Covid19, Design, Home, Wellness | 20 July 2021
How Covid has changed home design.
Many of us have spent more time than ever at home since lockdown restrictions began in 2020.
As people who spend much of our time considering the importance of home, we wanted to explore how our perceptions of home have changed over the past year or so and what this means for how we live. Do we regard space, design, quality, function and location differently?
Ben Spriggs, in the editorial of the July 2020 edition of Elle Decoration said, “One of the few things I’ve loved about quarantine has been the renewed focus on where we live and our relationship with the spaces we inhabit.”
This resonated strongly with us because of our belief that where we live and how it makes us feel is critically important to our quality of life. Alain de Botton in “The Architecture of Happiness” explains that we are, “different people in different places and that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” Homes should be designed with people in mind to enable them to fulfil their potential and live their best lives.
An after effect of lockdown is that it has forced us to become acutely aware of the spaces we inhabit within our homes. Having enough space to live the way we want to live makes a qualitative difference to our wellbeing and everyday lives. Our home environment, the quality of the design in terms of layout, how the space flows, the amount of natural light, how our needs are met and our access to outdoor space all matter greatly.
Good quality homes enhance our quality of life.
Ranald Boydell, visiting lecturer in Sustainable Development at Heriot-Watt University observed how challenging lockdown can be when having to contend with poor living conditions in his article “Why zero-carbon homes must lead the green recovery from COVID-19.”
“Living in a house that doesn’t fully meet your needs might have been tolerable when you spent more of your time elsewhere, but a third of the world has been stuck indoors at one or another time during the pandemic. A lack of space, poor soundproofing, inadequate ventilation and no outdoor access, even to a balcony, are all shortcomings that will have made the weeks and months indoors unbearable for some.”
Four years ago, Shelter conducted a ground-breaking study on the meaning of home that led to defining a “Living Home Standard” based on five elements: Neighbourhood, affordability, space, stability and decent conditions. Shelter says: “Living in decent, safe conditions is always vital, and the public recognise that we shouldn’t have to compromise on these essentials, such as living without hazards, pests or damp and mould problems. This is even more true now, with the health risks posed by unsafe conditions ever more acute when we are spending so much time in our homes.”
The World Health Organisation attributes the world’s 300 million cases of childhood asthma to exposure to indoor dampness and mould. Jeroen Douwes, Professor of Public Health and Director of the Centre for Public Health Research at Massey University explains, “mould accumulates in damp and poorly ventilated buildings. Inhaling mould fragments or spores can inflame the airways, causing nasal congestion, wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and throat irritation.” He goes on to make correlations between dampness and mould to poor mental health, explaining that people living in environments where mould and damp are present are more prone to depression.
Pre lockdown, we were at home for an average of 16 hours a day. Since lockdown, “the entire planet” is spending 35% more time at home according to Al Jazeera News. Many of us are still home-working, having been more or less confined to our homes for a while. No one should have to fear that staying in their home will cause their health to deteriorate. Our homes should be our sanctuary, where we feel safe and healthy, cocooned away from threat and fear.
Pre pandemic, it was easier to ignore the less than favourable elements of our living surroundings and conditions by focussing on other factors for example living in a great neighbourhood and being near amenities. The days of spending more time at work than home are a distant memory for most. We have all become more aware of our living environment, how it makes us feel and how it impacts our day to day lives. Living in a healthy building has never been so important. Ukranian architect, Sergey Makhno comments, “more than an escape from routine and urban chaos, the house now offers a retreat from viruses and infections.” Unfortunately, a healthy, safe living environment is not everyone’s reality.
Post pandemic perceptions towards different housing solutions have evolved. In “Dezeen” Makhno went on to talk about how people’s attitudes towards apartment living have changed in connection with this. He states “high-rise buildings were designed to organise as many people as possible in one place. Health and hygiene were not a consideration.”
For example, in a multi-storey apartment block there are many high touch surfaces to navigate, including lift buttons, door handles, balustrades and handrails so it almost becomes impractical for present day living. There is a need to sanitise everything that has been touched by others. For many feeling safe at home has never been more important or harder to achieve.
“For many feeling safe at home has never been more important or harder to achieve.”
Makhno goes on to consider the disconnect from nature when your home is situated on one of the higher floors and explains how these emotions manifest in wanting to live in a house as opposed to a flat. For this reason, he believes, after forced isolation on different floors above the ground, often without a balcony or terrace, we will all desperately want to have a house. It can be small, but with a courtyard and a terrace where you can have coffee in the morning.
