Design After COVID-19

13 min read

Energy Efficiency and Flexible Spaces

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, people were told to spread out, but the pandemic’s impact on affordable housing design might have been to accelerate the use of tighter energy efficient design plans.

The pandemic dramatically altered lifestyles. People stayed inside their homes, sometimes in tight quarters, working remotely alongside family members. On the other hand, when people met friends outside, it was from a distance of at least six feet. People shopped to support local businesses, but had everything delivered to their homes. They canceled out-of-town trips, but drove around in circles for neighborhood car parade celebrations.

While all these trends won’t stay, one of the lasting impacts on new affordable housing projects might be an acceleration of existing design trends, such as a focus on energy efficiency, according to architects, planners and engineers who work on affordable housing projects.

“The idea of sustainability is creating better ventilated, healthier buildings,” Michael Binette, senior partner and managing principal at Chelsea, MA-based design firm, The Architectural Team, says. “The work-from-home considerations were happening. The cost of real estate and having office space was moving that trend forward. Those are hyper-accelerated because of how quickly COVID came into the world.”

It’s All About Health
For years, buildings have become tighter and tighter, with the goal of making homes more energy efficient.

“Suddenly, we’re talking about social distancing and fresh air,” David Wietbrock, director of Design at Indianapolis-based Kittle Property Group, says. “It’s counterintuitive to keeping the apartment closed and tight.”

For people who live in milder climates, they can access fresh air by opening windows, but that’s difficult in cold climates, Wietbrock says.

“Here in New England, in the winter, what we’ve been thinking about more than anything is ventilation in the home,”Association Principal at Boston-based ICON Architecture Kendra Halliwell says. “The true implications of COVID will depend on what part of the country you are in.”

There’s been increased discussions, because of COVID, around mechanical systems, fresh air circulation, cleaning the air, and how to maximize air changes per hour, Halliwell explains.

One way to accomplish this is by using Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERVs), which may be a large common mechanical system or an individual unit, Halliwell says. ERVs take heat given off from exhaust air from kitchen and bathrooms and use it to recirculate fresh warm air back into the apartment.

The technology exists and is being incorporated into new and old because of increased air tightness. While making room for this equipment can be a challenge, Halliwell says it’s worth it in order to create healthy homes for residents. In fact, Massachusetts’ Stretch Energy Code already requires that fresh air be provided to each unit.

“Our new buildings are so air-tight and well-insulated, you need to bring fresh air in,” Halliwell adds.

The move toward ventilating each apartment in new construction will keep getting more and more important, says Matthew Holden, president of Portland, ME-based engineering consulting firm Sparhawk Group.

“There’s definitely a move towards individual ventilation of each apartment; bringing in fresh air and exhaust air to each apartment,” Holden says.

There’s also a greater interest in the passive house standard, which are highly efficient buildings with a very good thermal envelope. Typically, passive house standards require a dedicated fresh air and exhaust air system for each apartment.

“COVID is really having an impact on new construction from the standpoint of pushing people to think a lot more about passive house standards and ventilation standards,” Holden says.

The pre-COVID sustainability trend was geared toward tightening up the envelope of all new buildings to prevent heat loss. When buildings become that tight, fresh air needs to be introduced to prevent sick building syndrome.

“That was happening as a function of sustainability in passive house designs, but now it’s more important in not just saving energy but creating healthier buildings,” Binette says.

These systems are more expensive, about a four to six percent premium, according to Binette, but those are costs that are incurred to build a better building from an energy basis.

Flexible Spaces
The pandemic forced millions of Americans to work full-time from home, and even in many households where adults continued to work outside the home, children were attending virtual school. People set up workstations, either for themselves or for their kids, in extra spaces, like bedroom corners.

“When designing new plans, there has to be a better place for a home office than the back of a storage closet,” Wietbrock says.

Building bigger means more money, so affordable housing designers need to get creative. For Wietbrock, that means designing flexible spaces, such as a dining room that also can convert to a home office and offering lots of natural light in work spaces.

