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Beyond COVID-19: The Future of Building Design

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

“Papa! Tell us about 2020”. With eagerness and expectation, my grandchild, Nii looked up, expecting some kind of profound answer. I smiled, savouring the moment, readjusted myself in my seat, my disposition- that of a warrior about to recount a famous legend, I looked the 11 year old boy directly in the eye and whispered ‘it’s one for the ages, one that also changed building design forever”. No, I am no grandpa yet, but I have played the scenario above several times in my mind, when future generations will ask about our present time and we will look back at how COVID-19 changed our lives and especially building design.

In my mind’s eye, COVID-19 will precipitate sweeping changes in the design of residential, commercial and retail properties in the next few years. At the core of diseases, epidemics or pandemics, of which the 21st century has encountered its fair share, Sars, Mers, Ebola, bird flu, swine flu etc., lies the observation that a robust immune system is key to giving people a fighting chance. We find ourselves at crossroads; fighting off diseases and pandemics require some level of distancing and isolation, yet it is also true that our immune systems, physically and mentally are better boosted when we step out into the sun, sit under trees etc. It is known that sitting under trees for instance, reduces stress, heart rate and blood pressure etc. One of the COVID-19 preventive measures as advised by the World Health Organization (WHO) is to bask in the sun to acquire much needed vitamin D. So, the big question is, how do we find a fine balance to create building and city designs that fuse promotion of qualitative indoor light and air with the interaction of nature and outdoor. Are you ready to travel into this future? Well, fasten your seat belts for a quick trip.

Creation of ‘20 Minute Neighbourhoods’

These kind of neighbourhoods or estates refer to developments that are such that you can live, work, shop, seek medical care, and exercise all within a 20 minute radius. In other words, all of your daily needs, errands or routine are all localized within a 20-minute walk or bike ride. The benefits are clear; with walking and biking comes exercise, low greenhouse gas emission as no vehicle is involved as well as an appreciation and interaction of nature and greenery in that localized environment. The whole idea is to reduce the density or concentration of people in one single central business district as in the case of Accra for instance. It’s really a win-win. The cities of Portland and especially Melbourne have been leading the way in planning with the aim to roll out such neighbourhoods even before the pandemic. Robert Muggah, director at the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian-based think tank estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, the need to design pandemic resilient cities is even more relevant than ever before.

“Introverted Offices”

It was only yesterday that co-working spaces had become a thing. It had become so popular because of the utility of sharing costs, low rents, access to professionals and networks etc. it was built on the principle of social interaction but going forward, post this pandemic, such spaces and conventional offices will be designed to reduce touch points and direct human interaction, in other words, offices will be designed to promote as little social interaction as much as possible, they will become very introverted!

The concept of “contactless pathways” seeks to reduce touching of surfaces and gadgets in offices. For instance, lifts can be called from a smartphone, avoiding the need to press a button both outside and in, while office doors will open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition. In addition, blinds, lighting, ventilation and even ordering a coffee will be controlled from your phone. “I think we’ll see wider corridors and doorways, more partitions between departments, and a lot more staircases,” reckons Arjun Kaicker, head of analytics and insights at Zaha Hadid Architects. That quick huddle around the coffee machine for a quick catch up may soon be a thing of the past. The size of office desks which have traditionally reduced over the years from 1.8m to 1.6m to now 1.4m to accommodate more people per square metre will see a reversion to wider and bigger desks in a bid to socially distant as much as possible. So long workstations, it’s been nice!

Multi-functional Homes

Legend has it that sometime ago, it was enough to craft living spaces to sleep, cook, eat and relax in that lazy chair. Well, not so anymore. Going forward, homes will be designed to be multi-functional, accommodating not just basic livings spaces but spaces so fitted that the enhance our physiological, psychological and economic well-being. Health will be at the biggest priority in future design of homes. Gone will be the plans that felt entirely sealed and fully air conditioned. Such homes beyond aesthetics rather promoted what is known as the “sick building syndrome” in which pathogens circulated and recirculated within trapped air inside homes from ACs and other vents. Large windows, so designed to allow in natural light and air will become a mainstay, thus homes will reduce dependability on national grid to cool internal spaces. Homes will also accommodate the ‘work from home culture’ by moving beyond a desk in some corner of the home to mini office spaces, complete and separate with large windows, comfortable furniture and even sound-insulated.

Spaces will be marked for home gardening. There used to be a time in Ghana when ‘Operation Feed Yourself’ was in fashion. We will see a return to this with backyard gardening and planting of basic vegetables becoming more fashionable. Gardening, apart from allowing you to grow what you eat, is also therapeutic and boosts coping mechanisms in times of stress. This is becoming so important that even if there is lack of space in the yard, vertical gardening is advised. With the shift towards more and more enclosure, open plans will cease to become the go to design. New home designs will very much separate kitchen, living and dining areas and further have separate entrances where clothing and personal items could be sanitized before actually making an entry to main living room.

As my mind continues to its journey into the future, I realize more and more that these aren’t only imaginary, they will be a reality sooner than later. When this harbinger of change is recounted, I will tell Nii confidently, I was there, there in 2020.

The writer is the Executive director of Yecham Property Consult

& Founder of Ghana Green Building Summit.


Linkedin: Cyril Nii Ayitey TettehTweet

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