The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of a home this year as families have been forced to shelter in place. In addition to being a needed refuge, our residences have become offices, classrooms, and everything else in between.
As the coronavirus’ grip continues into the summer and fall, affordable housing architects are thinking about ways their projects can meet the changing health and lifestyle needs of residents.
“In these uncertain times, we are seeing developers requesting alternate approaches to design that can better adapt to a pandemic like COVID-19,” says Joanne Horton, residential studio director at RDL Architects. “I think all of the precautions people are now taking, with their adaptations in routine and lifestyle, are here to stay at some capacity, even after this current pandemic is over. This will inherently change how we look at affordable housing design.”
The RDL team is “studying concepts to provide more private entrances to individual units within multifamily developments. Essentially limiting the amount of shared circulation space between residents,” Horton says.
In addition to adopting new safety practices, people have had to convert their apartments to do double duty.
“There will be a bigger emphasis on work from home. I think the world is changing and adapting and seeing that it can work,” says David Layman, president and CEO of the Hooker DeJong architectural and engineering firm.
It’s a trend that will likely continue even post-pandemic, with many companies finding it beneficial for workers and their firms because less leasable office space would be needed, agrees Erik Okland, principal of the Cuningham Group architectural firm
“As affordable apartment square footages continue to shrink, co-working spaces, which provide individual glassed-in cubicles and conference areas that can be checked out for meetings, will be highly sought-after amenities for tenants,” he says.
2. Better Internet
Going hand in hand with the working-from-home trend is the need for fast, reliable internet connections.
Some state housing finance agencies (HFAs) have threshold requirements for low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) properties to have high-speed internet, and that feature is going to be increasingly important, Layman says.
It is also critical that connections do not drop while working from home, adds Okland. “Wi-Fi is a standard at most apartments these days, but many residents are now asking for hard-wired internet connections,” he says. “This is due to their increased speed and the fact that some companies require a physical hard-wired connection for security.”
3. Community Spaces
Common areas such as fitness rooms and community centers have been shuttered this year in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Flexibility is always a strong design influence and will be going forward, according to Layman.
The Hooker DeJong team has been looking at ways to adapt its own offices to be “socially distancing friendly,” including possibly adding mobile partitions to provide barriers between colleagues. Some of these ideas may apply to fitness rooms and other common spaces at affordable housing developments.
“Common spaces are designed around programmatic needs, and those needs can vary greatly,” Horton says. “However, flexibility in use and adaptability of a space will be critical. If there is a need for a larger event space, we should include things like movable partitions or paneled wall systems to divide the space if needed. When larger event spaces are not needed, and the focus is geared to strictly resident gatherings, we can look at creating decentralized ‘neighborhood’ rooms, which would limit access to individuals within a specific area of a building. I believe there will also be a push to eliminate or reduce spaces that can become undesirable congregational areas, such as lobbies or enclosed mail rooms. I think we’ll also see a large movement toward virtual socialization across demographics. We’ll see this via the use multimedia applications such as electronic bulletin boards, message centers, and virtual meeting software.”
4. The Great Outdoors
One trend that may be accelerated as a result of the pandemic is the desire for walkable communities, according to Layman, noting that many state HFAs provide points in their LIHTC qualified allocation plans to projects that are near public transit, health care, stores, and other services.
Looking ahead, there may be even more emphasis on outdoor spaces that give residents the opportunity to exercise as well as practice social distancing, he says. Community gardens are a popular feature at many affordable housing properties, and that’s a communal activity that people have still been able to enjoy during the pandemic.
Okland emphasizes that community rooms and other public areas should be “designed to connect to the outdoors with large openings, including overhead doors or folding door systems. These large openings provide natural ventilation and fresh air for residents to more safely congregate.”
“At the very least, rooms should have several operable windows when larger openings cannot be accommodated due to cost or configuration,” he says. “Public areas should also be designed with higher mechanical ventilation rates, since there are times when weather prevents using natural ventilation, such as in the winter months.”
5. Products and Materials
“I definitely think we’ll see an increased demand for touchless features and fixtures,” Horton says, citing touchless light switches, sinks, toilets, hands-free intercom systems, voice-activated technology, and motion-control door sensors as some examples. “The use of surfaces and furniture that are easy to clean will become the primary focus within common areas. How we look at HVAC systems will also change. We’ll likely see more ERV [energy recovery ventilation] systems for common spaces, HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filters, HVAC duct sanitizers, portable air purifiers, and separately zoned mechanical systems to various floors and common rooms to minimize transfer between spaces.”