Cross Country Checkup

The pandemic could change the way we design our homes and offices, say experts

With a post-pandemic future on the minds of many Canadians — particularly as several provinces, including Yukon, Ontario and Quebec, announce plans to reopen — sustainable design professor Lloyd Alter says how we approach design and architecture could look different in the future.

After 1918 flu pandemic, easy-to-clean tile in kitchens and bathrooms became popular

The 1918 flu pandemic had a significant impact on the design — and cleanliness — of homes. Tile became popular in bathrooms and kitchens as a result. (Diego Cervo/Shutterstock)

When the pandemic subsides, homes and workspaces could see big changes, with more focus on ventilation and a reimagining of how we live in these spaces, experts say.

"We're going to have to really upgrade the way we do mechanical ventilation in apartments from now on, and offices are all going to have to get better ventilation systems," said Lloyd Alter, an adjunct professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he teaches sustainable design.

With a post-pandemic future on the minds of many Canadians — particularly as several provinces, including Yukon, Ontario and Quebec, announce plans to reopen — Alter says how we approach design and architecture could look different in the future.

He points to traditional apartment buildings, where units line a centre corridor, as one key example. The air flow for these units comes from the corridor and flows under the front door. Alter says this could be radically changed.

"Everybody's walking around and dropping dirt and everything else, including disease, into the carpet assembly and [it gets] sucked into the apartments," he said.

Current scientific consensus is that COVID-19 is airborne and ventilation is a better solution than disinfection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization both acknowledged COVID-19 is airborne earlier this year. The Public Health Agency of Canada updated COVID-19 guidance to include the risk of airborne transmission last November.

Lloyd Alter teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University's School of Interior Design in Toronto. (Submitted by Lloyd Alter)

Alter notes the building industry is being forced to reckon with this new reality, which means installing more powerful ventilation systems, using higher quality filters and adding ultraviolet disinfection systems into ducts to kill viruses. 

Regularly assessing the air quality of your residence is important, Alter suggests. 

"The level of carbon dioxide is a pretty good proxy for the level of virus in the air ... Every room should have a CO2 monitor so you know when it's time to open the window or crank up the ventilation if CO2 hits above 600 parts per million," he said.

Historic pandemics offered similar shifts 

Looking back a century to the effect that the influenza pandemic of 1918, also known as the Spanish flu, had on architecture and design can offer some clues as to what might change with future post-pandemic design. 

After that pandemic, tile was installed in the washrooms and kitchens of modern households to ensure people could maintain cleanliness. Oversized radiators were also added to bedrooms so people could sleep with windows open, circulating more fresh air.

The need to keep everything clean after the pandemic also paved the way for minimalism, moving Canadians away from Victorian houses which were usually tightly packed with knickknacks, shelves and upholstered furniture. 

"The whole modern movement of architecture really came out of a concern for cleanliness, light, air and openness and the same thing is going to happen again," Alter said.

With more Canadians expected to work from home, architecture professor Mauricio Quirós Pacheco believes the kitchen could look quite different in the future. (WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock)

One approach that could come out of COVID-19 is the installation of transition zones in homes so people cannot "bring the outside into homes," Alter said. 

This space might include a closet, sink and laundry machine where residents can discard dirty clothes in order to prevent bringing dirt and germs into the home.

Rethink open kitchens post pandemic, says prof

Assistant professor Mauricio Quirós Pacheco at the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design also envisions a new approach to domestic spaces — especially after Canadians have worked from home for more than a year.

"The pandemic has proven that an open kitchen can be quite disruptive in a family environment if everyone's working in the living room," he said.

"We would have to rethink what a dining table is, because it not only has to allow for eating, but also allow for working."

But when Canadians do return to the offices and classrooms, temporary partitions, social distancing markers on the floor and improved ventilation would be a reality. 

"There will be some changes in the architecture for sure, but I think it will be more on the dynamic of what our spaces provide to us and how we interact with the spaces that we already have," he said.

Mauricio Quirós Pacheco is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. (Submitted by Mauricio Quirós Pacheco)

Hope for long-term change

Alter is hopeful that these changes would be long-lasting but history has shown that might not be the case

"After penicillin was developed in the 50s, everybody fell in love with wall-to-wall carpeting, which you can't clean properly," he said.

"The engineers convinced the building code people that people don't open the windows enough, so let's put in these stupid little fans that barely move enough air to ventilate the bathroom. So, I think people forget quickly," said Alter.

But all these changes — distancing people and putting up barriers — contradicts years of efforts by architects to create more communal spaces, says Pacheco. 

"What we've been trying to do for most of history is to bring people together and bring people closer," said Pacheco.

"It's exactly the problem right now."

Written by Pratyush Dayal with files from Jason Vermes.

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