The Changing Landscape of Residential Design: What We Will Have Learned From The Covid-19 Pandemic

The Changing Landscape of Residential Design: What We Will Have Learned From The Covid-19 Pandemic

As I am writing this, Illinois has been under a “stay at home” order for just over 40 days (the perfect motivation for writing my first blog). Construction was deemed an ‘essential’ business in Illinois, so we are currently staying active in both the architecture and construction departments. We vacated our office and have set up our employees with remote network access so that they could continue working from their homes. We are fortunate, unlike many businesses, that we currently have work and are still in operation.

With many families living together under lock-down, new ground rules are being established and priorities are being redefined. Whatever we will have learned living through this pandemic, will have a lasting impact on how we function together as families. This experience will also have a profound impact on how we view the importance of home as shelter. A value that has dwindled over the last 40 years and has given way to luxury. As an architect, my clients have emphasized smaller and more efficient homes since the Great Recession. This pandemic, I believe, will be the awakening of a desire to have a home that provides security with an emphasis on flexibility.

As soon as our company stopped operations from our office building, I began adapting and started making changes in my normal routines. That first step began with a laptop and carving out some space in my home for an office. I took over a loft area upstairs that had been vacated since two of my three kids had gone off to college. Now that they are back, our family of five set the house ground rules early. With two working adults and three students, establishing boundaries and a little compromising was necessary. As of today, our ‘system’ works, and quite honestly, as my wife and many friends have expressed, as a family we feel closer and more fulfilled.

It is ironic however that with such joy there is a sad backdrop. The threat of a deadly virus has affected every aspect of how we used to interact with family, friends, and strangers when things were normal. Much of the elderly have become physically separated from their children and grandchildren. Many, regardless of age or preexisting conditions, have resorted to Zoom video conferences to satisfy their need for socializing. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to leave their homes for necessities find that their interactions with the public are brief and limited. There is no doubt that one day we will go back to enjoying things the way that we used to, but we would be foolish to think that another pandemic may not happen again.

Whether or not we experience another pandemic in our lifetimes, we will have earned a greater sense of what our most important values are. For most people that re-prioritization will place family and home at the top of the list. Everyone’s definition of ‘home’ varies, but I am sure that security will always make one of the 'top 3'. Inevitably, the way we live our lives will affect how we plan our spaces. I am anticipating that the conversations I will be having with my clients about their program (‘wish-list’) will be centered around lessons learned from the age of COVID-19 and will certainly have an impact on future home designs. I expect that the following will become trends in new homes and renovations.

Exterior Glass Wall Partition

If there is one thing that quarantine has taught us, it is that we do not have the ability to have physical contact with those in separate households. No high fives, no fist pumps, and no hugging. The next best thing however is the ability to be in the physical presence of those that we love separated by a thin piece of glass. Many, like myself, have been making regular visits to our elders just wanting intimacy only to find ourselves pulling up a chair to a picture window or patio door with muntin that obstruct our view. So, the larger the opening and the more uninterrupted viewing, the better. In fact, let us create a comfortable deck or patio adjacent to the exterior glass wall for visitors to spend quality time in comfort.

Bring in Outdoor Qualities

This is a stressful time, and even though we are not alone, we do not want to feel lonely. ‘Stay at home’ mode limits our access to interaction with the outside world. Effective home design could bring in much need light and air which would provide more scenery of the outdoors and vegetation. Spatial qualities which incorporate high ceilings and flowing spaces will give occupants a feeling of openness and less compression.

‘Mud Room’ Redefined as The New ‘Containment & Sanitizing Room’

Mud Rooms have always served that desired purpose of entering the home with the ability to drop off shoes, jackets, backpacks, or anything we just wanted left at the door. A lesson that we learn from pandemics is our awareness of germs. As ubiquitous as they may be, our determination to stomp them out before entry into the home is a battle worth the fight. Other than shoes and backpacks, the new ‘Mud Room’ might be the new stopping point for external clothing like shirts and pants. A room where we could change into clean clothing and dump the dirty into a washing machine. Second-floor laundry rooms have been popular for the last 20 years, but this could be the return of a first-floor laundry room which could be located within or adjacent to a mud room. It is also possible that if space allows, a small shower area and sink could be incorporated into the mud room space.

