Social distancing rules, movement restrictions, cluster lockdowns and the associated increase in working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic are having an impact on the way we live and behave and going forward some of these changes may remain forever with us. Thus, the life may not be the same after Covid-19 even if the pandemic vanishes forever. During the last one year, we had to change our daily routines by combining the spaces we work, live and play into our homes and some of these changes are likely to remain forever.
Built environment may need some changes
In our fight against the pandemic, we had to make several behavioural changes to adjust to the new norms. In the process, we have come across many problems related to the design of buildings, particularly houses, offices, schools, hospitals and other single-use buildings, were brought to light. The insights gained during these days if implemented may bring some lasting changes in the way we design our buildings. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink about design standards vis-à-vis minimum standards of light, ventilation and sanitation and adopt new ones to promote building design flexibility and the avoidance of overcrowding.
Cramped and poor quality housing has proven to be a major driver in the spread of the virus. Accordingly, measures to improve and reconfigure overcrowded housing and informal settlements have already been adopted in many cities elsewhere in the world. Vacant buildings have been repurposed for emergency services, particularly to accommodate the homeless and provide medical services (as Covid Centres), while the design of workplaces has also been under the spotlight due to surging cases.
Lockdown measures generally have necessitated residents to restrict their movement and stay within their homes. While this may have been feasible for some people/families, housing design may not enable most of the residents to adapt their daily routines to be done from home because of limited living space. Particularly in big cities like Mumbai, the pressure on land is immense and has led architects over the years to develop smaller floor plans for each household. The difficulties of working and studying in these spaces, let alone maintaining a degree of social distancing, are especially pronounced in countries like ours where four in 10 households are home to extended families, creating challenges for older members who may themselves be shielding but are still vulnerable through contact with younger family members who could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Improved housing condition leads to positive health outcomes
Improving housing conditions by providing adequate living space and thermal comfort not only supports positive health outcomes, but also contributes to educational and economic achievements by reducing days off school and work. Furthermore, enhanced thermal insulation and energy-efficient building designs can improve indoor temperatures while reducing energy expenditure and thereby global carbon emissions.
Measures to incorporate some form of outdoor space have been shown to improve physical and mental health, and have become even more urgent in the wake of COVID-19. Given that the reliance on homes to accommodate more daily activities could be the “new normal” for some time, rethinking the ways housing design can be improved to incorporate outside space should remain a priority.
Design flexibility needed
Historically, there were occasions when large multipurpose halls, arenas, civic buildings and convention centres were used for emergency response, particularly in natural calamities like floods, earthquakes and storms. Similarly, in response to Covid-19, many cities and countries have had to repurpose single-use buildings to support emergency measures, with stadiums and schools transformed into isolation facilities to overcome shortages in hospitals. In Mumbai, for example, many exhibition centres, sports complexes and stadiums were used as Covid centres.
Going forward, we should identify multi-purpose and flexible buildings that can contribute to strengthening our cities’ health resilience in the face of future crises, including the possibility of further waves of COVID-19. Building regulations can be enforced to ensure that emergency buildings are adequately distributed across cities and accessible by vulnerable populations.
While some buildings could be creatively repurposed to suit the needs arising out of our fight against pandemic there were many others with poor designs which could not be used for such purposes. Also, many places of work like manufacturing facilities and office spaces, as well as facilities such as hospitals and care homes, showed an increased rate of infection amongst users as a result of inadequate layouts or ventilation systems.
Minor steps with major impact
Need to reconsider design elements is necessary to avoid overcrowding, provide ventilation systems and minimize potential contact between different users. As debate is still continuing on building design as a cause of increased spread, we should not waste further time and start framing new/revised guidelines to adapt building structures in light of Covid-19. We need guidelines for restaurants on outdoor dining, schools and offices. At health centres, too, while there are clear reasons behind the prevalence of outbreaks at health centres, reimagining the design of many of these spaces may be an important step to reducing risk.
Some of the following minor steps can have a major impact in preventing the pandemic spread in public places:
- Locating the staircases in a suitable and attractive location within commercial and residential buildings to avoid crowding and queuing for lifts
- Separating the staircases leading upwards and downwards to reduce contact
- With regard to elevators, stricter rules will likely be required, including reduced passenger loads, designated standing spots, mandatory mask wearing and a ban on conversation
- Additional measures to safely manage the flow of people in a building could range from occupant limits to allocated time windows to enter and leave, along with the deployment of technologies such as anti-microbial finishing and filtration systems
- Work from home (with suitable guidelines from labour ministry) is still a good and simple way to avoid public crowding, especially in public transport
- Further, community spaces, such as kitchens in office spaces and restaurants, could have restrictions on the number of people using them at any one time
- Aisles in grocery stores should preferably become one-way
To put it in short, the design of offices, houses and other buildings should prevent overcrowding, allow natural ventilation and provide ready access to outdoors to improve urban lifestyles. While requiring considerable efforts, these measures will not only play an important role in bringing an end to the current pandemic, but also bring the world that much closer to the realization of Sustainable Development Goal.