How will Covid-19 change the future of building design?

Matt Linekar discusses the impact of Covid-19 on building design practices and how the pandemic could change the future of the industry.

15 October 2020

The impact of Covid-19 on every aspect of life is undeniable. As the pandemic began to spread throughout March 2020, no one could have predicted how this virus would change everyday life. Gone are the days where you could enjoy a concert surrounded by tens of thousands of people, or hug those outside of your household. Instead, we now live in a world of social distancing and masked visits.

But the impact of Covid-19 doesn’t stop at just the changes staring us in the face. There are more subtle, underlying ramifications that are yet to be explored completely – such as alterations in building design.

The question is, are the Covid-related changes we are now seeing in building design here to stay, or a passing trend as the industry attempts to guide itself back to normality when the pandemic is over?

A change in requirements

One of the biggest changes in building design is the importance that is being placed on ventilation - especially in the education sector where large groups of students have to move around buildings.

The care sector is another one that must adapt to changing times and, again, consider the importance of ventilation in communal areas or corridors that could be the hub of cross-contamination. Many care homes are now drawing on primary care regimes and lobbying rooms to protect infected patients, altering facilities to increase the safety of both staff and residents.

However, with providers in these sectors already struggling to source funds and a potential vaccine set to hit the UK in 2021, many of these measures may not be instigated.

At Willmott Dixon, we have seen a variety of responses from our customers, begging the question should we be making long-term changes for a problem that is deemed to be short-term?

Perfecting the process

It’s not just the elements of design that have been impacted by Covid-19, but also the process in which these designs are created.

Offsite and modern methods of construction was already a hot topic for the industry pre-Covid and the pandemic has simply enhanced this. The last few months have given us the opportunity to explore the options in more detail and will no doubt continue to play a part in construction projects in the longer-term.

Our Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Building project at the University of Warwick is being completed to industry leading standards as 50% is going to be pre-manufactured value (PMV).

Should we change the approach to building design?

There are many positives associated with a change in design focus, especially when you consider the environmental targets that the UK is working towards and the impact more sustainable buildings will have. Willmott Dixon for one has been particularly focused on this in the past and is going to be even more so in the future with the launch of our 2030 Now or Never Sustainability Strategy, launched in September.

Moving towards a focus on whole life cost is an important first step – but this will rely heavily on a shift in mindset, thinking about overall value rather than the initial cost outlay. As an industry the focus is often on cost and designing to meet the minimum standards rather than considering the longer-term impact of a building. Moving forwards it would be great to see a move away from considering a higher initial cost, but a better performing building, as ‘uneconomic’ and seeing customers investing in better quality products.

The manner in which we live and work has had to adapt to the implications of Covid-19 - and design does not seem to be addressing a long-term fix at the moment. It is arguable that we will need to accommodate less densely populated workplaces with more space for flexible working, consumers will begin to demand something different and design will change to recognise that.

What next?

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, in the medium term at least. We have undertaken the world’s biggest remote working experiment, learned to distance from one another and changed our behaviours in accordance with ever-changing regulations – but any real changes to the industry will take time to filter through.

At the moment, we have collectively been focussing on how to keep our industry moving safely and working alongside our customers to ensure that their spaces are flexible enough to meet changing requirements. Whether or not there will be long-term changes to design is yet to be seen. There’s no question that we are approaching life in a different way, but without legislation enforcing things like changes to ventilation systems or improved environmental credentials, progress will likely be slow. There is certainly the opportunity to shift towards a whole life value approach to building in the longer term, which would undoubtedly see us ‘build back better’.