Yet another blog about Covid-19 and the built environment

10 Dec 2020

As we are in one of the tiers after Lockdown 2.0 in the UK, we have morning Teams check-in calls with everyone in Fuse. It’s become one of the great things to come out of remote working. It’s a chance for us to chat about how we are feeling and to recognise that we are not alone in the claustrophobia, screen-fatigue and frustrations we are each experiencing. It has also given us a chance to look ahead. A lot of our morning chats have been about how Covid-19 might change the built environment and what we should be thinking about in our work moving forward. We have heard the ‘build back better’ slogan but what does that mean for us at Fuse Architects?

The media talks of a touch-less future; such as automatic doors, voice-operated elevators and handsfree light switches. We read about planning changes that would keep people at a distance from each other from the elimination of waiting rooms, to spacing out seating in theatres to requiring more lifts so that less people share them to the end of open plan offices. The list can go on and most of the stuff we have been reading recently is either about how tech can replace human interaction or how we create more space to reduce contact and create more separation.

To be honest, we hope that is all wrong.

Don’t get me wrong – the use of Zoom or MS Teams etc. for quick check in meetings with anyone working from home, or remotely, is absolutely brilliant and one we will continue even after we are all able to go back. Voice activated stuff – great. Reduced travel time for meetings is fantastic. The explosion in online Webinars is brilliant. The wake-up call about residential space standards, how buildings affect mental health, the importance of gardens/ amenity space, discussions about the futility of commuting and improving work/ life balance are fabulous. The joy of the collective enjoyment of The Tiger King (lockdown 1) and The Queens Gambit (lockdown 2) are hard to argue with.

Having experienced our feelings of euphoria at the announcement of possible successful vaccines and with the phenomenal jump in share value of companies like Cineworld, Easy Jet and Disney Resorts, maybe the changes will be a shift towards making our built environment more about human experiences. Maybe the vaccines will allow us all to travel and go-out and party with a new-found appreciation of our time and freedom. What design decisions do we want to make based on hope for the future?

More theatres might be built to meet the huge demand in live performance. Music venues and clubs will open again and be more packed full than ever as people can finally get out and dance together. The night-time economy will grow as more people go out more often and for longer needing more venues, better public transport, more cafes and restaurants staying open later. The steady decline in pubs might be reversed as people (especially younger people) decide to go out to socialise more often rather than staying in and staying online. There will be an explosion in travel as those often put-off holidays are finally taken in case another pandemic hits us. We will see a major bounce-back for human interaction and human experience.

This will also combine with more working from home, more virtual working and meetings, a better work/life balance. We will not want to waste time in cars driving to massive shopping malls and supermarkets so maybe the local high street will get a boost, small shops will make a comeback as people are more precious about their time. Pedestrians and cyclists will be given more priority in town planning as we all go out more. Pop-up venues and open-air events will grow and be more prevalent. Micro hotels to cater for more people going out will pop up all over the towns and cities. Electric charging points will appear at an exponential rate as more carbon neutral taxis are needed to ferry people from one event to another.

We have spoken to a few developers who are looking at using empty local shops to create small local work hubs for people who want to continue to have flexible and virtual working arrangements, within walking distance of their homes, but want human interaction.

We have seen a growth in interest in addressing the climate emergency – a recognition that a crisis far bigger than the pandemic is on the horizon if we do not reverse, or at least stop, the changes to our planet. And maybe a greater recognition that our planet is really important to look after.

Even in the before times, we were working on several ‘Retail Re-imagining’ projects. Developing designs to convert closed shops or retail centres into new mixed-use town centres with workspaces, housing of all types, leisure and shops. As we Build Back Better we will include more areas for human interaction, experience and enjoyment than we might have done before the pandemic. We will see further growth in small shops that cannot be easily replicated online – hairdressers, Build-a-Bear, beauty salons, coffee shops, dentists- Shops and spaces that rely on human connection. They need people to be with people.

Maybe we are naively optimistic, and we know we need to rely on vaccines to make this happen, but we really hope that, like all significant events in our lives, we use this to wake up and prioritise what is important. Designing a built environment to keep us separated is not the way forward. Designing for people to be closer is.