Design’s role in the coming recovery
Monday, April 27, 2020
Nobel laureate in physics Nils Bohr wisely observed, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." With so many things in flux at the moment, it is pointless to try to predict what will happen in the coming months or years as countries around the world seek to recuperate from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I do think, however, it is useful as a means of preparation to consider what recovery may look like and how interior design can help to facilitate the transition to whatever the new normal will be.
Firms big and small are facing project delays and some cancellations, supply chain challenges, and a reduction in new project inquiries. Our experience with the aftermath of the Great Recession suggests that even once the economy begins to revive, those problems are likely to linger for some time. For how long probably will depend in large part on how quickly the major economies can bounce back and how soon the spread of the virus can be contained and a vaccine made available to a sizable portion of the world’s population.
But that is only part of a larger scenario in which design has an important role to play. At whatever pace the recovery proceeds, it is certain that changes will need to be made to most existing interior environments to make them safe and functional if societies are to return to anything akin to normal. And who is better equipped to create and implement those changes than interior designers?
Consider the hospitality industry, for example. As people slowly return to travel, I can envision a scenario in which they shy away from super large hotels and resorts, preferring more intimate boutique properties.
Guest rooms and fitness centers will need to be outfitted with additional health and safety features and fixtures. Until people are assured the virus has been suppressed, they are likely to shun large conferences and expos, preferring more local, smaller group settings, which will require adapting or retrofitting existing facilities.
Restaurants, which in recent years have focused on maximizing the number of chairs they can cram into a space, will have to rearrange their seating to allow for more distance between tables, and patrons will no longer want to be jammed into a crowded bar while they wait to be seated.
Offices and other workspaces are another sector that will need almost immediate rearranging and renovation if companies are going to get up and running quickly. Very likely, we will see a combination of in-office and remote working for some time in order to maintain sufficient social distancing. Some employers may be willing to pay for home office renovations.
Co-working venues like WeWork may see a surge in demand as businesses have to reduce the number of employees per work area yet still need to have people report to a common area for certain tasks and meetings. This is of course will require co-workspaces that are currently long tables and group working areas to convert to more individual offices and partitioned areas, not to mention upgrading lavatory facilities to minimize the risk of potential contagion.
It’s not hard to foresee similar scenarios in other sectors of the built environment, such as healthcare, education and retail, where changes will be needed to interiors so that they can begin to function properly again. Any place people congregate or socialize will have to make some accommodations to health and safety or users will stay away.
Does this mean there will be a stampede to designers’ doors as businesses strive to be first in line to revive their operations and attract customers once again? Maybe. There will be plenty of competitors seeking to sell quick, cheap solutions.
We may see a resurgence in DIY, especially in the residential remodeling sector. I expect that some current large projects will be canceled where possible if their designs now appear to be unsuitable or simply too costly.
On the flip side, small and medium firms may see an increase in requests for smaller projects or spaces that need to be reconfigured. Commercial clients who recognize designers’ expertise will likely be asking for some immediate triage to get their employees back to work but may need to delay more large-scale renovations until they are more solvent again. Designers of all stripes will do well to promote their services to improve occupants’ safety and general health and wellness.
We cannot know for certain what the future will bring. But we can be fairly sure that designers will have a vital service to provide in creating that future, perhaps more so than at any time in our history.
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