While architecture and design probably aren’t the first things that spring to mind when discussing the global COVID-19 pandemic, it will be fascinating to see if modern design trends align with the current and in many cases draconian controls that are in place around much of the world.

Architects and designers often have a longer-term view on things, given there is a large amount of time before commencement and completion of complex builds and the need for them to last for many decades. It’s for this reason I strongly feel we need to start envisioning how we design purposefully structured spaces to enjoy and that also incorporate ways to help maintain people’s health during a future pandemic.

It’s interesting to note that much of the technology is already in place to make these changes to our built environs. From greater use of sensors in office buildings, and even using facial recognition technology to scan for body temperature and fluctuations in the body heat of individuals may well become commonplace.

Some other examples that we will see (and in many cases already seeing) include airlocks and hand sanitiser points appearing as permanent (and hopefully architecturally integrated) parts of new buildings and homes. Contactless technologies will also jump ahead in leaps and bounds, including voice-controlled elevators in office buildings, automatic doors and hands-free light switches.

The old adage that if it happens once it can happen again has never been truer. As the world becomes more and more connected, we should accept that global pandemics will become more frequent, and part of everyday life.

We only need to look back to the 9-11 terrorist attacks where it became commonplace for office buildings to develop elaborate sign in processes to protect occupants.

A particularly extreme example post September 11 was one I experienced in London visiting the headquarters of a toy company.

I was asked a week prior to visiting the building to provide proof of my identity and of everyone who would be coming with me. This included a digital photo, driver’s license, two phone referees (who didn’t live with me or work with me), as well as a letter from my employer stating the purpose of the upcoming meeting and confirming who would be attending. I was advised to arrive 45 minutes early so they could take fingerprints and retinal scans and then I had to fill out a questionnaire.

A world that has been reminded what a pandemic is like may bring about similar reactions (and some over-reactions) in the world of architecture and design.

And some of the more extreme ideas floating around the industry? Perhaps on-the-spot blood tests being a requirement of entry (or even DNA tests) before the waiter will show you to your table. Well, maybe that one is a little extreme, but the point is to imagine a future where we do not constantly wrap ourselves in cotton wool but have the means to compartmentalise with ease.

We aren’t going to live as if the pandemic never ended (when it does), but we will be prepared to make the next ‘something’ so we can continue to thrive.

I have no doubt architects and designers will revel in this new challenge of adding to and reimagining spaces for work, life and play. Our role as designers and architects is now two- fold – firstly, to design places so people are less likely to make each other sick and secondly, to design spaces that allow society and the economy to function when physical contact must cease.

For this, imagine new homes that could be designed to create spaces that can transform into office hubs for small satellite teams and better use existing spaces (without needing more space). For example, bedrooms that can transform into home offices, dining tables transforming into a meeting room and kitchens becoming a break area.

Imagine homes with front gates (or doors) that allow items to be delivered securely without proximity, or houses that must support a person’s (or family’s) mental health when they aren’t allowed to leave for weeks.

In the same way we recognise that some buildings are more secure against physical threats, we must also understand that some buildings are more secure against health threats. We understand that physical security is a spectrum, yet health security we often expect to be black and white.

There is an obvious design challenge in creating a concert or performance venue that reduces the likelihood of people spreading illnesses or designing an office building that provides more health and safety than home isolation does.

We are already seeing these health-related design requests come across our desk and this is only going to increase as we continue to recover from the global pandemic. So, like many other industries – buckle up, as it’s going to look very interesting in a post-COVID reality.

Image: Cushman & Wakefield

*Gerald Matthews is managing director and senior architect at Matthews Architects