Proactive Measures to Address COVID-19 in AEC

It’s impossible to talk about anything today without mentioning the impact COVID-19 has had on the subject, and with architecture, I believe it’s a particularly interesting lens to view the pandemic. Early on, many decisions seemed to be made from a reactionary standpoint such as closing organizations, work sites, and delaying projects all based on developing news. But as many in the business know, architecture is not reactionary in nature, we operate based off of well-conceived plans. Since we’ve had several months to settle in a COVID-19 reality, I’d like to bring to light my assessment of where we currently stand and discuss what proactive measures designers can implement as we build and adapt in a new abnormal.

What Happened?

COVID-19 happened, and it hit New York City hard. As a New York firm that has been operating in the city for decades, architects here at Stephen B. Jacobs Group adapted around city and nation-wide changes over the years, but we’ve never imagined a full-on pandemic. Constructions sites stopped, work moved remotely, and new guidelines had to be considered as the firm continued with developments in the city, but that does not mean we shut our doors. Although almost all of our workforce moved to remote operations, SBJ Group was deemed an essential service to the city of New York due to our government contracts and our work on affordable housing. Adapting our workforce in such a way got me thinking more and more about what would be needed to help daily life continue as normal. For now, we adopted widespread remote working.

Remote working, remote learning, and remote buying are all temporary solutions; well-implemented reactionary measures to continue operating as best as we can while the virus continues to sweep the nation, but we all know that this cannot last. Until a vaccine is on its way to the public, we need to address social life, travel, and business from a designer’s point of view and implement safety measures to follow before, and not after, the virus develops.

What’s Next?

As president of the firm, I was happy to find that the transition to remote work proved to be seamless, and in some ways, more productive than traditional office work for employees at SBJ Group. Moving forward, perhaps more design and thought should be placed into developing home offices in residential projects. From studio apartments to homes in the Hampton’s, at home workspaces can take a more prominent role that before. It’s not realistic to believe, based on today’s shrinking apartment standards, that most people have enough space within their dwelling unit to create separate home occupation spaces. Because of this, designers have to consider creating easily adaptable furnishings to accommodate multiple functions.

The experience of families confined to small urban accommodations will require designers to rethink residential layouts to provide adaptability for privacy.  It is unrealistic, particularly under the current economic conditions, to believe that apartments are going to get larger.
For commercial buildings, we’ve seen temporary changes across the country where grocery stores enforce a max capacity rule, restaurants limit their available dinning space, and offices open for essential workers. But what COVID-19 influenced changes will be made for organizations from a physical design perspective?

With the future of office space, hotels, airports, grocery stores, and public design in mind, there are a lot of unknowns. Only time can tell what becomes a reality and what stays on the drawing board, but I’ve seen a few ideas circulated around the industry that deserve consideration.

First of all, for offices I think the biggest long-term impact will be the death of the open office.  For other factors that impact places of business and public buildings, immediate design changes can include:

  • Reduction of open office space per occupant
  • More cubicle like design or return to private offices
  • Larger lobby areas with divided sections
  • Touchless doors
  • Designated elevator lines
  • One way directed foot traffic 
  • Crowd controlled cafeterias and eating spaces
  • Pre-installed surface cleaning mechanism and UV lights 

The ideas listed above are just that, ideas. Architects know that there is a big difference between a grand vision or concept and concrete logistical implementation of that idea. That is why I am employing all architects to use what resources they can to address COVID-19 from their creative instincts.

To address construction itself, another idea is to use more modular construction methods, this means building with repeated sections that are pre-developed in a factory setting. We used modular construction to build the world’s tallest modular hotel here in New York and experience from that project can be applied in a COVID-19 inflicted world. Modular construction would be helpful because it reduces on-site construction time, the number of skilled workers needed on a jobsite, and it expedites the construction process. Additionally, it would be easier to implement social distancing measures in a factory setting where the modules are created, as opposed to on a job site where people tend to work much more closely together.

With ideas like this in mind, one big question I keep facing is: is it worth our energy to implement social distancing design if the virus is likely to last for a year or two at most? The short answer is, yes.

Is the Virus Here to Stay?

You will not find the answer to here, or anywhere for that matter, but that does not mean we shouldn’t try to beat it in every way we can. Overcoming the virus can be done by increasing the distance between desks in the office, desks at schools, and finding ways to divide public interactions.

I believe that the virus will not outlast us, but its impact on design will be felt for generations.   

About the Author

As a founder and president of The Stephen B. Jacobs Group, Jacobs sets the benchmark for the quality of design for which the firm is noted. He takes a hands-on interest in all of the firm's commissions, establishing the design direction and personally guiding the staff to ensure that the finished project meets the client’s needs.

Prior to founding his own firm, Jacobs was employed at Whittlesey, Conklin and Rossant, where he was a designer and planner on several large-scale projects, including the development of the planned community of Reston, VA. Jacobs earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture from Pratt Institute in 1963 and 1965, respectively. An early advocate of using obsolete buildings as a housing resource, Jacob's "sensitive renovation" projects have become textbook examples of how to develop the highest economic potential of an existing building while, at the same time, preserving its architectural and historic significance.

In the past decade, Jacobs, along with Andi Pepper, his frequent collaborator and affiliate interior designer, have become one of the most sought-after teams in hospitality industry. Their super-hip designs for The Library and Giraffe Hotels, followed by the stunning success of the Gansevoort in the Meatpacking District in New York, has led to tremendous recognition in the national press, as well as to more commissions throughout North America.
In addition to his professional practice, Jacobs lectures extensively on architectural design and preservation subjects. He has been a guest lecturer and critic at Columbia University, City College, New York Institute of Technology, the Real Estate Institute of New York University and the Pratt Institute. He has won many awards and been the recipient of many honors in real estate, construction and design.


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