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What was an Afterthought, Now Becomes Paramount: COVID-19 Is Changing How AEC Firms Form Design

HGA, San Francisco, Seattle, COVID-19
Image Courtesy of Daniel McCullough

By Meghan Hall

The current global health situation has brought up many questions for those throughout the commercial real estate industry. Among them, many are wondering not just how processes will be impacted, but what a return to “the office” will look like once restrictions are finally lifted. For those working in the AEC community, perceptions on effective and healthy design are already starting to shift for many clients as a result of COVID-19, according to Heather Bachman and Terri Zborowsky of Minneapolis-based architecture and design firm HGA. As HGA continues to work with clients, the firm is seeing more commercial project teams influenced by the current pandemic and standards common to healthcare design.

We work in many market sectors at HGA. From a healthcare perspective, we are always thinking about this idea of infection control, knowing that environment plays a role in stopping the spread of microbes, or sometimes unfortunately, encouraging the spread of microbes,” explained Bachman, a medical planner at HGA. “So, we are always looking to interrupt that transmission through environmental design solutions.”

Bachman continued, One thing that we imagine will happen in the future is that other market sectors will start to pay closer attention to design interventions with the idea of limiting the spread of infectious microbes and viruses.”

Up until recently, noted Bachman and Zborowsky, the spread of microbes and infection within public environments outside of healthcare were not at the forefront of design and planning conversations.

In other market sectors if you will, such as in office environments, I think the notion of having to worry about spreading disease was almost minimal,” said Zborowsky, an evidence-based design researcher. “I think people thought it was taken care of it with the air handling. We’re working on some research looking at the impact of COVID that has planning, HVAC considerations.”

While these shifts are still fairly young and new to the industry, there are several best practices that are common to healthcare design which could become more main stream in the coming months or years across different areas of commercial design. The design interventions fall into three primary categories: those that revolve around the flow and floorplans of the space, the materials chosen and cleaning and maintenance. 

“I think we’re going to be, forever, looking at design and planning differently from even a flow perspective,” said Zborowsky. “We’ve been doing that forever in healthcare; we call them the seven flows of medicine. This will have an impact on what the clients will want us to do as design firms.”

Currently, said Zborowsky, HGA and clients are conducting research on how much space is enough to limit the spread of microbes, and how common spaces like kitchens, lounges and conference rooms will be utilized in the future. In office spaces in particular, where open work spaces reign supreme, companies are beginning to reevaluate layouts and office flows.

“We have programmed space for chance encounters and intentionally altered the circulation so that people meet serendipitously,” added Bachman. “I think there’s going to need to be a balance between filling that need for collaboration and also awareness of the density…I think we have to be careful not to put too many people in a space at once.”

Additionally, firms might be more apt to pay close attention to which materials are included in the design schematics of a space. Many firms use tactile materials, or materials that are textured and porous, in an effort to add both interest and comfort to their designs. In healthcare, said Bachman, many clients will try to eliminate horizontal decorative surfaces that can collect dust, as well as limit the number of materials selected for a room.

“We minimize the variety of material used because the maintenance of materials is specific to what the material is,” stated Bachman. “For example, if you have five materials in a room that need to be cleaned differently, that’s a very different charge than 20 materials that have to be cleaned. If the cleaning protocols aren’t followed, then microbes can spread.”

Perhaps one of the most significant changes, however, will come in terms of the design process. While HGA and others have moved much of their processes online, Bachman and Zborowsky also emphasized that those in charge of maintaining standards of health and cleanliness will be brought to the discussion table much sooner.

“Right now, when you design other environments, it is often a meeting with the clients and design team. But in healthcare, we almost always bring a whole team—multidisciplinary—to manage infection control…I don’t think it will go that extreme for office design, but I do think in those early design meetings, engaging who will be cleaning and maintaining a space, they might have a seat at the table earlier…[Project teams] won’t leave it to chance.”

These new trends and processes will not undo previous moves by companies to open up workplaces and make them more comfortable. If anything, believes Zborowsky, changes made due to concerns about COVID-19 will only continue to emphasize companies’ efforts to ensure employee happiness and well-being in the long-run.

“I think it talks a lot about this movement towards staff well-being and staff satisfaction. That was the initial intent of some of those design interventions,” Zborowsky stated. “I think that will be even more important in the future, because people will understand now as they rebuild businesses, they’re going to be much more intentional about bringing back workers and having worker satisfaction at the forefront of their decisions.”