Can Architecture Provide a Blueprint for Our Post-COVID Existence?
Forge Craft Architecture's COVID Companion is a field guide to the world of the Aftertimes
It's our shorthand for the way we lived before the pandemic: without masks, without physical distancing, without barriers. Able to go to restaurants, concerts, theatres, sporting events, movies, bars, churches, all without a thought to the closeness of strangers. Able to shake hands, hug, kiss.
And we want to believe that there's a way back to that life. Once there's a vaccine, we imagine, we won't need to protect ourselves from COVID-19, and everything can go back to the way it was, back to normal.
But these days, that's magical thinking.
This is likely not a one-off. Even if COVID is effectively taken down, we can't assume we have another century before the next global pandemic. In just the past 20 years, we've seen several pathogens that could have taken us to that stage – SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu, swine flu (which could be on the comeback trail) – and as we continue to develop natural areas that bring us into contact with previously isolated wildlife, we can expect coronaviruses to continue to jump from animals to humans and to spread throughout the world's population. And more may be coming that are as efficient and lethal as this one ... or more.
Not to play the fearmonger, but if we want to survive the next one of these (and the one after that and the one after that), then we need to think about how we do that, how we live in a way that keeps us prepared for a pathogen before it gets to us, a way that does the most to keep us protected from the kind of wildfire spread we're seeing with this coronavirus. Right now, we're learning the hard way – the painful way, the tragic way – that "normal" won't do it.
So if we don't go back to normal, where do we go?
Funny you should ask.
That very question is now being pondered by architects and designers across the globe – and not in the way you and I might be doing it. Answering that question is their job. When they're hired to create a building or home or development, it isn't just about coming up with an aesthetically pleasing (or audacious) structure; it's about working out every detail of that structure – how people will move through it, what they'll do in it, how it will fit in the space around it, its infrastructure, its materials, its signage, its impact on the environment. So as new projects get underway in a post-COVID world, designers and architects will be in a position to lead the way toward this new way of living, toward a new normal.
This is nothing new. Past pandemics have inspired major changes to architecture, design, and urban planning. Modernized sewage systems, boulevards and broad sidewalks, and parks – including NYC's Central Park – all trace back to efforts to stop the devastating cholera outbreaks in the 19th century. In the 20th century, tuberculosis treatment prompted designs for sanatoria that gave patients greater access to curative air and sunlight: large windows in the patient's room; balconies and terraces; whitewashed walls; even flat roofs for sunbathing. Those qualities aligned so well with the principles of modernists that they were adopted for the design of homes, apartment buildings, offices, pretty much everything, and as the century wore on became all but ubiquitous. With a pandemic affecting the world as profoundly as the current one is, it's less a question of whether it will lead to changes in design than when.
And it's looking like "when" is now.
Going Mobile, with Care
Just off South First at Monroe, in the space once occupied by grayDUCK Gallery, a small firm is doing some big thinking about where the way we live is headed after the pandemic. Forge Craft Architecture + Design, founded seven years ago by principals Rommel Sulit and Scott Ginder, has been involved in several impressive projects – Foundation Communities' Bluebonnet Studios and Waterloo Terrace, the award-winning Walmart Technologies space on Colorado, the student housing complex Cheatham Street Flats in San Marcos – and was busy with more when the city was shut down in March. "All the work dried up overnight," says Sulit. Construction on projects being built halted, and with no clear sense of where the economy was going, projects on the drawing board stopped moving forward. As for new projects, they just stopped.
Not knowing how long the quarantine would last, Sulit and Ginder knew they needed to keep their staff occupied and their design skills sharp. "We had to make sure that when things started picking back up, we had a business," Sulit says. So they came up with a conceptual project that was rooted in concepts their team had been working with this year – modular design and construction – and tailored to the crisis of the moment. The project: develop a mobile hospital with self-contained patient rooms that could be deployed to alternate sites and set up in various configurations.
Sounds like a challenge that could take the rest of the pandemic to solve, but Sulit says of the firm, "We have a bit of a reputation as we're lean and mean, and we're the guys you go to when you have a really sticky project and no one knows what to do with it. We're like, 'Bring it on.' It's not our written philosophy, but it's kind of the tacit philosophy: Give us a project with a lot of hair on it – the hairier, the better – and we'll figure it out." That may be why it only took the firm until the end of April to complete and make public its solution, called Care+Craft. The project's basic unit is a module consisting of two standardized 12-by-16 rooms that share a wall, but with each room having its own HVAC system (that changes the air every five minutes); plumbing system and ADA-compliant bathroom with toilet, sink, and shower; window and skylight; wi-fi; and personal monitor. The modules can be grouped into 12-room wards, with the wards able to be scaled up into larger units, ultimately serving hundreds of patients. The white paper describing Care+Craft illustrates every aspect and also goes into detail about possible construction and deployment by traditional ground transport. (For more, see www.carexcraft.com.)
As the Forge Craft team was designing its modular field hospital, the project felt most timely. But by the time they finished it, not so much. The number of new COVID cases in the U.S. had peaked in early April and, though still close to 30,000 per day, was trending steadily downward. There was reason to believe that the country's efforts to control the coronavirus were working. The firm began to think it would wrap up the project and the pandemic would subside, leaving it, in Sulit's words, "just a historic marker of what we did during the month we were in quarantine."