Kitchen Modifications

In the last month we have all brought groceries into our homes and placed them onto our new ‘landing spot’. A location where we could carefully stage our groceries for disinfection and subsequently placed onto a ‘drying’ surface before they are placed into the refrigerator or pantry. A procedure made popular by Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen's video that went viral last month with extremely helpful instructions on disinfecting groceries. A common dilemma that most of us are facing today is the lack of storage space in the refrigerator/freezer, and lack of pantry storage space. Dedicating more available square footage toward an increase pantry storage space, and that extra fridge/freezer in a storage or mud room will move higher on the list as a 'necessity'. Last week one of my clients asked me if I thought that a sink in the island would be a nuisance because of the potential splashing. In the past I might have recommended that we find a new location for the sink but today I feel strongly that a sink belongs in the center of the kitchen, mainly for sterility. As we have raised our cleanliness and hygiene standards in spaces that we occupy, homeowners will begin leaning toward simple detailing and ornament with fewer corners that are easier to keep clean. Homeowners will want the ‘feel’ of a sterile environment, so expect to see the use of more variations of white in cabinets and room color schemes.

Flexibility of The ‘Home Office’ Workspace

The Pandemic has already pushed millions to work from home. What was once considered a luxury for the relatively affluent before the corona virus will not necessarily be the case anymore. Previously, only around 7% of U.S. workers had the option to continually work from home. According to a new MIT report, 34% of Americans report that they were working from home by the first week of April due to the corona virus. It is expected that even once corona virus restrictions are eased, the proportion of Americans working from home will not return to pre-pandemic times. The blurring of work and home lives will force families to convert a vacant bedroom, dining room, loft area or any available room into a functioning home office. This does not preclude the need for an online schooling area but expect that will become less of a priority once restrictions are eased and students return to school. I expect that the ‘Home Office’ workspace will move from a “want” to a “need” on my clients’ wish-lists (goodbye living room). For those that currently commute to work regularly, flexibility will be desired so that the workspace, when not in use, could also be converted for another function.

Greater Attention to Room Adjacency

Through this pandemic families are learning how they live and, more than ever, are learning the value of their home’s layout — WAY more than they ever thought! Now people are turning their attention toward more traditional hobbies like reading, arts & crafts, and learning a musical instrument to name a few. The problem is that the spaces where these activities take place (aside from not having enough separate rooms) may simply not have the proper adjacency for sound and privacy. In some cases, adding more swing or pocket doors at openings between rooms may be sufficient to control privacy and sound. Bottom line is that a good floor plan divides public spaces from private spaces with a caveat that special consideration is given to what the post-pandemic family defines as ‘public’ and ‘private’.

More of a Need to Implement ‘Passive House’ Design

A passive house is designed to be extremely energy-efficient so that it does not take a lot of power to heat or cool. Without electricity the passive home will maintain its comfortable temperature for much longer than a conventional home. The passive house methodology is nothing new and was first applied in the 70’s, but as we begin to think more about cutting energy bills and wanting to rely less on infrastructure, the idea is much more appealing today. Passive homes also need to be air-tight with continuous insulation, a great system for controlling air quality, and high-efficiency windows. Air in a passive house is constantly circulated which allows for the opportunity to filter the air from external contaminants. As we head toward a more germ-free era with the ability to live in a filtered air-tight home sealed from the external environment, more families building a home will consider a passive home design more seriously than in the past. Passive homes are a great investment and surprisingly affordable adding 5% to 10% more to the construction budget, and will save money over the long term.