Reflections on Buildings, Cities and COVID-19

Reflections on Buildings, Cities and COVID-19

How will social distancing and new practices change real estate, facilities management and the use of buildings?

COVID-19 will change real estate practices and how we use buildings - during the cautious present re-opening of gathering places whilst the virus remains a threat; and possibly for the longer term.  Alexi Marmot (University College London) considers some implications for the built environment, particularly the operation of our workplaces, schools, healthcare environments, retail centres and cities. Will the role of facilities manager be re-defined and given more prominence?

From today’s perspective, 2019 seems a time of innocence, a time when one greeted people warmly with a handshake, perhaps an embrace, a peck on the cheek - or several, depending on local culture.  Last year was a time when people passed close to others without hesitation or fear.  When, in lectures, theatres, concerts and festivals, restaurants and coffee shops, weddings and sports matches, strangers sat comfortably adjacent to one another or squeezed together into the last bit of space on peak hour trains and buses.  It was a time when places on international flights, ferries, cruise-liners and hotels were full.  When roads, schools and workplaces filled up every morning and emptied out at day’s end.

In 2020, long ingrained social rituals actioned during the course of everyday life have been overturned by COVID-19 as we concentrate on following new behaviours.  Patterns of everyday life have been revolutionised.  Travel is avoided or minimised. Work, school, shopping and play are performed online when possible.  For much of the world, homes have reverted to patterns of old becoming again the focus of most of life – albeit now aided by tools of instant digital communication enabling virtual contact with the rest of the world – at least for those who can afford access to the internet, digital tools, and electricity.

Important scientific findings that help engineers, FMs and others to determine how to use our buildings include the longevity of the virus on different surfaces, that informs appropriate use of materials, cleaning routines and the use of PPE (personal protective equipment).  The distance that the virus and droplets can spread in the air dictate social distancing, use of protective screens, airflow and control of air conditioning. 

What implications for the built environment flow from drawing together what we know of the virus, with our understanding of architecture, interior and urban design, and the operation of our workplaces, schools, health environments, retail centres and cities? 

Lower occupational density

After years of seeking greater efficiency and cost reduction in the ways we occupy buildings, particularly offices, higher densities and lack of individual space ‘ownership’ have been increasingly accepted by landlords, tenants and employees.  The virus subverts that idea. It demands increased distance between people, so lower occupational densities are needed for the next few years as the initial, then subsequent peaks of COVID-19 infections and deaths, are brought under control.

Digital monitoring and artificial intelligence (AI)

Apart from test/trace/isolate, greater use will be made of digital tools to monitor and control people flows at entrances, within buildings, within specific areas, eg WCs, in elevators, stairways, on transport, and in the external public realm. Development of more apps and devices will allow individuals to plan ahead what they do, where and when, based on real-time information, for example, when to avoid crowded transport and where to avoid hotspots.

Communication and trust

With so much change and uncertainty both in COVID-19 lock-down and re-entry, people need to trust that their governments, their employers, and other figures of authority in all walks of life are making reasonable decisions to protect them. These decisions need to balance scientific and medical knowledge with an understanding of economics, and especially of human behaviour, social and personal needs.  On entering public transport, schools, shops, factories, and offices, people need to feel assured that intelligent decisions underlie their operation and actions as well as those of people around them. We all need to believe that we are not endangering our own health, and that building owners and tenants, facility managers and operators are carefully following the recommended regimes for managing air flow, cleaning, and controlling people movement and spacing.  Clear communication about what to do, when and why, is essential, especially when ingrained patterns of behaviour are overturned and much personal and social sacrifice is involved.  

Importance of FM

From being perceived as ‘non-core’ services readily outsourced to specialist suppliers, and performed by low-paid staff, facility management services have become business critical. Spending on FM staff, services and products will increase, especially for cleaning and disinfecting, plus security and surveillance to restrict overcrowding and control movement. Indoor air quality needs to be monitored even more carefully than pre-virus, for example requiring that more fresh air is introduced and that airflow avoids spreading the virus from person to person.

Social distancing, time shifts, adaptive re-use

As the virus is supressed, which might take several years, it will be possible to phase social distance within buildings from the currently adopted 2m in the UK to 1.5 or 1m, permitting more people to be accommodated during one time period. Until then, different shifts will be needed to permit buildings to serve the same number of users as before the virus struck, coupled with adaptive reuse of empty or under-used spaces.  The rapid creation of Nightingale Hospitals by re-purposing and adapting exhibition and convention centres across the UK is an impressive demonstration of what can be done, for example to provide extra space for socially distanced schools and kindergartens. 

Real estate change

Changes in real estate will follow the economic collapses caused by the virus, lockdown, and changed consumer behaviours. This may encourage:

  • repurposing of retail space vacated by business closures, whether small shops, local restaurants and pubs, or major outlets in high streets and retail parks
  • hotels that could not survive the lack of custom during lockdown, converted by new owners or operators into hostels, student residences, co-housing and other uses
  • tenant pressure for office rents to be reduced since fewer employees will be accommodated under social distancing
  • universities and colleges may redistribute space on their estates to encourage places of low-density interaction, communication and special facilities like labs and workshops, while delivering most lectures and seminars online
  • new housing designs, and regulations will respond to the renewed importance of housing in accommodating a wide range of activities for different household members – for work and education, as well as meals, entertainment, sociability, nurture and rest. Access to some outdoor space such as balconies and terraces, will increasingly be valued.

COVID-19 has crowded out most other news – while also creating a febrile atmosphere in which unrelated but previously unpopular ideas have become acceptable.  A few months ago, a pandemic that would lead governments to halt large swathes of economic activity and stop private actions such as visiting family was unimaginable. Even more incredible was the idea of government in nations committed to the free market stepping in to guarantee salaries of furloughed workers – yet both have now happened in many countries.  Perhaps it also offers a time for reimagining our buildings, our cities, our infrastructure.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” COVID-19 comes during a period of dangerous global warming, with increasing future dangers for life on earth. And we now fully understand the contribution of the built environment and transportation to climate change. Having experienced in lockdown a period when digital communications replaced many journeys and flights, evoking a quieter, more local, more caring, less frenetic world, with clearer skies, less pollution and significantly reduced carbon consumption, it would be negligent unthinkingly to revert to former patterns. 

Globalisation has provided the benefits of an interconnected world with products assembled from components manufactured in several countries – but with side effects of high energy use and emissions from cargo flights and shipping. The virus has further revealed that lack of local production capacity (e.g. for PPE) can make populations vulnerable when transportation or supply chains are disrupted.  Better contingency planning including local sourcing may be a worthwhile investment for the future.

Changes in some practices and behaviours may be desirable over the longer term. We could from now on use digital tools by default whenever possible. Travel is too precious to be used daily, by rote. It could be saved for times when it really matters, when people really need to access special tools, equipment, laboratories, experiences.  When bonding and direct face-to-face engagement with colleagues, or between schoolchildren, or between pupils and their teachers, live performers and their audience, really add value. 


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