In addressing COVID concerns, architects are finding lasting changes to design


Kelly Thomas

Architects and designers might have to incorporate what they’ve learned so far from the pandemic into planning spaces for the future.

Jill Makin, news correspondent

Following the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., businesses, restaurants and public spaces have had to adapt their existing layouts in order to comply with safety guidelines. Moving forward, architects and designers might have to incorporate what they’ve learned so far from the pandemic into planning spaces for the future.

Julia Barksdale, a fifth-year architecture major and co-director of the Northeastern chapter of Freedom by Design, said that some businesses face greater challenges than others when working with their existing spaces.

“Places like restaurants and even some office spaces are able to adapt pretty quickly because they’re already segmented in a way … I think the biggest struggles right now are the spaces like community centers, libraries or even museums, where their main purpose is just to be one large shared space, and that’s just not possible right now, safety-wise,” Barksdale said. “It’s going to feel empty, it’s going to feel huge.”

Barksdale is currently on co-op at Utile, a Boston-based architecture and design firm. She said the firm has dealt with disruptions to some of their projects, even those that were ready to move forward prior to the pandemic.

“Some projects that were ready to go are now undergoing an additional chapter of design,” Barksdale said. “It’s definitely an edit that we have to make to the design of spaces, so we are seeing that in real time now. It’s hard to predict what’s going to be going and what’s not.”

Architecture students are also starting to see some of these changes brought into their classes as they strive to create flexible designs that can be adapted to purposes beyond what the architect originally intended. 

“Going through the steps of scenario planning, as we did in one of our studios, thinking what if this has to turn into a school? Or what if this has to turn into apartments, or an office building or a health clinic?” said Ana Leopold, a fifth-year architecture major. “Then [we designed] the structure around that to allow taking out walls in the middle, rebuilding them or having an open space.” 

Despite some acknowledgment of COVID-19 in their courses, architecture students find that spatial versatility and planning for the future are already integrated into their education. “As far as coursework, I don’t really expect a huge shift. I think it’s just going to be more of the focus on flexibility, which is something we’ve already been trained to start thinking about,” Barksdale said.

Teaching architecture during this pandemic involves asking students and colleagues to look at the bigger picture and reflect on the way spaces and buildings influence issues of inequity in society.

“There’s a lot of conversation about how to be not just reactive to this moment, but how to be proactive. How can we think about our cities and buildings as just and equitable places?” said Amanda Reeser Lawrence, graduate program coordinator and associate professor in the School of Architecture at Northeastern. “I think it’s important that this isn’t just how to make air flow adequate … We have the tools, we can do that as architects. What is more important is that we ask bigger questions about how to create designs that are inclusive, and I think this is something that the pandemic has really brought to the forefront.”

Concerns over the safety and importance of cities have also been introduced as people are able to work from home instead of worrying about the risks of close proximity when living and working in urban areas. 

“We really see architects and the profession of architecture more generally asking how we can make not just our buildings but our cities safer. One of the big conversations that is happening is about the value of cities in general. I think because there’s an anxiety around density right now, there’s some related apprehension about urban living and talk of people leaving the city,” Lawrence said. “I really believe in the city. I think there’s so many positive things that the city offers, but as architects, this is really asking us to articulate what that value is.”

Leopold has already started to consider how to approach the issues with housing in cities, particularly as some struggle with evictions or not being able to pay rent.

“With the amount of people that are homeless, and the people that are getting evicted or can’t pay rent, [the pandemic] is just emphasizing the importance of that. I hope that it leads to new [housing] typologies and more creativity for developing that,” Leopold said. “But I think honestly, on a more psychological, human side, people are going to be scared about being in public spaces for a while … so I think there will be lasting impacts on how people move through public space after this.”

While architects mostly see the ramifications of the pandemic in public spaces, it’s possible that home design will start to reflect some of the lifestyle changes brought on by the blending of home and work spaces. “Even those categories –– your home and your workplace –– are attached to physical spaces that historically have been thought of as distinct,” Lawrence said.

Barksdale didn’t anticipate many adjustments to home design, but said that integrating a workspace or more ergonomic furniture into the home may become more common in the future. “I think the biggest change we’re going to see is a more established home office, or a place where people can find comfort working from home,” she said.

When considering lasting changes to design, architects have found themselves addressing the immediate issues created by the pandemic while also aiming for long-term flexibility.

“We see architecture firms responding to immediate issues so, for example, making schools, workplaces or hospitals safer, and helping to establish social distancing measures through spatial or architectural tools,” Lawrence said. 

In the long run, Leopold believes that the pandemic will affect architecture, though she expects the need for flexibility to outlast the changes that come directly from COVID-19 safety measures. 

“I would say there’s going to be a lasting impact on architecture, but I don’t think we’re going to see the same attention to circulation, how many people can fit in a space and ensuring proper ventilation to the same extent,” she said. “I think in the future we’re going to be designing around public space in a different way.”

One of the biggest questions surrounding the new focus on spatial planning is whether or not these changes are here to stay. The future of cities is uncertain, as urban living may either become more inclusive or people may be left feeling unsafe and disadvantaged.

“Buildings outlive generations, so it’s difficult to say that an entire industry has to start permanently building for a distanced life,” Barksdale said. “We should just be focused on the design of flexibility, letting pieces be movable and allowing space for distancing.”