The Future of the Built Environment: Population Pandemic Climate

We are currently facing two forces that promise to fundamentally change the nature of our world and our industry: 

1. Changing demographics and population growth – as we face a future with ever more crowded urban populations, what must we do to cater to their needs and ensure that the Built Environment provides quality of life, freedom and choice? What implications are there for the way in which we work given the need to increase our production drastically, with a declining workforce?
2. A global pandemic reshaping the way in which we work – as remote working looks to perhaps become our ‘new normal’ what will this mean for an industry still centred around a manual labour model and struggling to increase collaboration and coordination? How do we manage this at a time when we are being forced to increase separation and isolation?

There is no doubt that fundamental change is upon us, our industry and the greater world community; but HOW will the built environment change, and how must our industry change to reflect this?

After a 2 year break from blogging – let’s not start back on a small insignificant topic! Last November I was asked to speak on a webinar for Singapore Polytechnic and the Digital Built Environment Institute on the above topic. From my perspective as an Australian, it seemed to me there was a third piece also critical to this discussion – climate change. So my talk addresses this as a third major driver of change. tI was invited to join two other speakers Randy Deutsch and Josh DeStefano to discuss this topic, and I was specifically addressing Interior Design (it was a little intimidating to be speaking alongside Randy, whose books I own!)

To me these three drivers of change are interlinked and have significant impacts on the world in general and on construction and buildings – as both a major part of our economic activity and a major contributor to environmental change. Our whole global economic system is dependent upon population growth. Countries like Japan have economically stagnated because of a lack of population growth, and countries like Australia could follow with the pandemic set to reduce immigration and population growth in coming years. At the same time, COVID 19 was caused by the twin factors of population growth and climate change which is causing increasing contact between humans and wild animals likely to lead to more increasing frequency of virus transfer between animals and humans. Unlike population growth and climate change which have so far been measured in years not days and months, the pandemic has an urgency. Like climate change and population growth, the end of the pandemic has to be a global solution. Unlike climate change and population growth, we see the short term impacts immediately but don’t yet know the longer term impacts on individuals and society. All three of these issues will form the background to future directions in our industry over coming years.

My approach to this topic was to address 10 trends in interior design, which to quote Sir Norman Foster “Instead of change, it [covid] has merely hastened, accelerated trends of change that were already apparent before the pandemic”

1. Flexibility

Flexibility has been a growing topic in workplace for many years (and a personal favourite to write about), however in 2020 when lockdowns instituted an immense global WFH experiment combined with no childcare, flexibility took on a whole new scale of meaning.

Flexibility encompasses place, time and space and all of these became factors for many people during the pandemic. Work from home, work when the kids are asleep or on the weekends, work from the bedroom or the kitchen table. All of these things were and are continuing to happen. Some are positive, and allow people choice as to where and when to work and others were forced upon people due to the unique circumstances of not being allowed to leave the house.

We can expect to see flexible work options remain, becoming more mainstream in the new hybrid workplace of the future. Design of homes might be more flexible to allow for spaces to change from study to guest room or dining space. Design of workplaces is also likely to see a need for more flexibility to accommodate less desks and more variety of collaboration spaces.

Time forms the biggest challenge for flexibility, and needs flexibility of mindset. From flexible start and finish times, many teams and organisations have moved beyond the idea of core hours to any hours – the idea of asynchronous working where people can work together, even if they don’t have work at the same time. (All remote tech company Gitlab being one of the best documented examples)

These changes towards a more flexible workplace will also have a positive impact on urbanisation and climate change. Choices for remote working or hybrid working will give people more choice of where to live and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary commuting or business travel.

2. Global vs Local

Interior design (and architecture) have become more and more homogensied globally as international communication and global trade gets easier and easier. Frequently you can’t tell which region of the world an image of an office comes from – particularly if the image is of a social space rather than a desk.

COVID has us questioning the global nature of the world, from travel to exports and imports the gloabalised nature of today’s world has made it easier for the virus to spread, and frequently created significant disruption when borders are closed or the amount of freight is restricted. To rely more upon locally produced goods for food or building mitigates these supply chain issues as well as the impacts on the environment that come with transporting so much stuff around the world every day.

