The world is facing a crisis that it has never before experienced: an invisible virus that targets indiscriminately regardless of age, race, gender, or social status. No country has been left untouched by the impact of COVID-19 although each is experiencing different challenges. The flaws in systems we rely upon to support us are becoming very clear; because of our resistance to embracing sustainable design and our inflexible business models this crisis is exacting a high cost in human lives and suffering on a global scale.
THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA
Matthias A. Olt, design director of B+H Architects, sees that the epidemic is highlighting the urgent need to pay attention to the environment’s role in protecting and promoting human health. The fact of the matter is, the deteriorating health of the natural environment has always been an open secret, but it was never considered a threat to human life, requiring an immediate response.
Unlike a pandemic that, through person-to-person transmission, can sicken an individual within days, the impact of our degrading environment on human health has been slower to manifest. Though it may kill more slowly, the number of people affected is considerably more significant.
Our response to the immediate crisis can tell us a lot about how we should move forward to protect human health in the future; not just in how we view and treat our environment, but also in how we integrate an understanding of the health benefits of the natural world into creating a better world post-COVID-19.
Medical tents assembled at Emergency entrance of Kiang Wu Hospital, Macau, China (Photo by Macau Photo Agency via Unsplash)
REEVALUATING MODULAR BUILDING PRINCIPLES
One challenge that countries were unable to anticipate was the large volume of infected people and the subsequent and sudden need for large-scale health care facilities. Various properties had to be converted to address the needs to quarantine and treat large numbers of infected patients.
Modular design has proven to be a critical factor in addressing the pandemic swiftly and safely, with schools, arenas, and other public spaces providing alternative, adaptive shelters for health care. The inherent concept of prefabrication and modular construction minimizes on-site health risks to construction workers. The on-site assembly requires only a small crew and can be accomplished in a matter of days.
EMBRACING BIOPHILIC DESIGN
Olt puts emphasis on access to fresh air, improved air quality, and the inclusion of indoor and outdoor gardens as essential elements of modern architectural design. These are all biophilic design principles that can foster both, a closer connection to the environment and promote personal health and well-being.
Biophilic designs are an opportunity to create. More than simply a patch of green space in a building, sustainable design promotes a unification of nature’s presence in urban development which is a much-needed adaptation moving forward. Commercial and residential buildings will have to respond to tenants’ expectations and renewed sense of the importance of nature in indoor lifestyles as a factor in supporting human health.
ANTICIPATING “WORKPLACE” IN OUR NEW LIVING ENVIRONMENTS
What does this crisis mean for us going forward, and where do our opportunities lie? It will be a while before public spaces become a viable option to conduct business. As we move forward in adjusting to a different way of life, we may discover modern and effective means of adapting to a crisis.
The ways we select, deliver, and consume goods, and the ways we interact have all changed profoundly. Our public spaces need to be redesigned to adapt to new protocols of social distancing to allow for a safe and secure transaction of business, and the ability to nurture meaningful relationships at the same time. Remote working conditions are now a popular option for accomplishing work, with advantages for both employers, and employees. Employees enjoy higher levels of schedule flexibility and the elimination of commuting needs, provided they have an at-home work environment that enables focused work. Companies can capitalize on reduced office floor area and maintenance needs associated with running a previously 100 percent staffed on-site office. For those handling onsite businesses, new and comprehensive sanitation protocols will ensure safe and successful operations.
We are all in this together! The global pandemic is evolving into a significant life-time event for all of us and there is no clear, imminent nor easy escape route in sight. Olt sees the resetting of our value systems as a necessity for human survival, a societal obligation and an opportunity for all to focus our energy and collective will on choices that enable economic growth, environmental protection and individual and population health.
Though the present might look bleak now, it provides an unprecedented opportunity to create a better future founded on sustainable new business models, flexible and responsive architecture, and an understanding of the essential role our natural environment plays in protecting and supporting human health.
WORDS: Gerald Manuel
IMAGES: B + H Architects