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How Covid Is Changing The Way Architects Design Apartments, Offices

With the pandemic now more than a year old, architects say it has become clear that the coronavirus will create long-term trends in the way people use buildings, and it is increasingly shaping the way they design new projects. 

Architects are pulling design elements from hospitals into other commercial property types to create healthier buildings, and they are catering to tenant behaviors in other ways, such as increasing unit sizes and adding outdoor spaces, food delivery hubs and flexible workspace areas, according to executives speaking last week on Bisnow's D.C. Architecture and Design Update webinar. 

A rendering of the fully completed Wharf project, with the Phase 2 buildings on the right.

Perkins Eastman Managing Principal Barbara Mullenex, whose firm leads a team of architects designing D.C. megaproject The Wharf, said the firm has been pulling design ideas from healthcare facilities into other product types to make spaces safer. 

"I reached out to one of our healthcare experts who does highly sophisticated cancer treatment facilities [and asked], 'How do you keep infections down in a cancer center?'" Mullenex said. "It was interesting because that technology — it's not just a product, it's also about air pressure and pressurization — it really had a big impact on how we look at design of all spaces from hotels to schools."

Porcelanosa USA General Manager Santiago Manent Alonso, whose firm provides tile, kitchen and bath products, said he has seen a big increase in demand from developers and architects for surfaces that are antibacterial and can help prevent the spread of viruses. 

"We've seen an increase in demand for products that can be easily sanitized," Alonso said. "Hard surfaces are replacing a lot of soft surfaces. There's definitely been a trend in that."

Alonso said he sees this as part of a larger shift in the way architects think about designing buildings. Prior to the pandemic, he said it was popular to pull elements from the hospitality sector into other property types, but now many architects are using the healthcare sector for inspiration. 

"There's been a change in dynamics between all the different silos in the design industry," he said. "Healthcare was looking to hospitality, the focus was the guests, and now everyone's looking to healthcare and how can we apply wellness to the workplace, academia and even in our homes to keep buildings safe."

Mullenex said she has looked more at antibacterial surfaces, but she said developers are more likely to invest in air filtration systems. 

"No architect wants to design a space and spend all the money on HVAC," she said. "I'd much rather buy porcelain tile, but I think HVAC is going to win out."

Clockwise from top left: Environments' Erin McDannald, Hickok Cole's Yolanda Cole, Perkins Eastman's Barbara Mullenex, Moya Design Partners' Paola Moya and Porcelanosa USA's Santiago Manet Alonso.

Moya Design Partners founder and CEO Paola Moya, a D.C.-based architect who works on a variety of property types, said she doesn't think the pandemic will change everything about the way spaces are designed, but she thinks it will have a modest impact on trends such as an increase in outdoor space. 

"There are going to be more outdoor spaces, whether balconies for residential, more spaces for parks and courtyards on the first floor," Moya said. "Those are some of the things clients are looking for — and people in general."

Another trend Moya has seen accelerated by the pandemic is an increase in people ordering meals and groceries delivered to their apartments, and she said architects are increasingly designing spaces in lobbies to handle deliveries. 

"Everyone was ordering, so larger spaces where you can have not just delivery but food dropped off, even refrigerators that can be accommodated in lobbies, I think that's something that we'll most likely continue to have," Moya said. 

Moya also said developers are increasingly looking at ways to design buildings with larger units as renters have been spending more time at home. Several developers told Bisnow last month they are planning to increase unit sizes in response to the pandemic, but doing so can lower the number of units in a building and decrease their profits. 

"It's always going to be about return on investment and how many units can you put in the building, and that is something that will continue to stay," Moya said. "During Covid, the mix might have been different, where you have an increase in one-bedroom-plus-dens and two-bedrooms. That's the data we're seeing."

Hickok Cole Architects owner Yolanda Cole said she has also heard discussions about increasing unit sizes, but she thinks the financial drawbacks will make that difficult. 

"There is tremendous pressure on the price side of that," Cole said of larger units. "Construction costs are high, labor is hard to come by. People will only pay so much rent. I think that struggle will continue. We may have to think more creatively about how to get all these different things into the same amount of space."

Cole also said she is seeing changes in the design of apartment amenities, such as adding more outdoor spaces and workspace areas for remote workers. 

On the office side, Cole said she is seeing the changing dynamics firsthand as Hickok Cole builds out its new headquarters in a mixed-use development near Union Market

A rendering of Foulger-Pratt's Press House at Union District, where Hickok Cole is moving its headquarters.

Cole said the biggest question in designing the new workplace has been whether employees will be given their own dedicated desks, even if they're not coming into the office every day. She said Hickok Cole had initially considered a plan to reduce the number of desks in the space and have people share desks on a rotating basis, but it later abandoned that plan. 

"Once we started looking at what that meant, how to implement it, like who has a desk and who doesn't have a desk, it started to become very hairy," she said. "So we ended up putting those desks right back, and everyone's going to have a desk, at least to start."

While she said the pandemic hasn't changed employees' desire to have their own desks, she said Hickok Cole has increased the number of flexible work areas such as phone booths, huddle rooms and WiFi-enabled outdoor terraces that give people a variety of places to take their laptops. 

"People can work at their desks, which we decided at least at the moment that everyone has one, but we have all these other spaces people can take their work with them to give flexibility," Cole said. 

Mullenex said Perkins Eastman had a similar experience with the relocation of its Pittsburgh office, and it also found that people don't want to give up their own dedicated desks. She said the coronavirus has made people more aware of other contagious illnesses, and that will change the way employees think about sharing spaces and working in close proximity to others. 

"Nobody really wants to hot desk," Mullenex said. "Nobody really wants to come in and sit at somebody else's workstation. I think that will persist forever. I think there's a new awareness of somebody coughing in the office and then everybody else gets the flu or cold. We've all experienced that, and I think we're all going to be less tolerant of that."