How Covid is changing the way we design our homes and offices - by Murray Fleming and Lauren Livingston
The UK’s business landscape has been transformed almost beyond recognition over the last six months.
One of the most visible changes is the shift towards remote working with Cloud-based software and modern communications platforms like Zoom and Teams enabling millions of employees to work from home.
While this new normal seems set to continue for the foreseeable future with many companies, including Google, telling staff they can work from home until the middle of next year, it would be premature to suggest that traditional office working is a thing of the past.
In fact, while many people have seized the opportunity to work from home for reasons including financial and health concerns, childcare and work-life balance, many others are “chomping at the bit” to get back into the office.
However, after months of working from home, the prospect of returning to an office environment can feel daunting. So the challenge for those tasked with designing the offices of the future will be to create spaces that not only factor in the enhanced sanitation and social distancing measures that have become such an important part of our working lives, but also elegantly bridge the gap between home and office. Most importantly you need to think about how you actually live and what you really want.
Senior Architect Murray Fleming and Architectural Technologist Lauren Livingston are working on a number of exciting projects for both public sector and private clients. We ask them how they envisage design both at work and home evolving in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:
What’s your own preference, home or office?
MF Both! Flexible working has always been part of the set-up at Bell Ingram Design with colleagues splitting their time between our offices and working remotely, either at home or on-site. We make full use Microsoft Teams which allows our team of architects, technologists, planners and surveyors to work collaboratively and share ideas across a huge range of projects.
LL I think working between office and home offers the best of both worlds. The peace and quiet of the home environment allows you to be super productive without distractions, while the office environment is vital for bouncing ideas off your colleagues. Teams and Zoom are fantastic, but nothing beats face-to-face communication and interaction with colleagues and clients. This is particularly important for recent graduates who need real time feedback and guidance from managers and senior members of staff if they are to learn and progress.
How will Covid change the way we work?
MF There’s a lot of discussion around the impact of office layout and safe spacing on the spread of Covid-19. Before the pandemic, traditional office layouts had staff sitting at desks directly facing one another. These days that’s bad news for obvious reasons because no-one wants someone breathing over them all day long, and vice versa. The kneejerk reaction is to put up Perspex screens everywhere but there are other equally effective and more elegant solutions that are well worth consideration.
LL Clients are looking for smart working solutions, particularly hot desking, to give them the flexibility to expand without adding more workstations. Wireless devices, laptops and mobile phones allow staff to choose a free desk, sit down and plug in. Then it’s just a matter of clearing your desk at the end of the day and not using anyone else’s keyboard.
How is Covid changing the way you design office space?
MF I am currently working with a public sector organisation who are in the process of relocating its headquarters from traditional offices to a new building with a modern, hot desking set-up. Space planning is extremely important to this client as staff must feel safe returning to an office environment.
Perspex screens are the obvious way to ensure safe distancing, but I want to create a workspace that’s visually interesting and increases wellbeing rather than just building more boxes to work in. To achieve this, I’m making extensive use of plants throughout the office space to produce the physical distance required between workstations. As well as being extremely effective, they look beautiful, cleanse the air and are great for wellbeing.
I am also looking at innovative ways to construct safer shared spaces. For example, do you really need to have a door? And if you do need a door, does it need a handle or could it be an electronic, or foot operated instead?
LL Covid has made everyone more aware and cautious of the surrounding environment. People want spaces that are easy to manoeuvre and that minimise unnecessary contact. Once we have spoken to our client and have a greater understanding of the spaces they require and how they work we can design a bespoke layout that works for their employees and visitors. At Bell Ingram Design we have the in-house knowledge and expertise to produce high quality 3D visualisations which bring our plans to life helping our clients visualise the space.
How will the home working trend affect house design!
MF If you work from home you need a dedicated office space … there’s only so long you can work from the kitchen table!
However, with developers typically building smaller and smaller houses to maximise their profits, your new home is much more likely to have three bathrooms than a home office. This is because they build for the “average” customer and research tells them that most people want an en-suite bathroom as well as a family bathroom and separate wc.
None of us are average, yet there’s a tendency to accept how houses are without giving it a great deal of thought. But they can be all sorts of things and you don’t have to live with the rooms that we take for granted - here’s a box, that’s the kitchen, here’s another box, that’s the living room. Houses can be so much more exciting, but you need to think about exactly how you live and what you want.
The ideal solution is to build your own home. Even when you factor in the additional cost of buying a plot of land it’s a surprisingly affordable solution, and you’ll typically get much more outside space than if you buy a home on a new development.
With people spending more time living and working at home how can we create a healthier environment?
MF A lot of materials used in new build developments are not very good for our health. But if you are building your own home you are in control of all the materials used and you can make it as healthy as you want and use products – even down to the wiring – that don’t give off nasty chemicals and gases.
It can be a little more expensive to use chipboard which is bonded with steam rather than toxic glue, or source a healthier paint, but in terms of the overall budget it’s a small extra cost. We can even reduce the amount of plastic used in a house build.
LL As Murray mentioned earlier, it is not a permanent solution working from your kitchen table. It’s important for our mental wellbeing that we have a work life balance, especially when working from home. The most obvious solution for new build housing is to include an office space, however, this is not as easy to achieve in an existing building. We need to be more creative about how we incorporate a workstation into our homes. For example, within an open plan living area there may be a way to design flush floor-to-ceiling units, which would allow you to hide your workspace away behind closed doors when not working. This is only one of many creative solutions that could be considered for your property.
Why use an architect?
MF An architect will create a home that’s a perfect fit for your chosen site. They will factor in the geography – where are the best views, how does the sun move around the site, which rooms do you want to be in when you are getting the evening sun, what view do you want out of your kitchen window in the morning.
An architect won’t just drop a standard house shape onto the site, they will design a home that’s tailored to the way you live. For example, I collaborated with a client who had an enormous book collection and the centrepiece of the finished house was over 100 metres of bespoke shelving.
LL Our job is to listen to what our clients want and use our expertise to bring ideas to the table that they might not have considered. It’s a collaboration, a two-way conversation that you have with the client to turn their dreams into a concrete reality.
Building a house can be a pretty daunting exercise, from developing a concept, knowing what consents are required, to coordinating works on site, budgeting and ensuring the quality of the workmanship. An architect can be by your side from concept through to completion, guiding you through the process with their knowledge and experience within the industry.
When should you engage an architect?
MF Once you’ve identified a plot you like, go and see an architect at that point because they can give you advice about the potential costs of developing the site. At Bell Ingram we can also help you find your dream location. In fact, a client recently asked me to carry out a site search for a suitably remote location for an off-grid bothy, I identified a site on Harris and compiled a feasibility study, considering issues such as access for construction, ground conditions, water supply etc. It is always money well spent to bring an architect in at a very early stage.