Built Environment 24.04.20

Covid-19 and the Built Environment

Most of us have experienced at least one significant change to our everyday ‘normal’ as a result of the global pandemic. The world as we know it is changing - and while there is much uncertainty around what the near and distant future holds, one thing for certain is that there will be no returning to ‘normal’. How will our lives transform in this new world?

Cities are silent. Society as we know it has been transformed in a matter of weeks. Once-crowded commuter and tourist hotspots are deserted. Just months ago, London’s Regent Street was lit up for the holidays; beautifully bustling with people from all around the world strolling the streets, window shopping; in awe at the architecture of the stores, restaurants and cafes that line the streets. Down through to Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar square, to Big Ben and the London Eye, unique world-renowned architecture as far as the eye can see; delicately designed for the centre of the city (or, the universe, as some may argue), now stand vacant with few to appreciate.

The current Covid-19 crisis has brought our world to a staggering halt. The sun sets and rises each day over the London skyline, perhaps the only calming consistent throughout this emotionally challenging period..

The industries Harmonic Finance and Harmonic Operations support to bring world-renowned buildings and spaces to life, from exterior design and architecture to construction and interior design, are also facing unprecedented changes. Typically collaborative projects are being paused in this era of uncertainty. Borders are closing, prohibiting physical meet-ups of international designers and architects. Clerkenwell Design Week, the UK’s leading independent festival for the international design community, has been postponed until mid-July, along with dozens of other design and architectural events around the world.

Most of us have experienced at least one significant change to our everyday ‘normal’ as a result of the global pandemic. The world as we know it is changing - and while there is much uncertainty around what the near and distant future holds, one thing for certain is that there will be no returning to ‘normal’.

How will our lives transform in this new world? Will we still be flocking to the cities chasing big city dreams, cosmopolitan lifestyle and cocktails at any hour?

Or, as our health becomes our top priority will we think twice about settling in areas with such high population densities and low number of open, green spaces?

Will cities remain the centre of it all when so many things can take place online? How will our demand for the built environment change?

Working practices changing overnight

Consider office spaces in the post-Covid era. The way many of us work will change dramatically. One thing that has been proven is that many jobs can be completed efficiently and effectively from home; which begs the question, is a permanent office space necessary? With ever-improving technologies such as Microsoft teams and Zoom, many teams can easily share ideas, collaborate on projects or debate the latest headlines over coffee in the comfort of their own homes.

For many designers and architects, it’s becoming apparent that many design jobs can often be completed remotely with some support. Global architecture firm RMJM, for example, has facilitated remote working and collaboration by establishing a database platform to support quarantined architects to design work for live projects from home, enabling collaboration with other architects around the world.

As people shy away from showrooms due to social distancing measures, perhaps we will see more companies embracing the digitalisation of showrooms. We have already seen virtual product launches and trade fairs, and Giorgio Armani even live streamed its show from an empty showhouse during Milan’s Fashion Week! Art institutions around the world are also giving virtual tours of museums and exhibitions including Fondazione Prada in Milan and Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

What about cities and other open spaces?

According to the United Nations, buildings and their construction are responsible for almost 40% of global energy use and energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually, and climate change and air pollution can be responsible for worsening symptoms of people who contract Covid-19 according to Harvard's School of Public Health.

Considering another global crisis: climate change. There is a need to rethink, reimagine and redesign our entire lives, not least the spaces we live and work within. Over the coming decades the world is expected to construct an area the equivalent of Paris, every week. New homes and buildings need to not only be energy efficient and climate-proof but also constructed from reused materials without the use of fossil fuels. Buildings should be designed and built so that all materials can be disassembled and re-used.

There are various other global challenges to consider such as population growth and ever-increasing demand for accommodation near cities as the hubs of employment. Will this mean more high-rise buildings to meet the ever-increasing demand for housing? Or will the rise in teleworking opportunities ease the demand on housing near the cities? Perhaps some office spaces could be better utilised as shared working spaces for various companies, and vacant office buildings could be occupied as centres for the new society such as accommodation or central hubs for businesses.

What will the new ‘hygienic interiors’ look like?

Innovative design can support the shift towards a more hygienic society, slowing down the spread of potential future similar emergencies. Gone will be the days where we need to open doors or our elbows or wear gloves to press an elevator button. Could we enter a new age of automated doors and windows or voice-activated elevators?

Automatic technology in public spaces is not entirely new to us, many public bathrooms have hand-sensor activated automatic taps which run for a specific amount of time (which also save water), alongside automatic ‘no touch’ bins. In a bid to save energy, automatic lights will activate when someone enters a room. We have also grown accustomed to automatic hand-dryers, however there are concerns about the risk of these increasing the transmission of viruses. In a bid to find a solution, design studio Bompas & Parr have launched Fountain of Hygiene, an open call competition for designers to propose new models of hand-dryer pumps.

Outdoor open and green spaces have perhaps never been more appreciated than during the lockdown. Ideally, we will see more as these have positive benefits for both mental and physical health, but how can innovative design remove the need for surface contact? The City of Sydney has demonstrated how pedestrian lights can be automatic to eliminate the need for people to press the button to cross the street and some areas in London have sensors whereby people can activate the crossing by waving their hand.

Hygiene should now be a high priority in the forefront of designer’s minds, both in public and private spaces. The so-called ‘germaphobes’ have been long advocating for innovations which limit the amount of contact with shared surfaces that could be easily contaminated, perhaps it’s time we listened.

Bright side?

Amid a global crisis it is somewhat difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or to comprehend any sort of good news.

If there is one thing that can be taken away from the current situation is that we are a global, interconnected community and when needed, we can redirect priorities towards the greater good. As well as reportedly ordering 40 million masks from China for France, the French luxury goods giant LVMH has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by redeploying its perfume factories to create hand sanitisers which will be delivered free of charge to hospitals around the country, for as long as they are required. Countless companies including Burberry, Nike and New Balance, have transformed operations to create Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers including masks, gowns and scrubs.

The need to mitigate future risks may also mean shorter supply chains and the shift to local production, which is good news for smaller, local businesses.

When it comes to demand for interior design and furniture, it could be argued that there may be an initial lack of demand for non-essential, commodity products; the working from home boom just might have the opposite effect. As people spend more time in their own homes, both during the lockdown and as teleworking becomes an option for office workers, they may want to improve the aesthetic appearance and functionality of their home workspace. This is good news for the design industry. People may have more time to get around to that project they’ve been dancing around, perhaps a study to facilitate frequent working from home, and a suitable desk, chair and decorations to boost productivity.

However and whenever this ends, one thing is for sure: we will all see the world with new eyes.

Harmonic Finance and Harmonic Operations remain open for business during these challenging times. Contact us on: 0203 773 3530

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