Architects are concerned with the future of office design
When coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders were announced in the U.S. last March, their duration was largely indefinite. But now, almost four months later, with spikes in infections again in several states, the design world has realized that changes must be made to physical space to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some employers are retrofitting tight spaces with protective shields and hand disinfection stations, while others are considering new ways to use their existing office while staying socially distant. For ongoing office workplaces, some have begun asking their designers to revise their plans to allow for distance and safe collaborative work. What does the future of workplace design look like given the current global health crisis? Three architects are wondering how offices can stay safe after employees return.
“The future success of a healthy workplace depends on intelligent planning strategies and behavioral responsibility,” says Suzette Subance Ferrier, Managing Executive and Studio Creative Director of TPG Architecture, based in New York. “At the moment we are not seeing a complete shift to cabins. What we’re seeing is a denser workspace. ”For each employer and each office space, she explains, the physical solution will be different, but the key in all cases is flexibility in the design. Movable furniture and partitions, touchless screens and devices, even lockers to protect personal items for businesses that partially work from home to keep building capacity at 50% or less, could all be implemented to protect employee health . This month the company completed a case study for an “Office of the Future” with a view to COVID-19. As a redesign of an interior plan for a current office project for a TAMI (Technology, Advertising, Media, and Information) customer, TPG Architecture’s solution for social distancing maintains a 3-foot radius between employees at the desks while also enabling a collaborative one Space for small groups.
For its own future office in One Willoughby Square Tower, which is currently under construction in Brooklyn, architecture firm FXCollaborative has turned its designs in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. “A spectacular all-round terrace and two balconies will certainly help us a lot to work smarter and actually work outdoors, which has never been so attractive,” says partner and design director Angie Lee. (The company designs both the 34-story tower and its own offices in it.) The renderings show a spacious open space with breakout rooms for individual work or small group collaboration lining the large windows. However, the virus outbreak has also promoted a change in the company’s work culture that will lead to healthier minds. “The most important thing we’re trying to change is our addiction to ‘as usual’. This includes everything from the classic architect / designer who is paper-intensive, territorial and overly eager “collector” of surface patterns to automatically falling back into the 40-plus-hour week, ”she explains. Instead, the company is becoming “more mobile, more tech-savvy, remotable and healthier”.
Beyond simply rethinking the interior design of an office, redesigning and upgrading the internal systems of a building can also protect the well-being of employees. Architects at Leo A Daly, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, consider how changes to a building’s ventilation systems can protect people from the spread of germs in the air. Executive director of the company’s Washington, DC office and Vice President Bill Kline, National Director of Engineering Kim Cowman, Director of Technical Services Tim Duffy, and Chief Sustainability Officer Ellen Mitchell-Kozack recently released a White paper that proposes design solutions to building owners and operators to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside. The report is based on new research by the Annual virology reviewwho found that a humidity of at least 40% can significantly suppress the transmission of COVID-19, especially in the air. Hence, the team argues that increasing the humidity in a building in winter (when infectious diseases are at their peak and scientists predict the nation could see a second wave of COVID-19 cases) may prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Most American cities with cold winters maintain indoor relative humidity at around 20%, sometimes lower. Just adding standalone humidifiers to an indoor space could “cause catastrophic damage to walls, ceilings, and floors,” Cowman says, but retrofitting a building enclosure to achieve high levels of performance allows humidification to be routed through new steam distribution infrastructure.
With some Americans back to work in offices with limited capacity, the workplace looks very different from the first few months of the year, especially the lack of staff. While some companies are considering full-time or part-time remote solutions in the future, architects argue that the built world can help keep employees safe. “Based on TPG’s employee survey, 86% of respondents said that working with their teams was the number one reason they got back to the office,” says Subance Ferrier. With smart redesigns, they can do just that.