Design Shift Post-COVID: A&D experts weigh in on how this global event may influence commercial design - June 2020

As the world adjusts to a heightened concern of catching a virus, discussions are underway about how shared spaces and public places will develop moving forward in an effort to prioritize health and safety. Flooring can play a role in designs that facilitate social distancing and more extensive wayfinding.

We asked four members of the A&D community-Kelly Dubisar, senior associate and design director with Gensler San Francisco; Winston Kong, partner at Champalimaud Design in New York City; Patricia McCaul, associate principal at Rottet Studio in Los Angeles, California; and Andrew Witlin, senior associate at Huntsman Architectural Group’s New York office-to share their thoughts on what commercial design will look like in the “new normal.”

Q: Post-COVID, how can commercial design prioritize physical safety without contributing to a sense of isolation and without overwhelming the design?
As we first go back out into the world, there will be informational and directional stickers on the floor, signs on the wall and bottles of hand sanitizer placed where they can best serve the need to provide comfort and awareness. As we go forward, there will need to be more thought to how you circulate in the building lobby and communal spaces of the office. Designers are clever, and we will find ways to move people through building lobbies without having to touch the doors or elevator buttons and integrating smart technology seamlessly into the spaces so that people cannot only feel safe but be safe without feeling like they are in a hospital environment.

Witlin: We are fully confident that the value of the workplace will continue to matter. The forced experiment of remote working has only heightened the need to have an appropriate place for purposeful connections. Prioritizing safety and wellness has always been a design mandate, and this situation has put a more focused lens on it. We are already seeing a greater crossover of best practices from healthcare design, including broader attention to material selections, incorporation of newer technologies to assist with cleaning and expanded hands-free operations beyond faucets and soap dispensers. Workplaces are a destination for connection, so making those connections both possible and safe will be our design challenge moving forward.

Dubisar: Fundamentally, it’s so important that decisions are rooted in science and not fear. It’s also about integrating technology and communication to create a calm atmosphere.

Q: In what ways will the social distancing and shelter-in-place experience translate to the evolution of the modern workspace?
This pause has allowed for real thought leadership on what the future of the workplace means. Companies have quickly realized their teams can work in many ways-both virtual and in person. At the same time, we all acknowledge the benefits and magic of coming together in person. There has never been a more exciting time to reimagine what the future of our workplace environments could be.

McCaul: This unprecedented event has helped highlight that working from home is possible for more tasks and more employees than any industry had previously thought. Companies are seeing this as an added workspace that had previously been dismissed.

At the same time, this has also highlighted the importance of being together to retain company culture and energy to generate creativity. We see companies considering how this will translate to their real estate needs and future office layouts. We also see the rise of better lower-tech audio-visual equipment for quick, flexible meetings-for example, having a better ability to move the camera focus from person to document to space to alternate location without feeling like you are watching an outtake from “The Blair Witch Project.” Meetings and working in the future will all be both in-person and online.

Witlin: Employees need a place to connect to each other and to their company, a place where employees engage with the organization where they work. Workplaces will continue to facilitate this connection. Density will change, seating configurations will evolve, but flexible work environments that provide employees choice in the way they work will remain.

Q: In what ways do you think the wellness movement will be evolving to accommodate issues like safe and sanitary environments and physical contact?
It’s critical for companies to implement professional cleaning protocols for all workspaces and have them continuously running throughout the day. It will also be important for companies to telegraph space cleanliness to their employees through signage and other signals. We’ll also see a transition of amenities to have an increased wellness focus: access to nature, meditation, outdoor workspace, etc.

McCaul: The healthy office trend will only be accelerated, and I think that the focus of the WELL Building Standard and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design that have already been important will be amplified.

Kong: They may require the use of antimicrobial materials, such as copper, in the designs.

Q: What large-scale or long-term changes do you anticipate in spaces that cater to large crowds, such as movie theaters, sports venues, restaurants and concert halls. What design solutions are you or your clients discussing?
In the next year or so, we should see smaller locations in lieu of singular large spaces, which is easier to achieve in restaurants and theaters versus arenas and concert halls. In the very long term, meaning anything after two years or at least post-discovery of a vaccine, most things will probably get back to normal.

