How to Minimize Reopening Risk and Avoid Financial Ruin
Call in designers to make sense of the overload of murky COVID guidance
By now, most of us have developed a feeling for the six-foot separation that is our most potent weapon against COVID-19. Fewer of us know how to dodge a lot of people coming at us inside these invisible bubbles. We find ourselves in a drunken dance down the sidewalk. Drag that bubble with us onto a bus? Through an airport? You’re kidding me.
Our new spatial reality puts us in the realm of architecture, which is the shaping of space. Unleashing the talents of architects and other designers can get us through a “reopening” that is at once liberating and horrifying.
America is stuck in a cruel binary: open up the economy and risk uncontrollable disease outbreaks. Stay sheltered in place and watch jobs and savings evaporate, leaving more people destitute.
You may not think of architects as the problem-solvers we need now. But now that interacting with people in any enclosed space is fraught, they are who you need. Though we have been living in a world ruled by public-health experts, few doctors and scientists can interpret their mandates in three dimensions, or understand the dynamic movement of people (and the hazardous droplets they spew) through a busy airport or sports stadium.
The need for deeper guidance attuned to the needs of individual buildings would be less urgent if the Federal government was intensifying its research effort to better understand the way the coronavirus works. Government could be offering additional financial support to take the financial urgency out of reopening. Instead Congress and the White House are abandoning the fight as infections rise alarmingly and people need to sort out a well-meant but inevitable babble of guidance.
We’re on our own.
Architects, interior designers, and engineers can show the implications of public-health mandates in three dimensional space. They can pilot and iterate useful ideas to achieve maximum business effectiveness at lowest practicable risk. User Experience designers can develop behavioral protocols for facilities that are mindful of peoples’ fears and vulnerabilities. Though architects get a bad rap for designing buildings that are spectacular for their own sake, many practitioners see themselves as problem-solvers, not just estheticians.
As a long-time architecture writer I have been chronicling the way architects have worked to help hospitals cope with the surge in COVID patients. Now architects and other designers are using their skills to help businesses and cities reopen mindful of the yawning inequities exposed by COVID.
Some infectious disease specialists have interpreted research showing that virus-carrying droplets fall out of the air quickly when people are sitting quietly. Some evidence appears to show that you can’t be infected without being near an infected person for an extended period of time. (How extended is up for debate.) And some evidence indicates that contaminated surfaces touched briefly won’t convey the virus.
We would all be better off if research was more definitive on these points, but current findings give architects a lot to work with, if clients are aware that risks may be higher and are willing to accept those risks. Such findings suggest elevators need not be zapped with ultraviolet light to be safe. A short bus ride may not be worrisome, especially if windows are left open. Schools may be carefully reopened, allowing parents to return to work.
That’s why design thinking is especially valuable at this time. Cities are creating “open streets,” for example. This means open for safe walking, biking, playing — and protesting. Busses can move more quickly along reserved lanes. Restaurants can flow into the streets, adding enough socially distanced tables to survive the shutdown.
Who reconciles all these interests? Architects and landscape architects have long seen themselves as stewards of public spaces for people — designing plazas, esplanades, and streets to serve many populations and interests. They are trying to take us beyond the civil engineer’s obsession with vehicle throughput.
Closing streets with battered police barriers is not enough, says Claire Weisz, who heads WXY, an architecture and urban design studio. “You can’t just throw some chairs out.” The George Floyd uprisings should teach us that streets are not neutral, but political, even dangerous to Black men and women. “Streets have to be curated to make clear that these streets are for everyone,” said Weisz in an interview.
The economy can’t fully reopen without kids able to go to school and daycare. Many infectious disease specialists look on early school openings with alarm. Weisz has studied this question with a Brooklyn school client, and makes the impossible seem at least plausible. Working with staggered school schedules, she proposes using porches, sidewalks, courtyards or playgrounds to stage the movement of children into the building at a safe rate and at a safe density inside. She suggests activities to make the wait time stimulating and fun.
Most of us take air and breathing for granted. The coronavirus’s invasion of lungs changed that. As people became aware that breathing in certain enclosed spaces may be dangerous, “it changes our connection to places and our own relationship to city life,” architect Michael Murphy, who heads the non-profit Boston firm MASS Design Group, told me. He calls that “a paradigm shift.” Instead of keeping us warm and cool with a minimum amount of fresh air, ventilation in buildings “must be designed with a direct relationship to health and well being.”
Murphy should know. MASS has designed clinics located amid unrest and the starkest poverty in countries wracked by infectious diseases. The MASS clinics are bathed in daylight and exquisitely steer fresh air to patients — wellness made beautiful that comforts as well as heals.
As Mount Sinai hospital in New York faced an appalling influx of COVID patients, MASS mounted GoPro cameras on the heads of clinicians to document encounters that put people at risk in spaces hastily repurposed for COVID beds. Watching the footage the designers and hospital staff together realized that doctors and staff were passing from wards requiring absolute isolation into general hospital spaces without realizing it. It was a breach quickly fixed with an improved barrier, unmissable graphics to convey when people were crossing borders between clean and contaminated, and a vestibule to put on and remove the full-body personal protection equipment (PPE) that should not be worn outside zones of contagion.
There was already a big push around wellness in the architecture field, as a growing body of research shows that building elements can reduce stress and even aid healing. Steven Yablon designed a clinic for Planned Parenthood in Queens, N.Y., with ample daylight, and a clean, modern design. Though the organization’s clinics have defenses against attacks by anti-abortion protesters, it wanted the design to invite people to use education, counseling and prenatal resources lacking in the community. “The design underlines the commitment to the best, up-to-date care,” Yablon told me.
Because such a wide variety of services are offered, Yablon mapped the journey for eight different kinds of patient experience that respects each patient’s privacy and level of anxiety. With an enormous range of cultures and some 100 languages spoken in the surrounding neighborhoods, Yablon and Planned Parenthood engaged such questions as whether men could share the waiting room with women. “Welcome” is written in 50 languages on the wall.
Architecture as an act of destigmatizing is rarely heralded.
Architects are also working with research that confirms the common-sense notion that daylight and views, especially to greenery, are therapeutic. A greater attention to windows and outdoor space may become a more important aspect of hospitals’ healing mission. Improving staff well-being is especially urgent as hospitals face an exodus of talent fed-up with the appalling way they were treated as COVID cases surged. Hospital staff lacked PPE, lacked staff support, and supplies, which put doctors and staff at high risk of infection. (Shockingly, places facing a new surge of cases seem still to be unprepared.)
Many front-line workers have suffered emotional traumas. Many had to isolate themselves for weeks to avoid infecting loved ones. Many suffer guilt over patients they should have been able to save. The UK’s Maggie’s Centers offer a model of restorative and therapeutic care. They provide support to cancer patients and their families in settings of extraordinary beauty, calm, and conviviality. They have been designed by some of the best architects in the world. The frontline health workers who have done the most with the least deserve nothing less.