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Why We’ll Need More Flexible Buildings in the Post-Covid Era
Common Edge
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Media, Non-profit, Architecture, Design
John Dale
Date Published: 
Opinion, Essay, Architecture, Flexibility, Adaptability, Building Lifespan, COVID-19, Open Building, Climate Change, Design Resilience
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2020-08-31 20:38:59
2020-08-31 21:05:08
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The coronavirus pandemic is having huge impacts on the built environment. And those impacts will continue to be felt for the foreseeable future. Our homes, offices, and schools will need to be reconfigured, repurposed and, in some cases, completely reimagined. For years I’ve advocated for a concept called Open Building. With the premise that long-term use and adaptability of buildings and places is inherently more sustainable, Open Building seeks to enhance longevity and resilience through a set of basic principles that affect design, as well as how buildings are constructed and managed over time.

Today, we build 100-year buildings that have constantly changing program needs. Too often, these structures become obsolete within as little as 5 or 10 years. Because funding cycles are long, major reconfigurations are infrequent, highly disruptive, and expensive when they occur. Buildings thought to be unadaptable are prematurely demolished and replaced. Open Building anticipates and facilitates the reconfiguration of spaces and structures facilities, so that change can occur while minimizing disruption to neighboring spaces and supporting a higher degree of local decision-making.

Why the Open Building Approach Has Special Relevance Now

The approach creates permanent settings for continuous, incremental, and, to a degree, autonomous change. We’ve seen, since just late February, a profound change in our living and working habits, and a corresponding impact on the spaces we occupy. As the school year approaches, we’re facing the prospect of empty rooms because they have lost two-thirds of their capacity due to imposed social distancing. We’re staying away from our offices or returning in selective cohorts for one or two days a week. We’re working at home, perhaps in makeshift spaces carved out of close quarters, and we are now sharing our homes with family members who had been living elsewhere. Many of our social, entertainment, cultural, and religious resources sit empty in the face of the bans on large gatherings.

If we can turn our convention centers into field hospitals, we should easily be able to reconfigure our dwellings for changing live/work situations; adjust learning clusters to accommodate more and different-sized classes with required social distancing; and successfully appropriate other spaces that have been designed to do more than one thing well. And our workspaces should be structured as blended environments, where the experience of collaborating with team members both inside and outside the office is seamless.

The Layouts of Schools, Offices, and Homes Will Change as the Pandemic Continues

School classrooms will need to flex more readily for changing cohorts of students sometimes working in greater isolation and in smaller numbers. Integrated technology will need to be tuned and intensified to allow blended learning so that students attending classes online at the same time as their counterparts learning on the spot feel equally connected and equally engaged. Other spaces, indoors and out, will need to be conceived as alternate settings for students to learn and explore in smaller groups. Air quality, regulated through a combination of natural ventilation and carefully filtered mechanical systems, will become critical considerations in the design of learning environments.

Office environments will no longer be collective 9-to-5 workplaces. Like schools, offices will be occupied by cohorts at assigned times, and meetings will be carefully orchestrated and scheduled. Nimble companies will learn to shift gears as restrictions on work environments ebb and flow according to health priorities. The expectation will be that there will be less densely occupied open work areas and more individualized space for those on specific assignments. Most if not all employees will spend a larger portion of their time working at home, again pointing to the need for adaptability and ease of change.

Homes will remain places of refuge but will evolve into more versatile environments where work is supported. With extended families going through longer and intermittent periods of sheltering in place, individual spaces may have to be designed for daily changes in use and the ability to shift interior layouts and, in favorable circumstances, expand or retract within a broader flexible framework will be increasingly important.

Organizations Mentioned: (2)
HED | Harley Ellis Devereaux
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Architecture, Engineering
Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners
Santa Monica, California, USA