The current crisis has brought unexpected challenges in the built environment but equally, it has given the industry time to reflect and respond to these new realities. Hopefully this period will give way to rethinking our priorities and make way for new creative architectural solutions. Simon Erridge has recently discussed his insightful views about the architecture landscape in a post-pandemic world.
The crisis has driven millions of people to work successfully from home. Do we need to go back to office working?
Simon Erridge: As architects the current crisis has taught us that we are more adaptable than we thought. In the space of a week we have transitioned from a studio-based practice in three cities to a virtual office of 70 people. The technology has made this transition almost seamless and we are able to carry on in much the same way as before. But there is a caveat; to be effective, remote working must be relatively rigid, meetings and conversations require pre-planning and organising to be effective. This formality is fine but has made us long for one vital aspect of office life; serendipity. We miss spending at least some of our time working alongside team-mates in a studio environment which encourages chance encounters and shared ideas. We have learned to be more effective remote workers but we still need to spend some of our time in a physical office to produce our best work.
The crisis has taught us to treat public spaces with caution. How do we reoccupy these safely?
SE: Our lives are spent balancing risk and reward and, as the risk of infection recedes, we will begin to venture out again, as we did after 9/11, 7/7, Sars and bird flu. Humans are naturally sociable; we thrive on social gatherings and live events. Pubs, restaurants and theatres will re-open and we will find safe ways of making this happen. Like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, who learned from previous epidemics and appear to have managed covid-19 better than most, we have to hope that we too will have strategies in place which will allow us to control and contain the risk, even if mass testing and tracking of our movements may be the price we have to pay for our freedom to go to the theatre.
The governor of New York has said that one reason why the virus spread so quickly was because of of high urban densities. Could this spell the end of densification?
SE: The reality is that the problem we face is universal. Cities are hit hard as there are more people but the virus has no respect for boundaries, urban, suburban or rural. Just as the density of cities creates the close proximities upon which pandemics thrive, dense cities also present opportunities to overcome this and any future pandemics. Proximity to the best healthcare, knowledge districts leading innovation and creating solutions, a younger and more resilient population, the potential for more focused implementation of mass testing. Dense cities will thrive because they also present some of the solutions.
Self-isolation may protect physical health but can be detrimental to mental health. What, if anything, can future design do to improve our wellbeing?
SE: Forced to spend weeks and months in self-isolation, the design and quality of our housing stock has never felt more important to our wellbeing, nor more unfairly skewed to those with good-quality space in which they can both live and work. Just as we need to refocus on the need for quality housing for all, we also need to harness the re-energised sense of community that is one of the few positives to emerge in the last few weeks as people volunteer to help each other through the crisis. The coming together of neighbourhoods has helped tackle loneliness and contributed to personal wellbeing, even without physical contact. We must provide communities with the facilities to build on their newly energised sense of purpose and engage with this new sense of belonging.
Coronavirus has shown that climate change might not actually be humanity’s most pressing challenge after all. Does architecture need to wake up to the fact that epidemiology might become the new environmentalism?
SE: Climate change remains the number one threat to our existence. Pandemics are incredibly disruptive, but they can be overcome. Climate change represents the long slow decline of life as we know it. However, the current situation does offer us a choice. We’ve seen a remarkable reduction in air pollution in cities across the world. When this is all over, do we go back to our old ways or will it have exposed the profligacy of our pre-covid lifestyles? We’ll probably travel less, we’ll continue to work remotely as much as we can, we’ll value our homes, communities and our healthcare infrastructure more, but we still have no choice but to maintain the trajectory to net-zero carbon.
With aviation fleets grounded and question marks over the risks posed by globalisation should we go back to business as usual once the outbreak has ended?
SE: We have all become aware of how much of our time is spent travelling, and to have that time back through working remotely has been a revelation. But it’s hard to believe that there won’t always be some essential air travel, even if there’ll probably be more scrutiny of whether a flight is really necessary. Face-to-face meetings and visits to international clients and sites are, after all, important to the way our industry works. International travel brings us valuable experiences and perspectives that we can’t easily get any other way.
Border closures have caused large, international supply chains to collapse. Should we move towards smaller, more efficient and less risky supply chains in the future?
SE: Locally procured building products and materials reduce carbon emissions, provide distinctive local character and contribute to the local economy. But local supply chains in the UK are limited in scope, and many of the more complex and high-performing products essential to modern buildings need to be sourced globally. Like the automotive industry, the construction industry is currently dependent on global trade. But it is tempting to envisage a future where using more locally sourced materials is possible and there will be opportunities particularly in the rising demand for net-zero carbon construction materials. Could the UK develop a home-grown structural timber industry for instance? And could re-use of materials and the circular economy present opportunities for local supply chains that can’t be globalised?
This opinion piece was published on BD Online on 14th April 2020 as part of the article Coronavirus: What next for architecture?