The latest in a series of articles I’m writing for RACV RoyalAuto is about how the pandemic may change the way we design our homes.
It was fascinating to learn that the powder room (that weird little bathroom some homes have near their entrance) is a design hangover from the Spanish flu, when people started placing basins of water for people to wash their hands when entering a house.
It turns out a lot of design has been influenced by public health and the trend is set to continue.
I talked to some interesting experts for the story including architect and host of Grand Designs Australia Peter Maddison, buyers’ advocate and property expert on Channel Nine’s The Block, Nicole Jacobs, social researcher and author Hugh Mackay, urban planning strategist Michael Stott, sustainable interior designer Megan Norgate and Northumbria University lecturer in architecture, Tara Hipwood.
Read the story as it was published online here or below.
Anti-microbial surfaces, designer home offices and doors you open with your feet – here’s how the coronavirus could reshape our living spaces.
This pandemic has a knack for shaking up pretty much every aspect of our lives and the home is no exception. Like no other time in living memory, Victorians are looking around their homes and thinking: is this the best it could be? From noticing how sound seeps from room to room, to poring over eye-watering bills from our hammered utilities, the enforced time in lockdown has made us hyper-aware of our domestic spaces and how well they function.
The clean lines and easily wipeable moulded fibreglass furniture of Modernism owe as much to the fear of tuberculosis than any utopian design philosophy.
It’s likely this health crisis will bring long-lasting changes to the way homes are designed because it has happened before. When Louis Pasteur discovered the link between bacteria and infectious diseases in 1861 it led to the demise of canopied beds and other germ-harbouring ornamentation.
The clean lines and easily wipeable moulded fibreglass furniture of Modernism owe as much to the fear of tuberculosis than any utopian design philosophy. And it turns out the powder room, that little extra bathroom off the entrance hall in many contemporary homes, is the evolutionary lovechild of the entranceway vanity room, a handwashing station located just inside the front door which became commonplace during the Spanish flu.
So what changes are we likely to see this time around?
How COVID-19 will change our homes
The demise of open-plan living
Whether it’s fear of infection or the simple logistical difficulties of having to share a domestic space for extended periods, pundits have been quick to pile on the idea that the pandemic will spell the end of open-plan living. But maybe it’s not that simple. Architect and host of Grand Designs Australia, Peter Maddison, says it would be a great step backwards to return to cloistered Victorian-era living. Instead he envisions the rise of flexible spaces with sliding panels that can be opened and closed to divide off sections, if needed, but can also open up “the heart of the house” to let in light and ventilation.
“The term ‘open plan’ conjures up a big empty space like a warehouse but it doesn’t have to be like that,” he says. “You can have strategically located panels and doors that can slide to make the house open and shut like a boat depending on the prevailing winds. That all comes down to clever design.”
Meanwhile, buyers’ advocate and property expert on Channel Nine’s The Block, Nicole Jacobs, agrees Australians are unlikely to fall out of love with open-plan living any time soon. “One of the big drivers for buyers currently is to have a greater connection with their outdoor spaces,” she says. “Bringing in the garden and light is a big drawcard. We are by and large culturally driven to socialise and entertain. This has been taken away from us currently but it will thrive again.”
Dedicated home offices
Enforced work-from-home measures are one of the most significant drivers of potential long-term change to come out of the pandemic, and so too is the idea of the home office. But it’s not a new concept, says Nicole Jacobs, who points to the prevalence of large 1980s-built homes that feature dedicated studies.
While the idea of a study or guest bedroom may be nothing new, Nicole reports that architects are now putting them back in their plans, particularly in more affluent suburbs. “We’re even seeing bars come back now. In the ’70s and ’80s there were all these big entertainment homes that had bars and all these multiple living zones, and we’re starting to see that again.”
But if we’re spending more time working from home we’ll want our new home offices to be light-filled, engaging spaces, not dark, windowless dens. Sustainable interior designer Megan Norgate of Brave New Eco says the pandemic has meant rethinking our public and private spaces. She says it’s likely we’ll move daytime activity such as workspaces to the front of our houses to take advantage of more social, incidental interactions with people walking on the street. “I just love going for a walk and looking in the windows. You can see people exercising or working and they glance up and give you a smile and that becomes important.”
