How will the design of commercial and multi-unit residential buildings change, post-pandemic?

The Kings Club Mixed-Use Residential development in Toronto, designed by TACT/Kasian,incorporates balconies and rooftop amenities. Photo by doublespace photography

The current global pandemic has quickly transformed our spaces, affecting how people are living, working, and moving through their day-to-day lives. Kasian’s team has been working on redesigning these environments and proposing pilot projects to pivot for use in the pandemic and in a post-COVID world. Here are some of our team’s observations on how spaces are changing and how we must innovate for the built environment in a post-pandemic future.

Challenges for developers and commercial building owners and operators

Public and private meeting spaces of all sizes can be nestled within mixed-use, residential, and suburban neighbourhoods, occupying a variety of underutilized spaces. That said, there is pressure to return to commercial office workspaces—or at least to return with a hybrid of remote and office work.

For new and existing commercial office developments, the use of elevators, washrooms, and lobbies needs to be reconsidered to respect physical distancing requirements. Localized use of stairs between floors should be encouraged, reducing the demand on elevators, particularly in offices that occupy multiple floors. We are working to analyze space plans for washrooms and other dedicated spaces with flexible solutions in mind. Consideration include provisions for single washrooms, two doors—in and out—flowing from water closets to vanities, curved entrances without doors, and technological solutions such as touchless fixtures, occupancy sensors, and self-cleaning stalls.

Rethinking office floor plans for employee flow will reduce dead-end corridors. In several of our projects, we’re implementing circular flows, favoring one-way walkways.

Today, there is an acute awareness of cleanliness and sanitization, making touchless fixtures more common, along with a preference for finishes such as white tile, porcelain, or stainless steel. There has been a rise in handwashing awareness over the years, and now we understand it as a critical hygiene requirement. Statistics Canada reported that during the first week of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the most purchased item was hand sanitizer—up 639% from last year. For interior design, this means implementing more easily accessible sinks and touchless, integrated hand drying in common areas.

Connectivity and power requirements have been changing at offices as well as at residential properties, as we see an increase in the need for Wi-Fi and outlets to power robotic and Artificial Intelligence (AI) residential technologies. We anticipate an ongoing increase in touchless, motion, occupancy, and heat sensors in office spaces. These smart building tools will help towards achieving sustainable design goals, and lowered energy costs.

Designed by Kasian, the Edmonton Federal Building brings nature inside, connecting people to place. Photo by Jim Dobie Photography

For developers and owners, there may be more recognition of resilient building types such as the WELL Building Standard, Evidenced-Based Design Accreditation and Certification (EDAC), LEED, as well as biophilic design. We can expect that new standards will be driven by our current circumstances. There is a willingness, during this time of disruption, to consider more thoughtful design that will make spaces more effective, more productive, and less expensive to build and operate over time.

Multifamily housing in mid- and high-rise buildings

In high-rise and mid-rise buildings, we can design stairwells for more frequent use, pair elevator cores and stairs for localized access, and increase stairway egress to decrease pressure and reliance on elevators. In the case of a future pandemic, decentralized floor plates and the creation of podium, mid-, and upper level sections would make work-from-home orders more comfortable for tenants, with more options for comfortable separation.

As remote work becomes the new normal for many, there will be a greater demand for flexibility in shared spaces. Using modular and multi-use furniture systems in smaller suites adds flexibility to homes. One example is a pull-down wall bed that features a flip-down home office desk surface. Dividers can change the shape and character of spaces with sliding doors, barn doors or ceiling-hung curtains, transforming meeting space during the day into a dining area in the evening.

There is an increased demand for more flexible homes to accommodate new uses and multi-generational families as we see a growing need for childcare, elder care, and aging in place. Affordable, properly equipped and comfortable senior care homes will be increasingly challenging to achieve. We expect that this will lead to more multigenerational housing, including larger projects with economies of scale and shared resources.

Improving ventilation and increasing the size of balconies would allow for more infection control measures—including access to more space and fresh air.

We need better integrated architectural exterior green space for mixed-use dwellings. Roof terraces at the top and mid-levels of high-rise and mid-rise buildings can facilitate outdoor access for tenants without adding to floorplates.

Staying apart in shared amenity environments

We have a unique opportunity to change the function and character of amenity spaces in multi-family and mixed-use developments. With social distancing rules, there is a temptation to create large, open spaces where people can stay apart in the same room. But if a space feels out of scale, people will feel lost within it.

Open areas could be designed with flexible interior ‘cabins’ that are prefabricated, moveable, and scalable. This type of design gives residents flexibility of use and a sense of being together while still physically separated.

E-commerce deliveries need more than a mailbox

Storage for deliveries is an existing problem that has intensified during the pandemic, due to a sudden surge in demand for e-commerce products and other touchless delivery services. Demand is also increasing for secure, temperature- and humidity-controlled storage for multi-family residential communities. Review of ceiling heights for delivery vehicles inside parking structures should be considered by developers and building owners. Building these into mixed-use and multi-family developments—or retrofitting them into existing communities—makes sense for both residential and commercial tenants.

Forbes reports that as of April 21, 2020, there has been a 129% year-over-year growth in U.S. and Canadian e-commerce orders, and a 146% growth in all online retail orders. In the Consumer Insights Survey, PwC Canada found a link between working from home and digital shopping behaviours. 49% of those working from home have an Amazon Prime account, while only 30% who do not work from home have one. Digitally focused, contact-free shopping experiences can help customers feel more comfortable, and we must rethink our designs and shared spaces to accommodate this.

Another option, off-site, might be instituting larger community drop-off and pickup zones—similar to post office box locations, but functionally operating like a concierge service. Some at-grade amenity spaces could be transformed into drop-off and delivery areas. Proposals could be made to local government and city planners to designate delivery areas as part of amenity zones, making them a desirable feature of buildings.

Accelerating changes with architecture and design for a post-pandemic future

The way we choose to build our homes, our communities, and our environment will shape our society for generations to come. We are living through a time that many have called unprecedented, when in fact we have survived and thrived despite past outbreaks and pandemics. We have an opportunity to make positive changes and innovate with our architecture and interior design.

Success will come from collaboration and sharing of knowledge and will manifest in a consistency of solutions for permanent, lasting change. Our workplaces and homes will adjust, and we can acknowledge that this pandemic has accelerated improvements that were already in motion. As architects and interior designers, we are the drivers for a once-in-a-generation shift to shape our spaces in new ways. 

Yvette Jancso is an Associate Architect with Kasian bringing over 25 years of experience in the fields of architecture and urban design.  

Christine Craik is an Associate, Senior Interior Designer with Kasian. She has been working in the design industry for over 20 years, specifically in senior living, multifamily, and geriatric healthcare design.

Arezoo Talebzadeh is a Senior Project Architect with Kasian, focusing on soundscape within the built environment.  

Desiree Geib is a designer focusing on projects within the commercial sector at Kasian.

Kasian is the Design Lead for the deployment of up to ten Mobile Health Units (MHU) across Canada. Designed to house up to 100 beds each, these fully transportable units that can be set up in empty ice arenas. They will be deployed to major urban centres, smaller towns, and remote communities to provide targeted care for persons with acute respiratory diseases.