Spending more times in our homes and local areas, rather than driving or flying around the city or the world has also made many of us see our own local area differently. Perhaps we realised we loved where we lived, or for many realised we actually didn’t like it all and wanted to be closer to nature, the beach or family. Once freed from the daily grind of commuting to the CBD, many took the opportunity to move out of cities to regional areas which here in Australia has caused a housing price boom in larger regional centres and coastal towns. Over time, this could very well mean a reduction in the urban city population, and more of a balanced choice between living in an urban centre of choosing a regional lifestyle. This is a trend that was already beginning as technology and wi-fi become more readily available, but the work from anywhere opportunity created by the pandemic has enabled more people to make this choice.

3. Blending

This is one of my personal favourties. Offices that start to like like homes or bars, and homes start to incorporate office spaces. The trend towards more domestic or hospitality style workplace design has been growing over a number of years, and was perhaps reaching its peak just in the months before COVID – I saw a large number of workplace fitouts featuring beds!!! (Casper is a mattress company – but was only one of a number I saw. Google has long been famous for its nap pods)

One of the most extreme examples of this was a solution to the COVID lockdown. These 9m2 pods encompass a work area, bed and small sink/kitchen space. Apparently you could sit out the lockdown in one of these bizzare new alternatives to co-working. Not sure where you would shower or how bad your home setup would have to be for you do want to do this…

I think it is unlikely that such extremities will be a feature of post COVID design – why sleep at work when you can work at home and sleep in your own (clean) bed. What I do think we will see is more comfortable office spaces, less a sea of workstations and more spaces that are designed for connecting with other people from breakout areas and lounges to collaborative meeting spaces. COVID has also meant many of us have become less formal, so I think we will see a dominance of more informal spaces for a mix of face to face and video collaboration rather than formal presentation / meeting rooms. Softer more residential style furniture and styling will make offices more welcoming to staff and visitors alike.

4. Wellness

In 2019 I think its fair to say that THE hot topic in workplace design was wellness. From end of trip studios and yoga classes, WELL buildings (this is an old post but is my own summary of WELL) and plants, corporate psychology and sleep programs, improving the physical health of people within the workplace environment has been a topic of growing importance for a number of years now. The pandemic has brought additional layers to what we might start to consider in the area of wellness. From physical distancing, to touchfree environments, anti microbial surfaces and increased air flow in buildings – again some of these, such as touch free design and increased airflow were already in evidence before the pandemic and will probably continue to grow in popularity as they offer benefits beyond the pandemic. Sneeze guards – maybe not so much in the workplace (although I can see the value in retail).

5. Co-working / living

Prior to the pandemic both co-working and co-living were fast growing sectors, with much initial doubt over if there would be a future appetite to share space with strangers after the pandemic. Whilst the future of co-living remains somewhat unclear, co-working has weathered the worst of the lockdowns and is in many places again booming. Whilst many people think of co-working has open plan hotdesking, for many co-working spaces this has never in fact been the reality. Many co-working spaces consist of smaller suites for individual companies, with shared breakout, meeting and support spaces and in reality these spaces are really no different from a large office building where you might share lifts, coffee shops and toilets with other people – either co-workers or other tenants. The really big benefit of co-working for businesses has been the ability to pay only for the space you need, and the flexibility of not being signed up to a 5 or 10 year lease. Co-working is also being seen as an alternative for individuals who can’t work from home but don’t want to travel into the head office, or indeed for some companies the alternative to even having an office with desks. Dropbox is moving to a 100% collaborative ‘studio’ workplace and will fund co-working as a corporate perk for employees who wish to work from an office.

