Designing for a New Environment

While it’s too soon to tell just how home and office design will change due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear that the home of the future will be more amenable to work-from-home professionals. According to Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting firm dedicated to preparing employers for future of work, they estimate that 56 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work.

“We know that, currently, only 3.6 percent of the employee workforce works at home half-time or more. The longer people are required to work from home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles,” says Kate Lister, company president. “Our best estimate is that 25 to 30 percent of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”

Not only that, but social distancing guidelines may be in effect for quite some time, which makes open space and outdoor areas that much more important. Add to that the desire for viral-resistant surfaces and cleaner indoor air, and the home of the future will be more functional and efficient than today’s homes.

“Healthy homes were already growing in popularity,” says Joanna Frank, president and CEO for The Center for Active Design in New York City. “I think we are going to see an explosion of people who want to make those healthy changes.”

“The COVID-19 epidemic will undoubtedly yield more changes to new home offerings; the issue is when. Obviously, homes that are already under construction have little prospect of making structural changes. It takes time for plans to be redesigned, verified, approved and then finally built,” says Tim Costello, chairman and CEO of Builder Homesite, Inc., in Austin, Texas. “The first level response is to offer new finishes and materials, because these don’t require a redesign of the entire home. [That] could include a selection of naturally sanitizing surfaces for door and cabinet hardware, faucets and countertops, hands-free faucets and lighting, UV-treated HVAC systems, and more. These changes could be offered up quickly, and I would expect to see this happening in the coming months.”

According to Jamie Gold, a wellness design consultant, speaker and author with Jamie Gold Kitchen, Bath and Wellness Design in San Diego, trends toward healthier spaces and materials, pandemic protection, nature connectivity, and improved home office spaces and technology will be even more important post-COVID-19. And, she says, some of these elements aren’t just for wealthy homeowners. “I don’t believe wellness design should only be for the affluent,” says Gold. Costello agrees, “Touchless fixtures can be adapted to every price point,” as can adding touches of nature to a home.

A home is always thought of as a sanctuary, but with more people potentially working, exercising and finding entertainment at home, homebuilders and designers are looking to incorporate healthy aspects into the homes of tomorrow. Here are some possible design and construction elements:

Viral-resistant elements and low-maintenance finishes – Many post-COVID-19 homeowners will want to keep their homes germ-free. Thus, there will be elements such as viral resistant countertops and flooring, as well as self-sanitizing door handles and toilets. “Surfaces such as porcelain slab and engineered stone for countertops, low-maintenance finishes for cabinetry and doors have all been trending but will be in high demand now,” says Gold.

Hands-free remotes and switches – When you think about the number of times someone touches a light switch, television remote or appliance panel, it’s only natural to have those hands-free. The move toward smart homes was already happening pre-coronavirus and will likely be even more popular now.

“Items that respond to movement, body temperature, electric static and are touch-free will be huge,” says Joe Whitaker, president of Thoughtful Integration, a company that does smart technology for homes and businesses based in St. Louis and Dallas.

“Voice control will be at the forefront. It’s going to be a necessity rather than a nice-to-have,” he says. “People want to cut the lights, start the oven, adjust the house temperature, and turn on faucets without touching buttons and switches.”

Better indoor air quality – “The old idea of a net-zero home, where air is recirculated will have to be rethought,” says Whitaker. “We know that it’s a bad idea due to how viruses and bacteria spread. We need to bring in fresh air from the outside, so HVAC technology will evolve.”

Indoor/outdoor space – “Outdoor kitchens and entertaining space aren’t new trends,” says Costello.

However, he and other experts think the demand for functional outdoor space will be great. “I think you’re going to see a greater emphasis on spaces that facilitate nature, gardening and views to nature,” says Gold. “Community gardens for tenants on a rooftop or in a common area will be more popular.”

Not only that, but bringing the outdoors inside with plants, countertop gardens and more are available for all homeowners and renters. “People want more exposure to nature, so the extension of connectivity to the outside will be a huge trend,” says Whitaker.

Multipurpose rooms – With more people setting up exercise areas in their homes and watching movies, multipurpose rooms are an easy way to incorporate these activities. “We’re seeing fewer dedicated home theater spaces and more spaces that multitask and include home entertainment and wellness area,” says Gold.

Private or semi-private workspace – “I think home offices are now going to be something that’s considered a necessity. The kitchen table’s not going to suffice anymore,” says Steve Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Contracting Inc. in Williamsburg, Va.

“The open floor plan that is so popular doesn’t lend itself to multiple people working from home,” says Whitaker. “Walls now look like a really good idea with kids at home and multiple adults working.”

He says that building small nooks into rooms to house a desk may be part of the layout of future homes. For example, a built-in desk in a guest room, above a garage or in a kitchen.

Many of the same healthy home design features will transfer to offices and the workplace. “Touchless, pure, safe, monitored, distanced — I think all of these will manifest into new buildings, as well as a rash of renovation projects, precipitated by the pandemic …” says Costello.

“When you think about all of the things we touch in an office — doors, railings, elevator buttons, faucets — the trend will certainly be toward touchless devices and self-healing surfaces. We have seen touchless faucets in restrooms for years, but the current condition will ensure that these touchless devices spread to every aspect of the building.”

“Whether from natural materials like copper, modern anti-microbial treatments, or UV exposure, surfaces will be re-engineered to reduce the spread of potential contagions,” Costello adds. “Our air and environmental systems in commercial buildings will get serious upgrades with both active, real-time monitoring of air quality and proactive treatment of the air itself. UV treatment and HEPA filtration will become the standard talking point in tomorrow’s commercial environment.”

Whitaker, who focuses on smart technology for both homes and businesses, agrees. “I see a remapping happening, changing how offices are designed and used. You’ll see wider aisles between cubicles and office doors. On the tech side, I see more cameras at work stations for virtual conference meetings, and a trend toward sealed keyboards or keyboard covers so they are easier to disinfect.”

“I think the dynamics of the board room will change, limiting the number of people allowed in a room and spacing side-by-side chairs around a wide conference room table,” he says. “The biggest shift will be [more] employees working remotely. While this is obviously healthier for the work space, it also drastically reduces corporate overhead. I believe corporations may look at funding home huddle spaces with direct connections to corporate infrastructure. This will change the dynamic of the home network, and the use of space within the home. For corporations, this may maximize worker efficiency, create lower overhead, and create a healthier employee environment.”

“All of these aspects of our built environments affect our health,” says Frank. “I think there’s a growing awareness from the general public [because of COVID-19].”

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