We had similar conversations post-9/11, and years later, it is business as usual with vestiges of the changes-check-in and turnstiles at all buildings and venues and bag searches. Similarly, I think we will see many more permanent touch-free devices that were already making their way into the industry-plumbing fixtures, automatic doors, climate control, etc. This will go deeper into elevator buttons and scanned IDs, and there will be more professional post-event cleaning of facilities.

Dubisar: For a lot of our clients, it’s a bit too early to make decisions on large gathering spaces. They all agree there is a need for them in the future, but what that looks like is still uncertain. In the meantime, I’m super excited for a local drive-in movie theater to reopen after 40 years. We could see the resurgence of icons from a bygone era.

McCaul: There will be a need for more cleanable surfaces, more touchless entry and movement through spaces and a lot of focus on restrooms. In Japan, [for example, the use of] touchless, self-sanitizing toilet room fixtures is pervasive. We are also spending time thinking about how to keep food displays appetizing and beautiful, while still providing protection. Physical connection and social closeness are important; people crave these connections.

Q: What role can flooring play in these new environments?
Considerations and advancements in flooring will be essential because businesses will want to ensure a sense of hygiene and safety, as will consumers.

McCaul: Flooring will for sure play a big role in the new post-COVID environment. The trend toward more LVT, engineered wood flooring and large-format porcelain tile will be amplified.

Q: How can the flooring industry better serve designers as they look toward creating these sorts of environments?
The industry can help by assisting with the technical requirements of the installation of products like engineered wood flooring and large-format stone tile; providing more and improved transition strip products; offering more options for threshold and edge detail; and helping designers understand the cleanability and durability of products so that we can provide direction to our clients to make material selections that provide long-lasting solutions.

Kong: It would be great to see new inventions in products that are easily cleaned or antimicrobial, if possible, while also being aesthetically pleasing.

Dubisar: Easy customization of existing and new products and flexibility of developing project-specific products with ease will be highly desirable.

Q: Which commercial sectors will be most impacted by the pandemic?
The virus is amplifying trends that were already underway, but the focus on health and wellness is going to be even stronger, and the health and fitness sector will be growing for sure. The hospitality and restaurant industry have been the most impacted, as so many people were furloughed or laid off within the first few weeks of the pandemic, and it will be one of the last to return. But I believe that it will return with great strength because everyone-even those enjoying living a quieter lifestyle right now-is dreaming of their next vacation. We love traveling and experiencing new things, and the pandemic will not change this. But there will be changes to the experience, and hotels will have to do much more to show that space and food service is clean and safe.

Dubisar: All sectors of our business will be impacted significantly: hospitality, retail, sports, workplace.

Kong: Hospitality will be the most greatly impacted because it’s affected mostly by travel, which is currently on a massive decline.

Q: In what ways has the commercial interior design business continued as usual during the pandemic, and in what ways has it changed?
Similar to other design studios, the manner in which we coordinate and collaborate has changed to more web-based formats like Zoom, Teams and GoToMeeting, as well as FaceTime and group phone calls. Pending what needs to be discussed or reviewed, we will select the most efficient method. The shift is going as well as can be expected, but sometimes the meetings can take a bit longer because of tech issues, poor connectivity, etc.

Witlin: Considering the exceptional circumstances occurring globally, our work and services have continued with little disruption. We have had to adapt in some ways, but for the most part, we have transitioned our business to work-from-home seamlessly. The most impacted area is with the face-to-face, collaborative design process. Design teams thrive on daily interaction with each other and our clients-visioning sessions, reviewing material samples and products-so not being able to work person to person has been an adjustment. The use of Teams and Zoom to communicate and collaborate has been helpful, and materials are making their way to everyone’s homes; however, nothing can replace those unplanned interactions that can change our perspective or help allow us to explore another approach.

Q: Are you retooling projects already in the pipeline?
Depending on the project timelines, we are advising our clients to take time and be thoughtful about changes to projects that are under construction. So much is still unknown about the solutions to prevent transmission of this virus. We are trying to look to long-term solutions that are not just a knee-jerk reaction. In the short term, we are focusing on FF&E (furniture, fixtures & equipment) solutions that are less of a financial investment and can be easily modified rather than built in permanent solutions. We do see continued focus on outdoor spaces, healthy air quality and cleanability.