The importance of outdoor space and the exodus from city living.
In the peak of lockdown, many people spoke about the importance of outdoor space or the lack of it. John Elledge of the New Statesman reflected on how his decisions towards his home in a pre-Covid era were greatly at odds with what he would choose post pandemic. He said:
“Perhaps my biggest regret about the time BC (before Covid) is that I opted for a flat with no outdoor space whatsoever. At the time I thought I was being clever, trading a balcony I was never realistically going to use, for indoor space that I would. Three weeks into lockdown, with the sun often mocking us with better April weather than London gets some entire summers, this began to feel like an error.”
“As our needs change, our perceptions of what is important change too.”
Rightmove search figures suggest, “renters are swapping inner London transport hubs for homes further afield as the need to commute has become less important than a desire for space.”
Research issued by UK Estate Agent Savills in September 2020 discovered that 62% of buyers and sellers surveyed said garden or outside space was more important than previously, rising to 71% for those in London. 57% said a separate space to work from home was now more important than pre lockdown, rising to 70% in the capital.
Good design delineates space.
How we use and delineate our indoor space has become a hot topic of conversation and research during 2020 / 2021 indicates that our perception of our indoor space has changed significantly. We’ve become acutely aware of the space in our homes as evidenced by a plethora of anecdotal reports. The Guardian interviewed art and fashion graduates to find out about their lockdown experiences and comments such as those of Sissel Kärneskog were frequent. She described struggling with having only a “few square metres of space to move around in” and no differentiation between types of space.” According to Shelter, in their study on the meaning of home, the most animated discussions on the subject centre on space especially the importance of having spaces where we can come together and spaces where we can be apart.
Clearly the design of our homes has hugely impacted many of us during the height of the lockdown restrictions. Our time at home has been more intense than before forcing us to interact with our homes and each other within them differently. Tara Hipwood, Lecturer in Architecture at Northumbria University, explored how attitudes to space have changed during lockdown in the online journal “The Conversation.” She described the need to find a quiet corner to work in, and the need for privacy, saying “it’s likely that for many families, this period has highlighted that when they are all in the house at the same time, it can be hard to find any personal space.”
In Toast magazine, writer, Elizabeth Metcalfe discussed how open plan living translated in lockdown. She explained how regular open plan living, “relies on a “phased” pattern of occupation, whereby different members of the household occupy the home at different times of day.” This is very different from the “concurrent” pattern of occupation that lockdown has made more prevalent, whereby all members of the household occupy the home simultaneously.
The result being that lockdown has intensified how our space is occupied and when.
“Space standards: The benefits,” produced by University College London for CABE in April 2010 explored the idea of space to be together and apart. It said, “inadequate space offers neither of these possibilities and may not, therefore, provide an adequate setting for family life.” This turned out to be particularly true for working parents during lockdown. Working from home while simultaneously providing childcare was an almost impossible task for many. Pressure on space was at a peak with parents facing the impossibility of simultaneously needing quiet space to work in, at the same time as breakout space for noisy kids’ activities.
As home working becomes a more permanent fixture for many, how will our home life be altered? Sergey Makhno, writing for “Dezeen” believes that this will have a huge impact, so much so that it will permanently change the design and use of our homes once the pandemic is over. He believes, “more attention will be given to the arrangement of the workplace at home. Spatial organisation will change. Now it will be a completely separate room with large windows, blackout curtains and comfortable furniture. It will be technically equipped and sound-insulated.”
If the long-term impact of the pandemic on architecture and home design is to incorporate home working and different types of space / spaces within our living space, then space itself will surely be of far greater importance than ever. Space, already at a premium, will have to work harder and do more. Arguably great design can take you so far but space itself must surely be at a higher premium than ever.
The importance of space.
Against the backdrop of these changes to how we live and engage with our homes, Boris Johnson’s UK recovery plan “Build, Build, Build” comes at a pivotal moment. The present time offers a critical opportunity for us to raise the quality of new build housing by setting higher minimum quality standards. Following an early outcry due to the plans giving no mention to quality standards, the government has announced that there will now be minimum space and light requirements applied to permitted development rights — the question is will these be enough to ensure decent living conditions particularly as the way we live changes?
These questions cause us to look back with nostalgia at the influential 1961 report, “Homes for Today and Tomorrow,” by Sir George Parker Morris and a large committee of policy makers, architects and town planners. The report sets out the universal minimum space standards for all new housing at the time — not forgetting that this was during the post-war house building boom. It was an aspirational piece of work that went far beyond simply allocating an amount of space to each member of a household.
