Just as the Spanish flu is accredited for introducing a hand-washing basin into our bedroom, leading to the creation of the vanity room, the Covid pandemic is likely to influence home design. So how should this recent pandemic change the way we design residential buildings and on a wider scale, our cities?
Division of space
In her book The Human Condition, the philosopher Hannah Arendt theorized in 1958 on a model for Western Modern Culture. Using the ancient Greek society as an archetype, she distinguished three different spaces each attributed to a specific activity: the public Realm, where the life of the community takes place; the Private realm, where we perform labor (meaning for Hannah Arendt where we take care of the maintenance of life on its most basic level); and the workspace, or the office.
Although this division wasn’t always so clear (with for example many artisans “living over the store”) Hannah Arendt’s theories coincided with twentieth-century city planning. Thinkers and architects who followed the principles of modernist planning, promulgated through the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), sub-divided the modern metropolis into activities. The city was often compared to a machine, made of separate parts coming together: residential, working, and leisure/public. As Ebenezer Howard introduced the idea of the Garden City, along came the idea of functional zoning. Throughout the twentieth century, new housing was built in residential estates that were usually segregated from both commercial and industrial zones resulting in houses solely design to cook, eat, bathe, sleep, bring up our children, and watch TV, nothing more.
The Twenty-first century marked an end to this division of space, as it didn’t seem relevant or useful anymore. The spaces in which we perform social, private, and productive activities have collided into becoming one space: our homes.
Even before the Covid health crisis, the advancement of technology and the rise of freelancers and self-employed workers increased the number of people who chose to work from home. In 2014, 14% of the working population was already reported working mostly from home. In April 2020, that number rose to nearly 50%. In addition to our working lives coming into our homes so was our social life, with most of it moving into the digital space.
In 1958, Hannah Arendt already believed the public realm was disappearing with the rise of mass society and our individual retreat into our homes, today this feels almost prophetic. But as the majority of dwellings in the UK have only been designed to perform labor (the way Arendt intended it) most of us are struggling to fit other activities into our homes. Moreover, on an urban scale, the separation of activities leads to commuters showing on average a lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness, and higher anxiety than non-commuters.
Twenty-first century home
It seems Covid marks the death of the open floor plan that dominated twentieth-century architecture. Before the 19th century, most homes were usually arranged as one or two big rooms centered around the hearth. More rooms became separated in the Victorian era to create more sophisticated spaces as each room became assigned to a different function: dining, living, cooking, etc…
In the twentieth century, the rise of central heating, the reduction of space per dwelling, and the push from leading architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, lead to the return of open floor plans, both at home and in the office. It became almost a norm in the construction industry to have in one living room an office, a relaxing, cooking, and a dining area. But as our needs are changing a physical separation of spaces seems urgently necessary. The idea of a room in which an entire household would simultaneously zoom, study, eat, and play seems impossible. We find ourselves holding on to any isolated area in our homes in order to focus. As such internal walls, which came out of fashion last century, are now making a comeback.
A solution that seems to be emerging in most major cities is the rise of the new Co-Living and Co-Working model. Ideal for single individuals, these shared accommodations typically reserve a floor with purpose-built co-working spaces. Although not everyone wants to share accommodation, the idea of having a safe and separated working space within your building is appealing to many city dwellers. It is the urban equivalent of having an office space in your garden shed. This space doesn’t necessarily need to be shared with your neighbors but one can imagine that would enhance a sense of community in a building.
As the government delivers on its commitment to building 300,000 homes per year, we need to reconsider what is a home and what kind of new activities will happen inside. Homes are clearly not just a place where we fulfill our most basic needs therefore newbuilds must address this shift.