How Will Our Spaces Change as We Continue to Practice Social Distancing?

05/26/2020 By Kelley Robinson

As we have been thrust into the quickly changing COVID-19 world, familiar paradigms are being reinvented. Daily patterns that occurred in our domestic spaces shifted abruptly. While we grapple with the reality of uncertainty of where our physical work will continue to take place in the future, the need for flexibility is key. 

Theory has something to say about what we are currently experiencing. Typically, our domestic spaces tend to evolve in layers, a process in which results occur gradually due to the expansion of family units, teenager transitions, or the reality of an empty nest. In A Pattern Language, for example, Christopher Alexander describes how building space must adapt based on the changing patterns of its users over time.

Office layoutHowever, we are now experiencing a time when our spaces are expected to adapt without much pre-planning, and new responsive research is necessary.

In terms of a dwelling’s form and function, what will change as we continue to practice social distancing? Will we start to see a shift to implement changes that are an indirect result of a pandemic, i.e., newly defined spaces for virtual meetings or online learning, and at what point will those shifts emerge?

(Photo: Every office setup has its pros and cons. The home office outlined here in the top left, resides in the kitchen and at 40 square feet, provides ample space, but tends to have heavy traffic behind the desk, along with distracting noises. The other office option in the living room at 28 square feet, outlined bottom left, has a wall of monitors that provide partial enclosure, and the desk in the corner minimizes circulation movement during Zoom calls. However, this setup impacts other furniture spacing and the work area is small; Credit: Kelley Robinson)

Theories

Other theories bring further context to our current experiences. In House Form and Culture, Amos Rapoport references the additive quality of vernacular buildings that allow for the iterations of forms within the bounds of an established framework.

[On topic: COVID-19: How Can Interiors Protect Human Health?]

We could also start to consider other form typologies and how they might relate to some of the transformations that are taking place in our spaces. Bernhard Bürdek discusses some of the additive, integral and sculptural aspects of formal design principles in Design: History, Theory and Practice of Product Design.

Domestic Space

What if we apply this framework to our domestic spaces? For example, consider the previously unused formal dining room that now functions as a necessary shared work/study space. Perhaps the room’s previously sculptural quality, where the meaning was dominant to its function, now has more of an integral quality because the lines between the room’s functions are blurred. Residential spaces that are requiring these new needs may not be predisposed to accept these new terms easily, and the indirect effects could cause those considering renovations or new construction to reevaluate square footage and room types as they move forward with projects.

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In the case of houses that aren’t already outfitted with a designated home office or a spare bedroom, some people are carving out ad hoc work areas in both the public and private spaces of the home. These areas are not always aligned with the “intimacy gradient” spectrum that Alexander describes and, therefore, lack the privacy people need to focus their minds on tasks. Limited choice in space options can impact our feelings of productivity, especially if other distractions surround us. 

While stylish small home office furnishings are visually attractive, some may not sustain our physical or mental health long term, especially at a time when people are locking themselves in an extra bathroom with a laptop positioned on the toilet seat or hunkering at a desk sandwiched between the hanging clothes in a closet. If the only available location for a home office exists a few feet from the family sofa, indistinct boundaries may complicate a situation when multiple people must work close by.

[Related: Design for Wellness Beyond Today]

Hence, we are seeing lots of workarounds by people suddenly forced into working at home. Sometimes these workarounds take several tries; for instance, in my own 1947 postwar home, I am currently working at my second attempted 28-square-foot “office” arrangement in the corner of my living room.

My original 40-square-foot configuration in an extra corner in my kitchen interfered with my teenager collecting culinary supplies for his Zoom class. It also prevented my family from feeling like they could prepare food in the kitchen as I taught Zoom classes, usually around lunchtime. A virtual screen can block out the background, but the heightened activity of the space challenges levels of concentration.

What will happen to our residential spaces in the future? Some existing spaces may still need to be flexible for multiple uses because economic conditions are not ripe to make permanent changes. Long term, maybe a higher demand for additive detached outbuildings that function as the home office or the college apartment alternative will emerge.

More broadly, perhaps the entire vocabulary of domestic space needs will change, and new integral forms will arise with sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of all users in ways that haven’t been considered yet. Clearly, research could help this discovery and implementation process occur more productively and smoothly.

Read next: What Will Hotels and Conferences Look Like Post COVID-19?


About the author: Kelley G. Robinson, NCIDQ, ASID, IDEC, LEED Green associate, is an assistant professor at Florida State University in the Interior Architecture & Design Department. She is currently serving as the president for the ASID Florida North Chapter, and she is also the founder/president of Workshop 131, Inc., a small architecture and interior design studio in Tallahassee, FL.​