“You always want the corner office with a view out the window,” Wietbrock says.

For architects, this translates to designing spaces that have windows in flexible spaces. For one resident, that may mean using the room for a dining room, but for someone else, it can become a home office or playroom,  says Wietbrock.

Another approach is designing a two-bedroom unit, in which the extra bedroom is very small and can be used as an office or a nursery, Binette says.

“But you wouldn’t want too many children in there,” Binette adds.

There are regional differences in how to approach home office considerations, Binette says. Building an extra 100 square feet for a home office is difficult in the Northeast, for example, due to cost and space considerations.

“That’s not to say people aren’t looking for a desk, a little nook or an office area that’s very compact,” Binette says.

The workplace nook is an older design trend that was phased out, and is now being used again, Gregory Minott, managing principal at Boston-based DREAM

Collaborative and the 2021 president of the Boston Society for Architecture, says.

“There can be a dedicated nook within a one- or two-bedroom apartment,” Minott says. “It may or may not have a private space, that is, it can be off a living room for example, and we are incorporating that into some of our designs.”

Home offices were added as a program area to Halliwell’s unit layouts. Halliwell recently met with a client to talk through four different options for where to place an extra nook for a desk.

“What’s valuable there may vary – whether it is the ability to close it off if you’re the loud person on calls all the time or to enjoy a view out a window,” Halliwell says.

In North Carolina, Jeff Carroll, president of Charlotte-based Tartan Residential, sees the resurgence of the two-bedroom, one-bath unit. As a consultant, he’s recently seen a development proposal with a large developer in the Charlotte area with that layout.

“It’s basically a glorified one-bedroom with a flexible second room,” Carroll says.

Innovative Designs
Other post-COVID architectural design ideas include touchless doors, or a common room to use as a nurses’ station for testing and distributing vaccines in senior housing, according to Sparhawk’s Holden.

“In the work we do in existing buildings, we’ve seen groups come in, take over the community room for mass vaccine distribution for a day,” Holden says.

Holden also sees more use of other technologies to clean, such as the use of ultraviolet lights in community rooms, to kill bacteria and viruses.

People are also looking for ways to shelter in place, Halliwell says. That means including generator capabilities for a common area, for example, to keep hot water so residents can run a load of laundry or charge a cell phone.

“I think COVID just made us all more aware of our vulnerabilities,” Halliwell says.

The pandemic has spotlighted not just unit size, but how people and groups of people live together differently, like multigenerational households, Minott says.

In fact, during the pandemic, Minott’s sister left

Manhattan and stayed with him in Boston for a time.

“How do you accommodate this?” Minott asks. “Some live like this because that is their tradition. One of the things we’re thinking about is expanding diversity of the types of housing being created.”

This includes people living in close proximity but having their own space, Minott says. It’s already in the suburbs but Minott is looking at some urban designs.

Online shopping has dramatically increased since the start of the pandemic. Not only are people ordering packages that are shipping through the U.S. postal service, UPS or FedEx, but people are also having groceries and meals from restaurants delivered to them on a regular basis.

“Delivery, delivery, delivery, packages, packages, packages,” Binette says. “That’s a tremendous space and only getting bigger. There’s package space considerations, refrigerated grocery areas. That was again something that was happening to some extent [pre-pandemic].“

Design firms are tackling design challenges, such as designing spaces secure and large enough to hold packages. For groceries, they might even need a type of refrigeration system.

Security is a challenge, Wietbrock says. There are a number of different companies that make deliveries and each have multiple delivery people.

“When someone comes to an apartment complex, where do they go and how are things delivered?” Wietbrock asks.

Exterior Space
The pandemic has also brought a broader emphasis on outdoor spaces, affordable housing design experts say. This includes both private areas, as well as larger public outdoor areas that can be divided and brought back together after the pandemic.

For housing in colder climates, there is attention paid to program elements that bring people outside more, like adding fire pits, Halliwell says. People want access to outdoor gathering spaces with grills and places to sit.