June would tell a different story, but that prospect of the pandemic subsiding led Forge Craft in a new direction: to the future.
Living on Hyper-local Time
Fellow architects and designers, as well as scientists, sociologists, journalists, and other prognosticators, had been analyzing the pandemic's impact on society since early March, and over three months had already produced a sizable body of literature on the changes in a post-COVID world. As Ginder, Sulit, and their team started poring over articles and reports, they wondered: How can we design the places where we live/work/play so that they don't have to go into lockdown the next time a pandemic strikes? Through their research, led by associate Clayton Holmes and project designer Carey Alcott, they identified 13 areas in which current responses to the coronavirus were suggesting future changes in society and culture. Drawing from those responses and adding their own interpretations of prevailing trends, Forge Craft condensed the body of literature about life after the pandemic into one meaty yet playful bite-sized package.
The COVID Companion: A Field Guide to the Post-COVID World reads a little like the bible to a sci-fi series set in the not-too-distant future. No characters, no storyline, just essential information about how this world works and how it differs from the one we live in. Virtual reality vacations in place of physical trips to faraway places. Personal 3D full-body scans for customized clothes shopping online. Mobile boutiques that come to where customers are. One-way streets with just one lane for cars and one for buses, and other lanes transformed into green space for bike and pedestrian traffic and expanded sidewalks for outdoor cafes. Therapeutic robot animals for nursing home residents. Telehealth group treatments for patients with similar conditions. Self-serve motels booked by app. Airfare priced by customer weight, just like luggage.
Most of these concepts aren't that far-fetched, and indeed, Sulit notes, some "predictions" in the Companion "have already come to fruition." The transportation section's concept for roadways with limited space for motorized vehicles "was premised on the whole idea that roads would be blocked off – and lo and behold, Bouldin Heights has already done that." Just a few blocks south of the Forge Craft office, one street has restricted through traffic to pedestrians, bikes, and cars driven by residents. The movies section predicts a resurgence in popularity for drive-ins, and as anyone who's made a visit to the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In lately can tell you, that's happening. And telehealth is already a thing. It isn't so much that the COVID pandemic will spark some radical innovation in our lives. (Hey, we finally get those flying cars we were promised!) After all, cities had sewage systems and parks before cholera, and houses had windows before TB. But this pandemic, like those, will prompt small shifts in our lives that add up to something larger.
In The COVID Companion's view, that something may be a "hyper-local" society. It's a new word for an old concept: living where you are. Instead of always driving miles and miles to obtain what you need – groceries, clothing, electronics, goods for your bed, bath, and beyond – you either find it in your neighborhood or have it delivered to your home. Instead of fighting traffic to get to your job somewhere else, you have a dedicated office space in your house. Your branch library becomes less of a source for books and more of a community center – the place where you take classes, attend town hall meetings, vote. You live with family members of different generations. You connect with your neighbors. For people who already do such things, this may sound simplistic, but the COVID quarantine forced a lot of people to do them for the first time, and if they were to keep doing them by choice, it could be a substantial change in the culture, much like the mass migration to the suburbs was in the Fifties.
The driving force behind the hyper-local lifestyle, though, will be protection: protection from the next wave of the coronavirus or whatever other transmissible pathogen comes knocking at our doors. We're making safe spaces, incorporating as many tools as we can to limit our exposure to infection. That's why, the Companion says, we'll go back to copper – good old anti-microbial copper – as the standard material for fixtures we touch. And we'll be touching as few things as possible, bulking up our use of motion sensors, voice activation, and cellphones to work everything from light switches to elevators to doors in hotels, hospitals, and elder care facilities. And since we'll be having so many more packages delivered, homes will be designed with secure spaces for their drop-off. Indeed, homes will be designed for the possibility of quarantine and the adjustments it requires – the ones we've all been making on a catch-as-catch-can basis in recent months: designated rooms for office work and home schooling; separate wings for adults and children that enhance privacy for both; a guest suite that can be used for someone needing to isolate; a mudroom to serve as a safe transitional space from outside to inside; and, because tuberculosis treatment wasn't wrong about the benefits of fresh air and sunlight, generous space outdoor. Hyper-locality may even allow quarantine lockdowns neighborhood by neighborhood, with entry to businesses in a specific area allowed only with a QR code assigned to residents of that neighborhood.
The trick in creating this new normal of safety zones and hyper-locality is in not replacing the fixed, inflexible designs of before with designs just as rigid. Spaces must be able to adapt to new circumstances, ones we may not foresee right now. Life, as the saying goes, comes at you fast, and architecture that's too big and heavy to move is going to get left in the dust – or worse, abandoned as irrelevant. That point was made by Liz Diller of the New York design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro in a July article in the Washington Post. "The way to think about architecture to prevent its obsolescence," she said, "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."
"How can we design the places where we live/work/play so that they don't have to go into lockdown the next time a pandemic strikes?" In seeking answers to that question, Forge Craft's team proved it's connected to what's happening – and not just in a way that's good for architecture. It's one that's also good for all of us who aren't in the business of designing buildings. They've been through the COVID nightmare, too, and understand the toll it's taking on our lives. Their Companion gives us a future with space: personal space, private space, safe space, and, yes, social space. At a time when we can't go back, that's a way forward.
The COVID Companion can be seen at www.forgecraftarchitecture.com.