6_WL-30691_Main_Image.jpg The “Invisible Face Mask”, Seoul City Government

The impact of public health concerns and disease on our built environment is not new. For one, the introduction in Europe of sewage systems prompted by cholera outbreaks, in the nineteenth century drove the roads above them to become straighter and wider. As with the current pandemic, there were also a number of efforts to reduce overcrowding.

A “COVID-Proof” City?

In the “Information Age”, news that a “COVID-proof” smart city is being planned in Xiong’an, China, has garnered considerable interest around the world. The title of the design, by Spanish firm Guallart Architects is Self Sufficient City, and the zone will include greenhouses for growing food as well as terraces for drone deliveries to residents. All buildings will be made out of sustainable CLT and have sloping roofs fitted with solar panels. There will be co-working spaces and workshops with 3D printers and rapid prototyping machines so that, in the event of future supply chain disruption, replacement parts can be created. The logic underpinning the plans is evidently that of sustainability and the circular economy – specific design philosophies which are by no means new. The pandemic has perhaps fast-tracked these priorities. Aside from the glitzy headline of a “COVID-proof smart city”, teams of architects, engineers, designers, urban planners and more have been re-imagining a built environment that’s resilient and safer. So looking beyond social isolation, what key themes are emerging for buildings in 2020?

“The pandemic reinforces what we already always thought architecture should be about - providing inspirational space that is safe, but also crucially, healthy for those that use it… I would hope that there will certainly be a better response to the idea of buildings being better serviced in terms of their ventilation and air quality.”

-Ivan Harbour, architect and partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Air Flow

As with previous epidemics, the air we breathe is now a cause for concern. With much of the world spending the vast majority of their time inside, some architects are promoting a partial return to outdoor living, to reduce the risk of COVID-spread. In Silicon Valley, outdoor terraces – previously a nice but often neglected perk for workers – are being converted into fully-functioning sections of the office. So-called “Pandemic resistant” offices at a Turkish university are designed to be partially open-air, and New York City has just made the Open Restaurants Programme (allowing restaurants to extend seating outside) permanent.

For colder climates (or smaller budgets!), there is room for improvement in terms of indoor spaces. The International Wellbeing Institute – responsible for the WELL Health-Safety rating system for buildings – has a strong focus on air quality. WELL sets minimum indoor ventilation rates, encourages natural air flow, UV germicidal irradiation and even certain humidity levels. This assessment system pre-dates the pandemic its popularity is now increasing.


Moreover, flexible approaches to spatial design including more modular and de-constructable buildings are gaining traction. From quick-build hospital and health centres to innovative new community schools
in uncertain times, it’s easy to see the attraction of creating flexible designs to suit changing needs.

A great example of this is the winner of the Seoul City Architectural Ideas Competition. This large public plaza called “The Invisible Facemask”, consists of small, individual spaces surrounded by vegetation which can be transformed into larger plazas.

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