There’s also value in private entrances and outdoor spaces, like a balcony, even if it’s a French balcony – the ability to open a large window to make it feel like you’re bringing in the outdoors.

“That’s pretty obvious, but programming those outdoor spaces have become more important,” Halliwell says.

Low-rise buildings are among the types of buildings ICON designs, and the benefit to this type of housing is the ability to have private entrances, like townhomes so residents don’t need to circulate through a corridor or elevators, Halliwell notes.

“Creating ground floor entrances for the apartments in buildings where you are able to is important,” Halliwell adds. “We always look at that, but COVID has made us all more aware of what we touch.”

Traditionally, balconies have been value-engineered in affordable housing, Minott says. That means when costs become an issue, those get stripped off building designs.

“We’re revisiting that and for new projects, we’re emphasizing balconies or emphasizing roof decks,” Minott says.

Outdoor spaces have not only become a priority, but so has improving the quality of the outdoor space.

“It really is about wellness and mental health,” Minott says.

For example, Minott is working on a 74-unit building in the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston. The building wraps around an existing building, creating a courtyard in the middle.

“We are spending more time revisiting decisions around that courtyard, trying to make it more livable and greener,” Minott says.

That means more trees in the courtyard and less concrete, creating a lush place with less hard surfaces. They are looking at roof decks, areas for gardens and recreational activities, Minott says.

In some projects, Minott’s firm is looking at the density of a project and making conscious decisions to create less units on the site.

“I know that’s not a popular statement to make,” Minott says. “We’re trying to maximize the yield on every site, but now we realize that we have to prioritize this balance.”

Another thing Minott has seen is a push to save mature trees, especially in urban areas.

“It’s about creating a new type of open space in urban areas,” Minott says.

Location, Location, Location
On a macro level, it isn’t clear whether the pandemic will lead to a long-term exodus away from the city. Experts were split on whether or not there is a trend for people to move away from the city.

“I think we’ve seen a shift to suburbia and rural areas,” says Carroll. “It’s more expensive to rent a U-Haul leaving New York than one going into it.”

Pre-COVID, employers were afraid to let employees work from home, but the pandemic changed that, Carroll says. He thinks it is a trend that will stay.

Even if people are moving away from city centers, people still want to be close to services, either within walking distance or a short drive, Wietbrock says.

“People may be working from home, but they still go to the grocery store, drugstore, and they’ll go out to eat occasionally,” Wietbrock says. “Those kind of services, they want to be close to.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what sticks,” says Binette. “People are social creatures, and that’s part of the reason for the resurgence of cities over the past several years.”

Binette thinks some of that will come back, but not all. Mostly because pre-COVID Generation X and Millennials were moving to the suburbs for more space to start families.

“I think that is exacerbated by COVID and people definitely wanting a little more space,” Binette says.

But even as people move out to the suburbs, Binette echos Wietbrock’s comments that people still want to be able to walk to town and the amenities that brings.

“I think having some concentration of live, work, play will continue,” Binette says.

Many people discovered their own neighborhood during the pandemic, Minott says. People learned to work from home, but that doesn’t replicate social interactions. Employers and employees will balance working remote, and in the office, which will help with congestion.

On the other hand, the pandemic caused, “the distance between work and home to collapse.”

“Obviously, not everyone can do that, so living near where you work if you can’t work from home is something that, as a planner, we’re looking at,” Minott says.

“Asking people to go back to sitting in an hour of traffic or on a packed train anytime soon from our perspective is unrealistic,” Minott says.

Minott also sees a growth in gateway cities, or secondary cities. These smaller towns, close to large cities, give people a sense of urban living but with a lot of amenities that you can easily walk, bike or drive to, Minott says. They’re getting more calls to do work outside of the urban core and in those Greater Boston gateway cities.

“You see a lot of discussion about that, from a neighborhood planning perspective,” Minott says. “I think seeing folks leaving parts of the city to go places where they can have that kind of experience tells us some of that story.”

Nushin Huq is a Houston-based freelance journalist. She has worked as a reporter covering energy markets and regulation, business and government – both federal and state.