Covid-19 and the Built Environment
Flexibility and Resistance
COVID-19 has drastically shifted every aspect of human life, fundamentally altering how we once operated, forcing new routines, and changing ways of interaction. Through these necessary shifts, architecture, and the way in which people interact with the built environment, has begun shifting as well. Homes have become offices, classrooms, playgrounds, conference rooms, gyms, and so much more. Outdoor public spaces once filled with people have adapted to fill emergency medical needs, offer alternative dining options, and provide safe play and wellness spaces. Through these adaptations it’s become clear that the way in which people utilize the built environment is not, and should not, be static. Architecture is fundamental to daily life and should therefore be able to adapt and change with the current circumstances. An Autodesk article, published just five months into the pandemic, captures this need for flexibility and resiliency in architecture. Sim Nabors, the principal and director of interior design at RATIO, states that “buildings will have to be as resilient as we’re asking our people to be... they are going to have to live on a spectrum where they can morph and adjust to be much safer when they need to be”.
“The way to think about architecture to prevent its obsolescence is to stress things like lightness, adaptability, suppleness, the ability to think about program change, the ability to think about sudden economic changes and population increases. This kind of adaptability to economic, environmental, political change is really, really critical for the discipline to become important, vibrant and connected to what is happening.”
- Elizabeth Diller, Dillar Scofidio & Renfro
While some aspects of the built environment were able to adapt fairly quickly to change in programmatic needs, others were not. Small, single family residences shifted to fit the needs of a few, while large offices, civil buildings, and commercial developments remained, untouched, and empty, requiring careful planning to begin to create strategies which could allow for reopening. Community Centers are at the forefront of this planning initiative. At the onset of the pandemic, most Community Centers where forced to close, cancel all programs, and rely entirely on their outdoor park spaces as means of engagements with the communities they serve. To many, these centers were their gym, their childcare, their education, their entertainment, and their community. As centers began closing across the country and the world, the amenities these spaces provided were lost along with them. It’s become clear through the removal of all social amenities that these architectural spaces fill an important role in cultivating community and forming connections between people. Without these spaces, people and communities become isolated and fractured, dividing into socioeconomic groups, between the haves and the have-nots. The absence of a community center which once brought large groups of diverse people together now actually accentuates the differences between people within a larger community.
“Social stability across the generations requires that we live in fluid, multigenerational communities, integrating rather than isolating or alienating the young, the working-aged and the elderly. Yet Covid-19 has threatened all of this, not just high-minded ideas about dense, socially diverse, democratically engaged cities, but also the way we inhabit buildings and move through space.”
- Philip Kennicott, Washington Post
It is through careful planning, healthcare advances, and a better understanding of how we utilize space that Community Centers will begin to adapt, offer flexible programs, and provide amenities back to communities. Designers and architects across the world are tasked with creating flexible, resilient, and safe spaces that must try to account for the ever changing needs of the public. While this concept is not new, it’s become increasingly more necessary and an integral part of the design process. As the industry adapts to today's conditions, new innovations are entering the field that will begin to allow people to connect again.
New software and design initiatives are being developed to analyze floor plans for cross contamination of circulation spaces, study indoor air quality and ventilation requirements, and to provide wayfinding graphics that introduce and reinforce safe social distancing practices.
It’s through a better, more informed, design process that flexibility and resiliency will be at the forefront of design. People have had to adapt to this new way of living, and our built environment needs to be able to change as well. While traditional Community Centers may see a shift in size, indoor/outdoor connections, or occupancy loads, the goal of the building will remain, to create a safe environment that cultivates community, and sparks interactions.
Written by Natalie Baucom