Dubisar: Every client is different, and each has their own approach on how to move forward. For some, it’s a bit of a wait-and-see. For others, we’re looking at strategies to reduce friction and the ease of bringing teams back to the office.

Kong: At the moment, a number of our projects are pretty deep in the construction process, so we’re not able to make adjustments from a design perspective. However, in those cases, we’re encouraging our client partners to consider programming opportunities that accommodate the safety, sanitation and emotional needs of their guests and residents. For future projects, this has become a top priority for us and something we’ll continue to do more research on as our current and new projects allow.

Witlin: As architects and designers, we are working with our clients to both support their short-term needs of planning for a return to the workplace and exploring what the potential long-term impacts of this will have on their space needs, including how those spaces may need to be designed. Flexibility will be key to ensuring we can adapt and adjust to what is likely to be an evolving landscape for some time. Our projects in construction have experienced pauses, and most of them are anxious to get going once it is deemed safe to do so. Our company has instituted stringent safety policies for staff who will attend jobsite visits.

Q: Once the economy ramps up again, what do you anticipate will be the central challenges for the interiors industry to complete its work?
I think it’s the widespread information and misinformation, along with perception of what is safe and what is not. We’re dealing with so many differing opinions (right or wrong) and expectations of what the future is. We need to help lead a clear path to the future with our clients.

Witlin: The primary challenge will be person-to-person contact, particularly with individuals outside of an office proper. Many companies, including ours, have already outlined specific policies for when employees return to the workplace. For example, historically, project teams meet with clients and multiple stakeholders in person during the design development phase to present concepts and refine a project’s direction-a truly collaborative process. However, the new challenge will be managing the number of people involved in meetings.

The second challenge is how design firms can maintain their materials and product libraries, where physical samples and products are invaluable to the design process. There is no substitute for seeing, touching and experiencing in-person material samples and “kicking the tires” of furniture with the design team.

Kong: For the foreseeable future, project-related travel will need to be well thought out and well planned. Because some cities are at different ends of the pandemic spectrum, we’ll all need to exercise some precaution when deciding to travel for a project.

Q: How can flooring suppliers help A&D firms in the specification process?
Suppliers can provide additional value to designers by being completely transparent about their operations, processes and products in this new era of business. Sustainability-important not only with product components but regarding the supplier’s delivery and transport methods-would be valuable in specifying products that positively contribute to ours and our client’s operational philosophies.

Dubisar: Most manufacturers are great at sampling and helping us with specifications. Readily available and clear environmental information-material sourcing, embedded carbon, etc.-is sometimes not always easy to find.

Kong: They can help by creating and providing literature, samples and materials that respond to the new needs and sensitivities of our projects and their end users.

McCaul: They can highlight maintenance and ease of cleaning. Samples are always important, but now more technical information will be important, too.

Q: Will the country of origin for products become more of a factor, and how will this impact preference for products made in America?
We are in a global economy, and this will not change. This pandemic did make us all aware of the fragility of the supply chain. There will be more awareness about the country of origin but also more awareness about the ability to have multiple production outlets, control of production and shipping.

Prior to this pandemic, lead time for materials was more of a driving factor in a decision for one material over another more than anyone likes to admit. Often, we spend much time thoughtfully selecting and specifying a material only to find out that it cannot get to the jobsite in time for the schedule. Construction has been moving faster and faster while in-stock materials have been declining, and production times have been increasing. In the future, manufacturers that are nimble and can react quickly to whatever changes are happening in the global environment will be more successful.

Dubisar: To some extent, I do think there will be an increased focus on local and regionalism for the overall environmental impact but also for the connection to our communities and history.

Kong: To some degree, yes, but ultimately, cost will always play a role.

Q: Considering how closely color and mood are aligned, do you have any expectations for how colors might trend?
Trends come and go, and they are not the most sustainable approach to designing a project. That said, for a while, the design landscape was surrounded by a sea of neutrality in tone-on-tone palettes. I would expect a brighter, cheerier palette with a bolder use of color in general.

McCaul: We have been thinking about how interiors changed after the 1918 pandemic and how the rise of modernism started soon after in the 1920s. We are thinking more light colors and more natural light.

See you on the other side.

Copyright 2020 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Rottet Studio