Covid-19 and beyond – how designers can help manage the crisis

Alan Dowdall, Associate, Ramboll UK

Despite the personal and financial hardship that Covid-19 has caused globally, there are still reasons to feel hopeful. From people volunteering to help the more vulnerable in society with tasks like the weekly shop or restaurants and cafes providing food for NHS workers, across society people have stepped up to help others, using their skillsets to make an impact.

Designers and construction professionals have very much adopted this mindset, determined to help manage the impact of the crisis as best they can. In fact, their job is fundamental for navigating our way through the Covid-19 crisis, as their innovations will allow the UK to adapt to the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus and enable us to live and work collaboratively once again.

Amazingly, these innovations are already beginning to take shape. Take the Social Contact Pod, a collective effort between Scott Brownrigg, Hoare Lee, Constructional Timber and Ramboll. This innovation perfectly exemplifies the collaborative effort of a group of designers to provide a solution needed for the more vulnerable members of our society, answering their need to maintain a physical connection with family and friends for their mental health, despite having to isolate from loved ones. The ‘Pod’ removes the risk of contamination, whilst enabling such connections.

The pod is just one example of many. In Ramboll alone, there are numbers of people coming up with innovative design solutions, from forming 20,000 PPE visors from office stationery, to building ‘Prevent infection’ apps. It is during times such as these that designers demonstrate their capacity to apply their skillset to a wider social application – an aptitude that will help us through and beyond the pandemic.

When we do emerge from this crisis, we will be faced with certain challenges such as managing new social trends, as well as implementing climate change initiatives on route to a net-zero carbon future. Again, design and construction professionals will play a fundamental role in shaping this new world, allowing us to connect with each other.

Throughout this period, employers and employees alike have found that remote working is a feasible option for many people, with lots of companies working quickly to make this possible. While working from home to the same extent as many have been under lockdown conditions may not work for the majority of people beyond the Covid-19 crisis, we can still assume that more people will be remote working than in pre Covid-19 levels. Trends such as these will undoubtedly be closely monitored in the months and years to come.

Therefore, designers will have to consider new issues such as whether the design of our new homes should include dedicated workspaces built into the design. While housing design guidance suggests that living areas can be converted to workspaces, this seems more of a temporary solution. Thus, one long-term practical idea could be increasing floor areas in our new homes to provide a comfortable working standard.

We can also take this potential trend into neighbourhood designs. As we spend more time working at home, most of our physical social interactions switch from work colleagues to members of our local communities. Designers will then need to innovate new communities, or revitalise existing urban areas, to create spaces that encourage connections to our neighbours. These are places that nurture and encourage community hubs, catering for the youngest to the most vulnerable.

In light of this, we need to consider whether we should increase our home spaces and decrease the space required for our offices, especially as we still face a housing crisis. If we move some office space previously set towards commercial buildings into our homes, then less office buildings will be required. We could shift our focus from new buildings to reusing and refurbishing the stock of existing buildings already available where we can.

This poses a design challenge of adopting many building types of various usage into flexible working spaces within the constraints of an existing frame, but to today’s acceptable standards. Reusing instead of rebuilding is not a novel concept and the sustainability credentials are established. Indeed, a London Building Stock Model is being created to provide a picture of all of London’s buildings, including information on energy performance, as part of the commitment to making London a zero-carbon city. Such data will help target and upgrade buildings of inefficient energy use into modern low-carbon spaces.

We can speculate on many aspects of a post Covid-19 future, including industry requirements and cultural trends. While we can’t determine which direction the UK will go in, we can say that it will be an interesting time, complete with challenges that must be overcome through design innovations. 2020 could be the starting point of a cultural paradigm shift, kick-starting in earnest our route to net-zero carbon.