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Buildings like these new Rice University classrooms designed to allow a class of 50 students to socially distance are a hint at how architecture will change thanks to COVID-19.
Buildings like these new Rice University classrooms designed to allow a class of 50 students to socially distance are a hint at how architecture will change thanks to COVID-19.
Photo by Schaefer Edwards

Local Architects Predict Big Changes to Building Design Thanks To COVID-19

When Albert Pope heard on the news that it took four years to develop a mumps vaccine and that it was the fastest a cure for a disease was ever created, he realized COVID-19 would probably be around for the foreseeable future.

As an architecture professor at Rice University, Pope knows he and his fellow architects will have a key role in helping society respond to the long term impacts of the pandemic. Architects across the globe are grappling with how COVID-19 will reshape the way new buildings are designed and how old ones are modified for years to come.

"I don't think we'll go back to business as usual," Pope said.

Two weeks into a fall semester like no other, Rice is in the middle of figuring out how to bring students together face-to-face while still keeping them safe from COVID-19. Over the summer, Rice installed four new 50-by-70-foot massive tent-like buildings in an empty field on campus. These “Provisional Campus Facilities” are designed to accommodate classes of up to 50 students while still allowing for the CDC recommended six feet of social distancing, and are decked-out with air-conditioning, projectors and all the amenities of modern classrooms.

Rice has also installed multiple large metal canopies across campus, providing open-air places for students to gather outdoors where it’s harder to spread COVID-19. “I think a lot of this is an experiment,” Pope said. “We obviously need more space.”

The need for more space and social distancing are the first things that come to mind when local architect Patrick Peters thinks about how architecture will change thanks to COVID-19. “New facilities and facilities that will be reoccupied for face-to-face use are going to have to have extra space, or fewer occupants, or both,” said Peters, who teaches architecture at the University of Houston and leads UH’s Graduate Design/Build Studio.

Peters predicts that buildings like offices which require lots of people to share a communal space will also need to be designed with dedicated areas for health screenings and temperature checks. Much like the way 9/11 made it necessary for airports to create more room for increased security screenings, Peters thinks that the pandemic will lead architects to design areas at the entrances to facilities that are “halfway in, halfway out… kind of a dirty space that’s out of the public domain” to make sure sick individuals can be identified before they interact with larger groups.

Since the coronavirus doesn’t spread as easily in outdoor environments due to increased air circulation, architects are thinking hard about how to get groups to gather in places other than closed-in buildings. Bringing people together outside is something Peters has been working on for over 30 years. He and his students in the Design/Build Studio have created innovative outdoor structures across the Houston area, such as a solar-powered classroom at Alief’s community garden and outdoor amphitheaters, stages and pavilions for schools and other organizations.

“Those projects now seem prescient, because all manner of institutions are seeking to create outdoor workspace,” Peters said. “They’re going to be propelled by this urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic to become much more widespread and much more permanent.”

Architects are also planning for how the rapid increase in remote work brought about by coronavirus lockdowns and stay home orders will change the way homes are designed going forward. In recent years, more and more businesses let their employees take advantage of working from home, but the pandemic has turned the home office from a luxury into a necessity.

“It probably would have taken another ten years for this amount of transition from the office place to the home, or to realize a hybrid model,” Pope said. “It’s now happened virtually overnight.”

“Remote format will no longer be something that was temporary. It’s going to be part of our menu of choices,” said Peters, which he believes will spur home designers into creating living spaces that have fluid, adaptable spaces that can be set up for both working from home and for virtual education so that multiple members of a household can be on video calls at the same time. “I know in my own household, we have three and sometimes four different Zoom or Teams or Skype calls or meetings happening simultaneously, and those don’t work well if they’re all bleeding across each other,” Peters said.

Pope and Peters have both thought a lot about how the way cities operate influences architectural design, and vice versa. Naturally, they’ve considered what could happen to the way cities are designed if the massive shift to remote work seen during the pandemic becomes permanent. After COVID-19 has been dealt with, will people scarred by the psychological impact of facing down a highly contagious life-threatening disease be willing to voluntarily gather in large urban areas, especially if those same people aren’t expected to regularly come into a central office?

As long as a treatment or cure for the coronavirus gets developed in the next few years, neither Peters nor Pope believe that COVID-19 will spell the end of the modern city as we know it. “What I don’t expect is a mass migration away from concentrated urban centers, because I think that the draw to those spaces is so strong,” said Peters.

Even if folks don’t have to clock-in at the downtown office every day, he thinks that eventually the draw of nightlife, fine dining and the arts will cause people to head back to urban areas en masse. “I suspect there will be some slowdown to that activity, but I would expect it would continue once some preventative or therapeutic is broadly released.”

He also believes that even businesses that allow employees to work remotely most of the time will still ask architects to design large office spaces because he expects corporate leaders will still see the value of bringing large teams together on occasion. “I can’t predict the future,” Peters said, “but I would expect that those high-rises will make sense in the long term, because the opportunity to bring their staff together — even if it’s not every day or all at once — will still be a desire.”

“I don’t think the city will wither and die, because I think the fundamental need for proximity won’t ever go away,” Pope said. “That’s how we really survive: by working together, even in this digital world.”

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