Instead it focused on family needs and sought, through the consideration of minimum design standards, to accommodate the requirements of family life. It stated, “the living room must provide space sufficient for two or three easy chairs, a settee, a television set, small tables, and places suitable for a reasonable quantity of other possessions such as a sewing box, toy box, radiogram and bookcase.” Parker Morris said, “a good house or flat can never be made out of premises which are too small.”
The report was an ambitious, heartfelt attempt to use policy to enhance and support the things that bring meaning to family life. The living room was given significant focus as a place to relax; the epicentre of recreation. A room to be lived in, within which to do the things that make us happy such as listening to the radio, watching television, reading, sewing, playing with toys. A space for human connection and coming together. This thinking was truly enlightened at the time it was published and, in many ways, remains so today — one might call it human centered design. The report continued:
“An increasing proportion of people are coming to expect their home to do more than just fulfil the basic requirement. It must be something of which they can be proud and in which they can express the fullness of their lives.”
Sir George Parker Morris
The Parker Morris standards became compulsory for all new homes built by councils and new towns and influenced those built by others. They were abolished in 1980 and space standards have not been championed in the same way since. Arguably they have slipped and are worse — consider the homes built today that are as small as 13-25 sqm! These are widespread in offices converted to residential under permitted development and are arguably about as far from expressing the fullness of life as it gets.
Interestingly the Parker Morris report shied away from recommending the enforcement of its standards on the private sector and calling for a ban on smaller private homes, it did however specify that not too many of them should be built in any one place.” Ultimately the report was an optimistic plan designed with the future in mind. Now that the present is so clearly dictating that we adjust how we engage with our living space there is much we can learn from the Parker Morris approach going forward. Had minimum space standards been applied to the homes of people like Sissel Kärneskog above, many would have had a far happier, healthier and less stressful pandemic.
Space and wellbeing.
The quality of the space within which we live and how that space makes us feel is central to our sense of self and to our wellbeing. In the RIBA report “RIBA Case for Space,” 2011, Harry Rich then chief executive of RIBA stated,
“A lack of adequate space for a household has also been shown to have significant impacts on health, educational attainment and family relationships.”
In 2005 Shetler surveyed 505 households living in “crowded” accommodation to analyse the connection between health and housing space. Findings revealed, “the importance of space in providing personal privacy, reducing depression, anxiety and stress, giving children room to play and ensuring a good night’s sleep. Three quarters of respondents (77%) in this survey saw space as playing a key role in determining the quality of family relationships.”
The quality of our home environment is directly related to our ability to achieve our full potential in life. Housing should address all of our fundamental human needs but sadly it often falls far short of this.
Home is not just an economic unit on a development plan. It holds special meaning that is subtly different for everyone. It is sanctuary, shelter, love. It is where we experience life’s great highs and lows. Where we retreat to in times of stress, where we celebrate in times of joy. It is where we come together with those we hold most dear to do all the things that make our lives rich, unique and interesting. It is where we escape to when life gets tough and where we wish to return to find peace and solace at the end of our lives.
A home must therefore go beyond basic functionality. It must be fit for today and tomorrow, meaning it must be regarded by those who design and build it as being about more than a developmental value. Home is central to our happiness and our life outcomes.
Home matters, space matters. The pandemic has highlighted more clearly than ever, how much our living spaces impact our quality of life. As a result of spending more time at home, working, educating and socialising, we have connected with our homes in new ways and have had to use and think about our space differently.
As we have adjusted to a “new normal,” our relationship to our living space and what we value most in our homes has changed irrevocably. As a result of the pandemic, many of us now regard space, design, quality, function and the location of our homes differently. Good design is directly linked to our positive (or otherwise) experience of the buildings within which we live our lives. As CABE’s “Creating Excellent Buildings states, “attractive, light and well-ventilated spaces contribute to the health and well-being of users.” Well-designed homes that give consideration to factors such as space, natural light, relationship to the outdoors, airflows within the living space, way-finding, storage, functionality, adaptability and soundproofing will be more important than ever.
This is the perfect time to consider our experiences and to assess whether our homes fulfil all of our needs — to determine what these needs are and what is most important to us. A home must go beyond basic functionality. It must be fit for today and tomorrow, meaning it must be regarded by those who design and build it as being about more than a developmental value. Home is where we should be able to live our best lives.
Our living space, irrespective of size, should be able to accommodate our needs because home is central to our happiness and life outcomes. Home must be our sanctuary.