Needless to say, high-speed internet and multiple wifi ports will also become the norm as more people work at least some of the time from home.
Hugh MacKay thinks the demand for high-tech antimicrobial materials will be “very strong”. There are reports of increasing interest in using chemical agents in surface coatings and treatments to fight the spread of bacteria, fungi and viruses. And Hugh predicts we may also see a resurgence of copper and brass (copper has natural antibacterial properties) for taps and door handles.
Nicole Jacobs suggests we should also expect greater demand for seamless, easy-to-clean surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms, with ceramics favoured over tiles, and locally sourced products preferred to imported options, due to vulnerabilities in the supply chain.
Meanwhile, doors you can open with your feet (popular in Japan), dedicated and secure delivery zones (to deter “porch pirates”), UV-light sanitising devices (for your phone) and smart (hands-free) bathrooms and lights may also become popular.
Despite a 100-year trend towards nuclear families, social researcher and author Hugh Mackay says the pendulum is swinging back to multigenerational living. “The most obvious sign of that is the kids who stay home much longer than they used to. The other factor is there’s been a lot of uneasiness over moving the elderly into retirement villages and nursing homes, whereas in Mediterranean and some Asian cultures, the assumption is the family will look after the older people in the same way the older people looked after the kids when they were young.”
As a result we will likely see the rise of granny flats or self-contained suites within the home, with bedroom, living space and bathroom to accommodate older children or elderly relatives.
But Dr Tara Hipwood, a senior lecturer in architecture at UK’s Northumbria University (who has written in The Conversation on how COVID-19 may change home design), suggests caution. “Fundamentally, I think it’s a good thing for wellbeing, to be with your family, to have that contact with the people you love. My only concern would be that a lot of the devastating impact that COVID had in Italy was largely attributed to [the fact that] they have a huge amount of intergenerational living. It’s very difficult to stop younger relatives from passing that on to their elderly relatives.”
Better air quality
Michael Stott, director with strategic planning consultancy Urbis, says air quality has been a major focal point throughout the pandemic. “We may see a rise in air-purification systems, which take in outside air, recondition it and supply it as fresh air to a building. These systems can work in conjunction with regular HVAC (heating and ventilation and air-conditioning systems) to make homes healthier.”
Peter Maddison, however, favours a proven low-tech approach. “There’s nothing better than cross-ventilation where you have windows located on different sides of a room to clean the air out and replace it,” he says. “It’s much better than turning on an air conditioner.”
Additionally, future apartment buildings may be required to provide open-air undercover access to individual units (rather than shared hallways), along with outdoor communal amenities such as community gardens and space to exercise.
Many experts agree that focusing on the health-giving attributes of our homes will be key as we demand that our living spaces work harder to fulfil multi-functional needs for work, study, recreation, rest and exercise. Urbis’ Michael Stott says biophilic design – blurring the boundaries of indoor and outdoor spaces – will continue to grow as a trend, as will maximising opportunities for light and air to penetrate spaces and the preference for natural materials and textures. “In the COVID context, people will place a greater value on retaining the ability to remain physically and mentally healthy during any future periods of lockdown. Well-designed indoor environments can and should contribute to human health and wellbeing,” he says.
He says the pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to pursue policies and regulations for building healthier homes, perhaps using standards established by a third party such as the global Well Health-Safety Rating – a system for measuring, certifying and monitoring building features that affect human health and wellbeing including air, water, light, thermal comfort, sound, mind and community.
As we learn to live with COVID-19, the real challenge will be finding ways to affordably retrofit our existing homes. “It’s not going to be an easy task but it’s also not a task we can avoid,” says Michael Stott. “There are many small changes that can be done now to have an immediate impact on our health and wellbeing.” These might include installing touchless technology in common areas, air-purification systems and the antibacterial materials and finishes on high-touch surfaces.