By Brian Johnson and William Morris
From accelerating existing trends to inspiring technological advances, the COVID-19 pandemic is poised to have a lasting impact on the way future offices and other public gathering places are designed, built and used.
That’s a big-picture message from architects and other building experts who are looking at the future of buildings through the lens of the public health crisis.
Home offices, for example, may become increasingly common. Put another way, as people warm to the idea of working from home, they might question the need to drive to the office under any circumstances, according to some experts.
Jeremy Jacobs, managing director/market leader at Colliers International, said in a recent webinar that society is “really moving away” from the expectation that employees have to work in a traditional office setting.
“I think productivity will be king in the future, and we’re really going to enhance the options that people have to work from home,” Jacobs predicted.
That trend already has started, and the pandemic is likely to accelerate the shift from cubicles to home offices, said Thomas Fisher, professor and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.
“The office has become more of a place to gather and meet on occasion than about everyone being in their own cubicle,” Fisher said.
Bill Baxley, an architect and managing director with the global architecture, design and planning firm Gensler, said future designs could bring everything from expanded use of video conferencing to advances in hygiene in schools and office towers.
“From a design standpoint, it starts with everything that you touch and sort of an awareness of that haptic realm — that doorknob, or how you enter a building, or the layers of transition from street into public spaces,” Baxley said.
“I think there will be ramifications about how doors work, how public spaces work. What are the technologies that already enable us to have meetings remotely? How can we make that even more successful when we have to go in lockdown mode?”
Sensors, facial recognition technology, thermal monitoring and smart audio are just a few of the tools that building owners and operators can use to help make workplaces and retail environments safer, Jacobs said.
China has shown leadership in some of those areas and is a good “global proxy for what’s likely to happen in the U.S.,” he added.
Sensor technology, for instance, can help to track movements to make sure that people are staying at least 6 feet apart.
“That seems a little bit Big Brother, but Ford Motor Co. at a plant in Michigan has already adopted it, where people on the plant have to wear a monitor, and if they break the 6-foot bubble, a reminder goes off that they need to move further,” Jacobs said.
Another possible outcome is improved technology related to indoor air and surfaces, Fisher said.
“After previous plagues, there have been great advances toward sanitation. We have a pretty good public works infrastructure in the U.S. in terms of clean water, but we are not particularly careful with, say, viruses in the air or on surfaces,” Fisher said.
“I think that will be the new frontier around sanitation.”