6. Consumer Tech

Ever since the introduction of the smart phone, our home IT capabilities have frequently been exceeding what we are provided with at work. Whilst most people are frequently used to using multiple apps on their phone and frequently upgrading their devices for personal use, the same adaptability and attitude hasn’t always been seen in the workplace. However as technology becomes smaller and more portable and work has become less formal, these two worlds are starting to merge. Ten years ago it would have been very weird to receive a text message from a client, now its totally normal as is the use of chat groups such as Slack and Teams – and not just for work chatter, but for actually getting things done. Video conferencing has existed for years, but lockdowns have suddenly made it the norm rather than an exception and have also encouraged the software developers to put more resources into developing new features. Technology still struggles to replicate face to face but as development continues, we are likely to see more business applications for virtual and augmented reality (which again are probably more widely used in gaming than business today). Some companies such as PwC are already outfitting staff working from home with virtual reality headsets to enable more immersive collaborative meeting experiences. (I can’t believe I could be calling a meeting an experience…but in this application it seems to make sense!)

7. Smart Buildings

Another area of technology which has been in existence and growing for some years is the idea of technology enabled smart buildings. Automation of elements of buildings from sensors for lights and air conditioning to destination control for lifts (where you chose your destination from a lobby control panel not in the lift itself) are all fairly standard features of new or refurbished city buildings. The integration of these systems to allow for automated environmental controls and / or mobile apps for individual user control really takes them to the level of a smart building. A smart building can create a seamless user experience of navigating a building from entry via a touch free app through to ordering coffee to your meeting room which is preset to your audio visual, lighting and air conditioning requirements. These kinds of systems can also play a part in the pandemic, facilitating touch free movement and building operations and allowing for contract tracing. The collection of data from building occupancy could in future also allow for much more significant design simulations than is currently available.

8. Automation

Automation is the first and simplest step to implementing new technologies in design practice as well as buildings. Even autoCAD can be considered as some level of automation. But now for most practices we are already well beyond this. From tools that general sheets or building levels automatically to add in that upload your drawings and models to aconex while you sleep, many designers are now relying upon automation to undertake routine daily tasks. These tools are frequently based upon simple algorithms and many graduates are now capable of various kinds of visual coding.

The potential of automation for design is growing quickly. WeWork were a key early adopter of technology for interior design and the workplace, and developed an algorithm for automatically laying out desks within an office space a few years ago – this type of automation is now readily available within architectural design software.

9. Machine Learning

WeWork have also been a leader in the use of technology to understand how their workplaces are performing, to analyse improvements and then predict their spatial requirements. Beginning with using apps to gather data on meeting room usage, the research team were able to feed the information on booking frequency, room size, and audio visual technology to teach a neural network. The neural network learns to associate different layouts with frequency of booking, and over time was better able to better predict the actual usage of meeting rooms than the human designers.

This kind of process could allow us to better understand and validate many of our design assumptions and better anticipate the needs of building users. Simulations and machine learning can also help us design buildings to control airflow and spread of viruses. Across many kinds of commercial design from hospitals to hotels, retail and workplace – the future of machine learning has the potential to influence how we plan and design our buildings for better use of space, and could potentially allow us to reduce the amount of space we need to occupy add therefore build.

10. Artificial Intelligence

In some way the last three trends form a grouping of the direction technology is advancing. Automation and machine learning are required before we can get to artificial intelligence. While AI is already making an appearance in many industries (a chatbot is a basic AI), many people, particularly designers, would like to think that an AI will never be able to design – that creativity is a purely human attribute.

Whilst AI in creative industry has a long way to go – one of my favourite examples being the AI paint colour names from Stummy Beige to Stanky Bean – there are already examples of AI artists, fashion designers and more. It won’t be long before we start to see more examples of AI in interior design, although the likelihood is that humans will continue to work alongside the AI for some time to come.

If design and construction leverage these trends, what could our industry look like by 2030?

Thanks to the Digital Built Environment Institute and Singapore Polytechnic for inviting me to join them and share my ideas on this thought provoking topic – up until this invitation I’d been deliberately avoiding joining the pandemic speculations!  Early in 2020 it seemed too soon to understand what the impacts might be, now I’m looking forward to exploring the ideas and topics that have exploded in the world of work over the last year.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image: Photo by Stanley Li on Unsplash

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