improve collaboration but also provides privacy.
Image 1. Interior office space representing a healthy design, previous COVID-19 Pandemic (12).
This precedent was designed by “Estudio Guto Requena”, with an area of 19,375 square feet (13). The YOUSE office design was a big hit for modern healthy design, representing a massive open plan office space that has many removable elements that makes the space flexible and can be easily intervened for control of light, people circulation, and temperature.
Image 2. Interior office space representing a healthy design, previous to COVID-19 Pandemic identifying “Situation, Dose and Effect”
To represents the elements in this design, the colors:
Yellow represents natural light, green is plants that help as a light barrier and also as a division barrier between lounge areas, red is for small lounge areas for 1 to 4 people to gather at the same time, light blue spots the HVAC system to control the temperature of the place, and purple are semi private conference rooms that have an opening on the walls to have air circulation and natural light, this space is meant to gather from 4 to 12 people simultaneously.
This design finished in 2017 was an example of a very futuristic healthy design approach, because most of the elements of the space (light, temperature, furniture…) can be manipulated and adapted to create optimal conditions for the users of this office, and that flexibility is what made this design stand out.
Image 3. Floor Plan (14)
In 2021, after the biggest hit of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the general perspective of Healthy Design, had evolved to new requirements, such as having more partitions to decrease density of users, and increasing the number of conference rooms to host less people, keeping the social distancing between desks, and providing bigger personal and more comfortable individual working spaces, so they won’t find the need to use other areas of the office to be more productive. For the YOUSE office the main design challenge that was on their table is the density of people that was meant for the place, even though they had a very flexible furniture design, and the capacity to control temperature and light, the new need to apply social distancing to be safe from coronavirus played against the designers.
There is a very clear statement on the floor plan layout that the office was designer to generate collaboration and have an open plan office experience to improve productivity of the employees, seating from 12 to 26 people on the same working table, therefore density was something that by being readjusted, is not able to provide a full occupant capacity having everyone safe in this new coronavirus context.
When there is a comparison between the Building (situation), Dose (Exposure), and Occupant (Effect) before and after the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation before the pandemic will be collaborative space (situation), open plan spaces (exposure), and work production (effect), and considering the new environmental context after the pandemic the new factors can be considered as Health Crisis (situation), density of people (exposure) and contraction of disease (effect).
4.2. Exterior Space Precedent
Domino Park is a 5-acre park that is a former Domino Sugar Refinery, developed in 2018 at the Brooklyn waterfront (15). The park became a main attraction of the Brooklyn area, and after the COVID-19 outbreak, the administration of the park took design measurements of social distancing and circulation to make the park a usable space for locals.
Image 4. Domino Park (16)
This exterior space precedent exposes the techniques taken by Domino Park to empower the safety measurements provided by local officials and the CDC, simultaneously to provide an outdoor experience that will encourage locals to do an outdoor activity and feel safe (17). The following diagram shows a series of red circles that host the users, creating a private space where they can do social activities with the implementation of boundaries; therefore social distancing becomes a key strategy to prevent the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Image 5. Domino Park - Top view (18)
The Orange area represents a non-stop circulation area, where the users are not allowed to remain standing, creating a constant circulation. The Blue area represents the public circulation space, encouraging the division of areas and use. The wave arrows represent the current airflow coming from the Atlantic sea that will constantly flow to improve the air quality of the area.
Domino Park authorities had a hard time figuring out the right capacity of the place, because with the new social distancing measurements, the user experience in the park becomes regulated by occupant capacity, and circulation. Is hard to consider that a park that has mainly design elements and materials that are natural structures, will need so many regulations to adapt against a new environment context as the coronavirus pandemic.
4.3. How healthy design redefined measurements
Krzysztof Herman, assistant professor at Warsaw University of Life Sciences - a researcher (PhD), provides case studies of outdoor and green structures, and how humans interact with them as being a great and only option in a pandemic world. In the conclusion of this article on page 16, the writer states that green structures usage increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This provides a powerful statement and gives a very clear message of how outdoor design elements will increase the user experience with safety factors during a pandemic (19).
By taking the Domino Park as a reference, and considering Herman’s affirmation that outdoor spaces are in greater demand after the pandemic, the park before the pandemic had the right capacity for the local density of people, but after the pandemic, the park needed to be adapted to host the right amount of people. By making a comparison of interior and exterior spaces at the webinar, “Pandemic Effect on Architecture Industry,” hosted by Showcase Youtube Channel, May 25, 2020, Aorjun Kaicker, Architect and Workplace Consultant, makes a commentary about office spaces becoming less collaborative, with more partitions and bigger desks, and challenges us to bring culture back indoors. But then Scott Francisco, Founder, and Director of Pilot Projects Design Collective, makes a totally opposite statement about exterior spaces and housing, involving that use of open outdoor space will increase, due to a new demand from people to have a sense of belonging in society by being outside sharing activities with other users.
5. New Healthy Standards and Normality
5.1. New Laws for design
This journal article by the European International Journal of Science and Technology emphasizes the basic methods of design and construction with “New Regulations for Architectural Design Required in Buildings to Fulfill the Term of Sustainability” to make an analysis between, design, context, and need, for problem-solving in a pandemic context (20). This also exposes the lack of important design decision-making by authorities during the beginning of a pandemic, and how architectural adjustment might not save the world but will improve the environment. Therefore there will be new laws that will decrease the density of spaces but will increase the adaptation of facilities to respond to future environmental contexts.
