WAF Newsletter - Rethinking density for a post Corona world - May 2020

Rethinking density for a post-Corona world

Paul Finch, 18 May 2020

Density is good, sprawl is bad; high-rise is virtuous, low-rise is old-fashioned. We are now having to rethink all this in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, writes Paul Finch.

It turns out that in respect of pandemics and enforced isolation and/or social distancing, density is not a great idea. Those fortunate people who live in a spacious house with a garden are at a huge advantage, particularly if they have children, compared with those restricted to a small apartment without a garden, or even a balcony.

What might this mean for the future of housing markets across the world, and the sort of new accommodation we will be providing in future? Instead of the wired world where atomised individuals can exist in virtual worlds irrespective of their immediate surroundings, it seems more likely that what we will increasingly desire in future will be more space (both area and volume), access to open air (balconies a minimum), and more generous arrangements in respect of additional rooms for working in standard accommodation.

This could also mean an increase in the trend already observed for more communal space in apartment blocks shared by millennials interested in co-operative living – except that the design and layout of those communal spaces will have to consider social distancing as at least a possibility. The same, of course, will apply to similar building types: the student hall of residence, the hotel, the youth hostel.

It was formerly the case that in certain types of building, density (in a floor area ratio sense), was accompanied by density of use, which you might describe as intensity. The office building, at least during working hours; the airport hotel and so on.

In future this may cease to be the case: the FAR may remain the same, but occupation drop significantly because of the need for social distancing at work. At this stage, one can only imagine what this might mean for the property investment market, but it is not necessarily all downside. It may be that the nature of office space, for example, changes to acknowledge the extent to which people spend more time working (and meeting) from home.

However, it will not necessarily be the case that if space is used less then an employer will need less space: it depends on how many people can be in the building at any one time to meet the new constraints of health and safety regulations. In this respect, it will be rather like the way in which school buildings are currently being rethought in respect of internal routes and classroom layouts – except that in the case of schools working from home is unlikely to be an attractive option, so we may need a classroom design rethink, and/or more or bigger schools.

Hospitals are also likely to generate fresh design thinking – not least the potential abandonment of the UK’s long-established ward system of shared spaces. Does this make sense in a time of pandemic? Almost certainly not, and the chances of hospitals increasing the number of individual rooms they provide must be increasing the longer the effects of the latest pandemic become apparent.

For architects, the new requirement for disease-conscious environments suggests significant new workstreams in respect of new buildings, but more important in the re-planning of existing environments – medical retrofits, as it were. Practices across the world have been rethinking the way they plan and organize their own workspaces, so for once the world of architecture itself is completely relevant to the world with which design professionals will engage. Circulation, use of lavatories, design of lifts, hands-free environments (eg sliding doors) are as likely to appear in the offices of design professionals as their clients, and should some appropriately tested proposals.

Even if we discover a vaccine soon, there is no reason to believe that pandemics can be written out of the built environment script for the foreseeable future. Greater generosity in respect of space standards can surely only be an improvement – and it will remain the case that the cost of accommodation to businesses is a small part of the overall cost of running that business.

In respect of housing, perhaps it will mean that we reject the world of micro-accommodation where, literally and metaphorically, you cannot swing a cat without killing it, and instead generate the sort of space and volume which the designers would be happy to occupy themselves.

As for density statistics, we might hope for more sophisticated analysis which focuses on the behaviour and circumstances of people, rather than plot ratios which are all about bricks and mortar.

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