COVID-19 Makes Us Rethink the Connection Between Wellness + Design

Three changes in homebuilding and commercial interior design are leading the way

BY MARY COOK

Our buildings can make us sick—or keep us well. Right now, it’s more of the former as Harvard’s Healthy Buildings Program Director Joseph Allen noted in his March New York Times OpEd. In it he explained how air ventilation and filtration systems have long contributed to the spread of deadly infectious diseases. But with COVID-19, which has proven to be so contagious that its infection, morbidity and mortality rates have brought the world to its metaphorical knees, the issue has become more dangerous than ever.

The upshot for the homebuilding industry? Design is at the heart of a healthy home… or office, school, store, cruise ship and more. And thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which places us all at risk, our future is clear: health and wellness must come first in every aspect of the structures we build—for not only a building’s end users, but also for the teams that design and construct them.

By this measure, the homebuilding industry has significant changes to make. Currently, many parts of the design process are inadequately integrated or an afterthought. For example, the design of a project’s envelope is often done separately from that of its mechanicals. The same holds true for many other fea- tures of the projects we work on; architects, builders and commercial interior designers such as our firm handle different aspects of the design and construction process.

Yet when all the parts of a project do not align, from spaces that don’t offer occupants the flexibility they need for their lifestyles to material choices that are not sustainable or durable, residents are the ones who must ultimately live in a less than optimal home. Or not; our firm is often hired by developers to correct design mistakes that keep their developments from selling or achieving high occupancy rates.

This reminds us that a structure’s ventilation and air filtration systems are the proverbial tip of the iceberg on issues we must address to meet new levels of health and wellness. Everything from the psychographics and de- mographics we compile and analyze to inform each project’s architecture and interior design to the construction process to the ongoing maintenance that homes and buildings require after they’re inhabited must change. To achieve optimal health and wellness, nothing about residences should be an afterthought.

How will this happen? What will this process look like? While there’s no way to know for now, here are three ways we anticipate immediate and significant changes in home- building and commercial interior design.

 

1. Homebuilding will become totally collaborative and cohesive.

Because health and wellness permeate every aspect of a home, integrated design that begins truly at the beginning—meaning when a home or multifamily building hasn’t even hit the drawing board—will be the new normal. All the stakeholders and professionals involved in a project must be engaged early in the design process— which will be easier than ever now that we’ve gone virtual with Zoom and Microsoft Teams as we shelter in place. Tech will enable us to collaborate more fully than ever before, but doing so cohesively is up to us. We must make sure the right team members are on board at the right times, and learn to streamline the virtual meeting process (as we’ve learned from some way too long and disorganized Zoom calls). Health-and-wellness-focused planning in the development and design process made upfront will result in homes that better meet residents’ needs.

2. Safety, transparency and sustainability will be top priorities.

Just as job sites pose issues for construction workers and design professionals who must sign off on work as it’s completed, homes pose issues for residents. While there are already dozens of different green building rating and certification systems, more will evolve as all aspects of our homes become more critical and related to our health and wellness. Sustainability will apply to every feature of our homes, from the materials we use to build them to the fixtures, finishes and furnishings we fill them with. Get used to hearing antimicrobial and antibacterial as descriptors for everything in our residences as we become obsessed with safety and sanitation. And expect a new and even higher level of transparency. Residents will want to know where every material and item in their homes came from and it’s cradle to grave lifecycle. And more than ever, we will be interested in the analytics that trace the performance and energy efficiency of our homes.

3. Spaces will be rethought, again and again.

Those tales about doing away with dining rooms and downsizing kitchens are premature. Everyone we know is cooking again. And with gyms closed right now, we’re all figuring out how to work out at home. Other hobbies are making comebacks too thanks to sheltering in place, and rather than go away again they will morph into variations on a theme as we rediscover the joy of “we” time and private spaces. The point of our observations? We’ve long talked about our need for multipurpose spaces and flexible furnishings because our lifestyles change. Yet we want to do things that keep us in tiptop shape physically and emotionally. Cooking, working out, gathering with family and friends and having spaces that connect us to the outside are but a few of ways we will strengthen our connection to health and wellness now, post COVID-19 and for decades to come.

Mary Cook is the founder and principal of Mary Cook Associates. She may be reached at www.marycook.com.

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