By Newton D’Souza | Chair and Associate Professor of FIU Interior Architecture
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing has become the new norm. A number of people across the globe have been confined to their homes and neighborhoods for an indefinite period of time.
We don’t know how long these effects will last and whether this change is just a temporary state or here for good. But as the world population increases depleting our resources, scientists are warning that it is putting us ever so closer to wildlife and the next pandemic might be just a matter of time.
What does this mean to the design and traditional meaning of our homes? What are the major social factors that will influence the homes of the future? These are some questions that architectural, interior and landscape designers will need to address moving forward.
As human beings, we already spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. The application of social distancing now confines us to “self-isolate” to even more specific spaces such as our homes and immediate neighborhoods. Traditionally, homes have provided us with security and control, a place to develop relationships with family and friends, a place to reflect on oneself, and a sense of ownership.
Ray Oldenburg in his book, The Great Good Place, observed that besides home (our “first place”) and workplace (our “second place”), there is virtue in “third places” such as churches, cafes, clubs, public libraries, bookstores or parks. With the current situation calling for self-isolation at our homes, will the notion of these places collapse, albeit temporarily?
In this context, the quick embrace of remote technology is making a difference. Some years ago I had written a paper, Places in the Virtual-Physical Continuum, where I proposed places are characterized not only by physical features (furniture, window placement) and their corresponding physical behaviors (eating, sitting, walking), but also virtual behaviors (internet browsing, checking e-mails, teleconferencing, etc.).
Lori Kendall, who has written extensively about online communities, states that much like physical locations, virtual behaviors allow for a near-instantaneous response from physically distant others and can provide a particularly vivid sense of place.
The advent of COVID-19 is blurring the lines. Our homes are becoming electronic hubs of teleconferences and social media interaction with popular apps such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, to name a few.
These electronic tools are creating multi-functional activities in our homes, blurring our professional work, education, family life, healthcare, politics and faith. Some of these accommodations include home-schooling, remote work, teleworship, telemedicine and home cooking. Our living rooms are becoming extended workplaces, and our altered food consumption habits are making the kitchen an extended family space.
Social distancing can also be seen in the context of other behaviors such as privacy and personal space. In the current context, the “push” for social distancing is creating a “pull” effect at our homes, altering the degrees of personal space and territoriality. While at home, our intimacy levels are much more forgiving, but violations of privacy can be a source of stress even within a close-knit family.
Culture also impacts social distancing factors. Eastern cultures, for example, work in a more co-operative way and do not mind close contact, as compared to Western counterparts who thrive on personal freedoms and individualism. Similar differences could be said of our attitude and experience of living in societies of varying social densities and urban/rural lifestyles.
While we are confined to the “inside” of our homes, our desire to interact with the “outside” becomes even more immediate. Two design features have consistently shown in design research literature to improve our well-being: nature and daylighting.
A recent report by the American Society of Interior Designers has correlated aspects of nature (popularly known as biophilic design) that impact health and well-being, stress reduction, cognitive performance, emotion, mood and preference. Nature lowers blood pressure and heart rate and correlates with 8.5 percent shorter hospital stays. Similarly, adequate exposure to daylighting has indicated improvement in circadian system functioning (sleep-wake cycle) and correlates with health care patients requesting 22 percent less pain medication.
Another important effect of COVID-19 on our daily lives has been our attitude towards “touch,” not just between people, but between people and surfaces. With the recent media blitz on infection control, we are constantly having to revisit affordances of washable surfaces in terms of wet mopping and hosing. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that coronavirus is detectable for up to three hours in aerosols, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. These findings point out that we will have a renewed sense of materials in terms of hygiene and touch.
Other non-traditional housing types also need to be considered. Some examples include transitional shelter for teenage mothers (homes which share a lounge/kitchen), co-housing (homes consisting of shared dining areas, children’s play spaces, neighborhood societies), shared housing (two or more families living in one unit with shared facilities) and hybrid housing (where residences act as both business and residence). In addition, what becomes of hostels, dormitory rooms, and homeless shelters? Social distancing might alter our attitudes towards these places even more. Vulnerable populations such as older adults and persons with physical/mental disabilities will be most affected by the environments we create.
We need resiliency to counteract the effects of social distancing that will continue to disrupt our traditional ways of living in our homes. In the design of such homes, we will look beyond the brick-and-mortar, by enhancing our resiliency in the form of self-sufficiency (cooking our own meals, growing our own food), tolerance and flexibility to traditional household roles (Who cooks? Who gardens?), increased awareness of each other’s personal space and territoriality, creative use of technology in interacting with others, celebrating life’s little family moments, and a renewed sense that we are all connected.