Designing For the Next Pandemic

What if architecture and urban design could function as an “immune system” for where we congregate?

It’s been a full year since the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a pandemic, upending just about every facet of life around the world since. Thankfully, millions of people every day are now receiving their vaccines, bringing us closer to some semblance of “normal” again. But looking towards the future, we know that we may eventually face yet another pandemic. Medical researchers are testing treatments for a wide range of viral threats, aiming to mitigate the next outbreak before it starts. As designers of buildings and cities, can we be just as proactive? What if architecture and urban design could serve as an “immune system” for cities and communities?

As we grappled with these questions at the outset of the pandemic, we found that many of the same ones were weighing on our clients. Residential developers wondered how the collective experience of lockdown will change the way we define home. An airport authority asked how we could reconfigure terminals to reconcile public health and security. Commercial real estate owners wanted our ideas on the future of the office (while we had already set to work redesigning our own).

Through these wide-ranging conversations, a more holistic picture began to come into focus. And as we’ve continued our work remotely over the past year, we’ve had the chance to put some of these solutions into practice. Here we offer a selection of the ideas we’ve developed over the past year — design strategies that can help us adapt to a new reality, support economic recovery, and build more resilient cities and communities.

Because while the future is uncertain, we should remember that now more than ever, anything is possible. With our most basic routines altered in dramatic ways, we now have the chance to reimagine every aspect of our lives for the better.

City Design

The Cellular City

As urban populations grow, life in cities has become dispersed across great distances. What if instead all of the elements of daily life were reachable within a 15-minute walk or bike ride? That’s the premise of the Cellular City — a planning strategy for a city composed of interconnected live-work hubs, characterized by varying density and land uses. Each provides a variety of housing options accessible to a range of income levels, essential services such as medical clinics and schools, and amenities such as parks and recreation spaces. As an alternative to the central business district model, this networked strategy for city development reduces demand on crowded transportation systems — improving quality of life and lowering risk during a pandemic.

Urban Mobility

Bike Highway Network

Millions of city dwellers abandoned subways and buses during the pandemic and embraced alternatives such as biking. At the same time, cities responded by closing streets to automobile traffic and expanding space for pedestrians and cyclists. We now have an opportunity to take these measures further: we envision a comprehensive reshaping of city streets to create a bike highway network that would support a new sidewalk economy. More than just an expansion of cycling lanes, the scheme would introduce new streetscape amenities and flexible, indoor-outdoor retail pavilions. The result will expand safe and sustainable mobility and minimize reliance on transit, while creating a more equitable use of public space — returning streets to the people. “Bicycle commuting is another one of those things where if we can use, or respond to, the pandemic with a solution that actually works really well, maybe it’ll stick,” design partner Scott Duncan told The Guardian last fall.

Commercial Buildings

Anti-Anxiety Office Entry

The “pinch points” in office building circulation are located in and adjacent to the lobby: entrances, reception desks, elevator vestibules. By redesigning these areas as breathable and easily navigable spaces, we can choreograph the arrival experience to reduce crowding. Employees and visitors, messengers and deliveries, and people arriving by foot or by bike — each will have a clear and dedicated arrival path. As patterns and methods of commuting shift, there will be an increased need for office buildings to support alternate modes of transportation. We envision higher capacity and more generously planned bicycle facilities, including support programs such as showers and locker storage. Rather than relegated to back-of-house, these spaces will become central to the experience of arrival.

Workplace

The Elastic Office

Flexibility will drive workplace planning. Shifting away from the old dichotomy of closed versus open plan offices, spaces will become more elastic — designed to toggle between open and closed configurations. The new work environment will include moveable walls, reconfigurable and mobile furniture. App-based building systems platforms will provide further versatility. As circumstances evolve, the elastic workspace provides the ability to compartmentalize, separating individuals and groups. Building these features into the workplace will reduce assembly time and costs due to disruptions and downtime, while allowing for an agile response during a pandemic.

