The COVID Question: How Is the Pandemic Shaping Residential Architecture?

10.29.20 | By
The COVID Question: How Is the Pandemic Shaping Residential Architecture?

The pandemic has uprooted long-standing ideas about fundamental things: where we live (and with who), how we work (and where), and how to balance the myriad tensions balancing isolation and freedom, public health and personal pleasure.

No discipline is immune from these ground-up revisions — including architecture, which usually evolves over years, not months. For many homeowners (current and prospective), the must-haves are different from what they might have been in March. Here, we speak with Walter Marin, founder and senior principal at Marin Architects, about how the covid crisis has roiled residential architecture — especially as it affects Gen Zs. Will they prioritize living alone, when roommates represent both an uncontrollable risk and omnipresent company as they WFH? Will they accept the trade-off in isolation to live with high-risk parents? And will they still buy into the age-old story of coming to the big city to make their fortune — even if it means living in a 300-square-foot studio with a view of a brick wall?

As you think about COVID-related architectural evolutions, on what sort of timeline are you thinking? Near, intermediate, long-term? Are you considering this as something that’s here to stay?

We likely won’t see the full effect [of the pandemic] for another five to ten years. Construction and design concepts have a longer lead time, meaning the long-term trends will be seen in projects completed years from now.

However, there are a few immediate effects we’re seeing in the residential market, such as the desire for more space, including more general indoor space and outdoor balcony spaces, enhanced air quality and ventilation, and larger windows for increased natural lighting. Selecting homes with a second or third room will also play an important role, as many are seeking more space for a home office. All of these trends are likely to stay relevant for years to come, as we’re realizing the positive impact integrating health and wellness within our living spaces has on our overall well being.

Have you observed any organic changes in how people are living that have piqued your interest? For example, Gen Zs turning to successive quar pods as a way to avoid isolation?

Many from this cohort are graduating from college and returning to their parents’ homes, rather than moving out on their own. Of course, the pandemic has a lot to do with this trend, but it might have a lasting effect.

This group is also transitioning more to home cooking, which has not been the reigning trend. After being at home for months on end, this generation has been more interested in cooking their own meals at home, rather than ordering take out. This results in their generation seeking homes with larger kitchen spaces and countertops.

Do you see any silver linings or positive evolutions that are emerging from COVID-adjusted living + residences?

Yes, absolutely. Although this pandemic has been terrible, it was a catalyst for many to begin focusing on their individual needs and wellbeing. Before, especially in bigger cities, we didn’t always focus on our health, and how our living spaces affected this. Now, we’re much more in tune to keeping ourselves safe and healthy.

I’m really interested in this idea. Can you talk me through some of the ways living spaces might have previously negatively impacted our health — or at least reflected a lack of focus on it — and how in the future architecture might positively react to this?

In the past, people — and especially younger generations — would move to cities and settle into tiny apartments, usually small units facing a brick wall with very little light. They would make this compromise just to be able to live in the city, and they were mostly fine with living in a box for this opportunity, even though it didn’t prioritize health. However, the need for cleaner air, healthier lighting and open spaces have now become more prominent.

Over the last five years, new developers have already started to provide open communal roof spaces, as well as more balconies. I think this trend will continue to grow especially post-pandemic and as people become more health conscious.

Practically speaking, what does it mean for architects that more generations might be sheltering together? Do you think older generations will be more likely to live on their own — to avoid living with younger generations with fewer concerns about covid — while younger generations will want to (either out of preference or necessity) stay with their parents? Are there architectural safeguards that could help those generations live together?

We’ve become used to this idea of sheltering together, from the days of living in a dorm, an economical need to move back home, or even having roommates as adults. I don’t know that the pandemic will generate much of a difference, except that we’ll become more cautious about who our roommates are, and more may choose to live without roommates or family.

During the pandemic, some people decided to go home and live with their parents or extended family. And with this choice, there needs to be a higher level of consciousness, where one may have to isolate from [their] communities, friends and workplace in order to keep their family safe.

As far as safeguards, it may be having free masks every time you enter a building and making this the norm for some time. Architectural safeguards may not be realistic from a financial standpoint for everyone. Some hotels have started to use UV light to clean a room and seal it after a guest leaves, but this may not be a feasible solution for our homes.

Speaking of calamities: Considering as well the California wildfires, are there technological innovations (air filters, monitors, etc.) that will become more standard?

I believe there will be a higher consciousness on seeking fresh air, rather than cleaning the air. Architecturally, we can do that by increasing window sizes and having self-contained units, where air will be sent back outside rather than circulated. The large-scale filtering may be used more in hospital-type settings, as they already exist. There may be a general increase in home filtering systems, but perhaps not from a developer standpoint.

Photos courtesy of Marin Architects.

Diana Ostrom, who has written for Wallpaper, Interior Design, ID, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, is also the author of Faraway Places, a newsletter about travel.