Beginning with mandates from local governments, like wearing face masks, maining social distance, therefore new design mandates and laws will arise, such as reducing occupant capacity in commercial and residential spaces, better circulation paths of people, air and light could be implemented in local and international building codes.
5.2. New post-pandemic culture in Architecture
Ali Cheshmehzangi, from the Department of Architecture and Urban Design, Hiroshima University, Japan, in her article “potential development changes and paradigm shifts due to COVID-19” makes an hypothesis, assuring that:
“...for more developed cities (regardless of their size), we anticipate a faster push towards digitization and digitalization modes. For instance, for the construction sector, the developed cities are likely to push towards ‘information-based methods’, ‘off-site construction strategies’, and ‘the use of new materials’... ...and ‘lightweight structural systems’ are more likely to be ubiquitous. The former is expected for smaller cities, while the latter is more suitable for high dense mid-to-large scale cities. For the built environment sector, the recommendation on ‘density and compact design’ is likely to apply more specifically to larger cities in both developed and developing contexts.”
Ali Cheshmehzangi, 2021 (21).
Cheshmehzangi’s hypothesis asserts that large cities will try to improve digitalization and bring technological strategies to improve safety and decrease timing on project execution to improve the versatility of infrastructure. And for smaller-scale cities, the goal will be to build an environment sector that will improve the versatility of “Density and Compact Design”. By making cities more digital and technological, there is a bigger change to be able to control design elements to keep people safe, by managing the circulation of people, and density of people, also identifying faster the areas and demographics that are at risk for health crises or environmental disasters the local law official can do decision making with a lower chance to fail in controlling a disaster.
Taking account of the words of Samuel Flora, he recognizes that density has been one of the main issues in the current COVID-19 pandemic (22). Therefore rethinking density and compact design will be essential to respond to future environmental contexts (pandemics).
After the COVID-19 pandemic, architectural design, specifically healthy design, has been redefined due to this new environmental context awareness, making users feel the need to feel safe in a space where new design challenges come into play by making a comparison between interior and exterior design before the pandemic. New design approaches come about to have an effective response to decrease the number of infections. The definition of healthy design before the pandemic suggested spaces connected with nature, instead of representing flexibility and adaptation to assure common safety.
Based on Samuel Flora, the new pandemic context exposes that current designs are not healthy (don’t respond well to pandemics) because they are designed to maximize density, and not to respond to influence individual and collective health. Nowadays interior designs have an open plan concept to improve collaboration and productivity, but they do not represent a flexibility that can adapt the design to future crises; therefore a new healthy interior will have more partitions, better ventilation and natural light, and individuality will be essential to improve safety.
Designs with exterior spaces will become more popular and required by authorities and users, with bigger open spaces that host a specific activity per area, increasing the adaptation of easy cleaning materials, bigger circulation paths, and natural ventilation and light.
There is a big problem that city planners need to be aware of population density, and how manageable this massive population of individuals could be. There is a big challenge in growing cities to preserve healthy environments to keep people safe when a new environmental crisis arises in the future. Nowadays humanity tent to focus on economy and politics, leaving aside the challenges of nature and health sciences, but the current COVID-19 pandemic has created awareness for future environmental contexts and makes society have a desire to be prepared for future crises.
For designers the COVID-19 pandemic is a design challenge in a world that has been designed to create profit by increasing the number of apartments in a building, more tables on restaurants, and more seats on stadiums. Designers should consider designing flexible spaces that could become a different usage program in the future, like a school becoming a hospital, a market becoming an apartment complex, and a stadium becoming a massive vaccination center. The more flexible the space-building could be, the more value it will have in the future, by hosting a design intervention to fight a crisis in the future.
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8. Berk, 2020 B. Berk, Life after COVID-19: How interior design will change.
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10. Bluyssen, Philomena M. "Needs and opportunities." In The Healthy Indoor Environment: How to assess occupants’ wellbeing in buildings, Chapter 7, page 264, Table 7.2. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014. Accessed June 29, 2021.
11. Table from Bluyssen, Philomena M. "Needs and opportunities." In The Healthy Indoor Environment: How to assess occupants’ wellbeing in buildings, Chapter 7, page 264, Table 7.2. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014.
12. YOUSE, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2017. Image by Leonardo Finotti, Archdaily. Diagraming by Author.
13. YOUSE, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2017. Image by Leonardo Finotti, Archdaily.
14. YOUSE, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2017. Image by Leonardo Finotti, Archdaily. Diagraming by Author.
15. Article by AIA New York, Domino Park, 2020.
16. Image by Barrett Doherty, Domino Park by James Corner Field Operations, and SHoP Architects, Brooklyn, New York.
17. Marcella Winograd, Archdaily, Domino Park, New York, May 25, 2020.
18. Image by Marcella Winograd, Archdaily, Domino Park, New York, May 25, 2020. Diagraming made by Author.
19. Article “Green Infrastructure in the Time of Social Distancing: Urban Policy and the Tactical Pandemic Urbanism”, Krzysztof Herman and Łukasz Drozda.
20. Journal of “The Effect of Corona-virus “Covid-19”, New Regulations for Architectural Design Required in Buildings to Fulfill the Term of Sustainability” by Wael W. Al-Buzz, European International Journal of Science and Technology, Volume 10, No. 1. January 2021.
21. Ali Cheshmehzangi, Revisiting the built environment: 10 potential development changes and paradigm shifts due to COVID-19, Journal of Urban Management, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2226585621000054
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