Adaptive Reuse

Breathable Buildings

Natural ventilation, operable windows, outdoor space — these features have gone from nice-to-have to top-of-mind for workers returning to the office. To create more hospitable work environments, the practice of adaptive reuse — retrofitting buildings for new purposes — will only become more important in the future. Reconfiguring existing buildings is inherently a more sustainable solution than new construction, and often more cost-effective. By upgrading existing building enclosures, we can create new types of indoor-outdoor spaces that take advantage of existing features such as setbacks to create outdoor terraces that workers can enjoy throughout most of the year. “[Humans beings have] created buildings so sterile that now we have to buy nature and spray it back in,” director Luke Leung told Bloomberg Businessweek last December in a story about the microbiome of the built environment and how it affects our health. “This is our chance to right our wrongs of the past 200 years.”

Airports

Free Passage

For airline passengers, the most arduous leg of travel may take place before takeoff — the labyrinthine journey through check-in, security, and disorienting retail spaces. Imagine instead an airport terminal where the path from curbside to the boarding gate is clear, simple, and seamless. New airport terminals in fact can be designed without many of the current barriers to free movement. This should allow more open plans, better access to views, light and air, and even more compact buildings. Health checkpoints at the terminal entrance can maintain the interiors as safe and healthy spaces. All of these measures will create space for social distancing during a pandemic, while easing the anxiety of travel all the time. That could very well include the normalization of outdoor spaces at new terminals — a feature, Scott Duncan told Vogue last May, that is “going from ‘Oh, this is nice to have’ to ‘It’s a genuine amenity and maybe a necessity to travel.’”

K-12 Education

The Anywhere Classroom

Schools made rapid shifts to remote learning during the pandemic, with uneven results. Aside from issues of access and equity, the experiment has underscored the importance of schools as physical places for social, emotional, and intellectual development. We envision the post-pandemic school as a flexible environment that privileges in-person learning, while making allowances for social distancing. The layout of the classroom accommodates strategies like cohorting and alternate-day learning shifts. Integrated technology creates a more engaging learning experience for students joining remotely. The result is a hybrid classroom environment equipped to maintain safe and uninterrupted in-person learning during a pandemic. “[A]ll schools need more space now,” design associate director Jon Cicconi explained to Dezeen in their feature about SOM’s School/House creation. The idea, he added, “was designed for schools of all kinds, both in cities and rural areas–not intended as a permanent solution for campus expansions, but to solve the real and immediate needs schools are facing.”

Higher Education

Adaptable Learning Spaces

Colleges and universities are wrapping up a full academic year of untraditional learning arrangements, whether they be hybrid or completely remote. What has become abundantly clear is that place matters to an education: an “online” university cannot replace the vital campus experience. A key challenge will be to create gathering spaces that allow for the collective experiences that define campus life, while remaining adaptable enough to allow for social distancing during a pandemic. The traditional lecture hall can be reimagined as a multivalent venue, organized to accommodate both large gatherings and smaller student cohorts. Partitionable spaces of various scales are organized around a central forum. These smaller learning spaces can function either as self-contained classrooms, or as part of a larger venue for an assembly, lecture, or performance.

Residential

“Third Space” Communities

Throughout the pandemic, the home has become more important than ever. More than just a living space, it has often taken on the roles of a workplace, a school, and even in some cases a clinic. In the long term this will lead to shifting priorities for residential development. Future residential projects should accommodate the necessity (or even the preference) to work from home. Unit plans will shift to adopt more flexible and better equipped spaces for working. Entries, common spaces, and corridors will be designed to preserve health in high-density environments, and amenity programs will shift from common recreation to shared but private spaces outside the unit. With a variety of adaptable “third spaces” for work and living, residential communities can provide the expanded functions of home that will support resilient communities and a higher quality of life.

Healthcare

Resilient Hospitals

Healthcare institutions are the frontline of a pandemic. Tested in their ability to handle peak volumes of COVID-19 patients, at the same time their ongoing operations were disrupted — many patients in need of treatment and services for conditions unrelated to the pandemic stayed away out of fear of contagion. In the future, design solutions can equip hospitals to maintain the continuity of their operations during times of crisis. We envision hospitals with separate and dedicated entry pavilions, equipping them to handle a pandemic situation in parallel with ongoing treatment and services. Transparent building enclosures and clear wayfinding can help to instill confidence and put patients at ease to seek the care that they need.

We are a collective of architects, designers, engineers, and planners building a better future. To learn more, visit www.som.com.