Post-Pandemic Design Strategies For Next Wave of Housing

Forward-looking homes and apartments must provide safe spaces for work, wellness and fun

BY MARY COOK

Housing has become far more sustainable in the last decade as builders, developers and designers strive to meet Americans’ changing values and ensuing demands. Whether they live in luxury villas or affordable apartments, occupants expect full disclosure on everything from structures’ building materials and furnishings to the social values of companies that supply the goods. And our industry has risen to the challenge admirably, delivering all that and more.

All that and more is now just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. None of us ever anticipated a global pandemic that would not only take the design, construction, and property management of housing to entirely new levels of scrutiny and precaution, but also require a whole new set of checks and balances. What will COVID-19 mean for America’s housing industry—from existing residences to those still on the drawing boards?

COVID-19’s impact on wellness and the economy will force us to flex and evolve, both in real time and over time. Bringing rehabs, adaptive reuse projects, and new homes and apartments to market takes a good deal of time and involves substantial complexity. That means the time to start planning and executing is now.

Based on our experience with the dozens of multifamily and new home developments we work on annually as commercial interior designers, here are some of the most pressing post-pandemic design strategies we must consider to address the needs, concerns, and aspirations of homeowners and renters.

Design Will Play to Flexibility, Function, and Fun: We all like to gather and celebrate; it’s what we live for and will return to as perhaps our most cherished pastime after this ordeal is over. But our homes and communities must have safety, wellness and connectivity built into them from the ground up. Housing must incorporate design, mechanicals, finishes, and furnishings that will provide occupants multifunctional spaces with natural light, passive heating and cooling, healthy indoor air quality, antibacterial surfaces, antimicrobial textiles and flooring, and access to livable outdoor spaces. Flexible interior spaces will accommodate temporary and/or unexpected activities, but more importantly will allow residents to enjoy spaces regardless of their function.

Open Layouts Will Allow More Privacy: Open layouts are far from over, but it’s clear we will need to tweak them to create spaces that can be more private as we continue to work from home and take the possibility of future outbreaks into account. We may have the capacity to work from anywhere at any time, but activities will necessitate the need for spaces specifically optimized to offer total silence or accommodate video calls—without disputing other activities in a household. These needs will require noise control systems, soundproofing, reconfigured spaces, optimal lighting for tasks and video display, and power for all necessary tech. Design will also need to solve another pressing problem that became clear during shelter-inplace orders: how to create a clear separation between working at home and being at home.

Reception Areas Will Be Elevated: The areas where we enter houses and apartments, and leave deliveries, have become critical to our health and safety thanks to the pandemic, and this is not going to change. We’re always going to e-shop and have a nagging fear about potential infectious threats. Going forward, we will need entry areas where we can leave outside attire and drop-off areas that are accessible to delivery people but protected from thieves. These areas can even incorporate recycling and trash collection. And while all of us will need these spaces, the solutions will be specific and different, depending on what kind of homes we have, where they are and how we live.

Storage Will Swell: Stockpiling will diminish, but homes are becoming our sanctuaries once again. We will all need to have space to store lifestyle-enhancing items such as crafting materials or personal exercise equipment, as well as necessities from bulk goods and supplies to non-perishables, wine, and beer.

Automation Will Become Holistic: Germs have gone from a nuisance to a threat, so we must rely on automation to mitigate contagion. This will make touchless technology imperative for everything—from doors, security systems and elevators to lights, thermostats, appliances and electronic equipment. We’re looking forward to seeing how bathroom fixtures and kitchen appliances will change, especially stoves, refrigerators, and faucets.

Biophilia Will Dominate Design: Balconies and porches that let people connect, communicate, and enjoy the outdoors gave so many renters and homeowners joy and hope during the pandemic. Bringing the outside in—and vice versa—has already topped most residents’ want lists; now it will become a requisite and expand to include outdoor spaces, green walls, indoor gardens and interior courts whenever possible.

Protocols Will Prevent a Repeat: One thing is certain: While the potential for future pandemics may change the way we live, work, and play, we’re betting it won’t catch the housing industry unaware again. Out of this crisis, protocols and processes will emerge that will help us improve our lifestyles while making them more healthy, safe and sustainable. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

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

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