June 22nd, 2020

Architectural design in the not so socially distant future

GettyImages 1188944064 3 - SSP Architectural Group

As architects, we tend to look at the world fractions of an inch, identifying the smallest details, and interpreting their practicality in everyday life. 


Modern architectural design is not just about walls, ceilings, and floors, it’s also about developing sustainable, efficient, and creative environments. Modern architectural design solves problems created by the needs of an ever-changing world, and boy is our world ever-changing.


Whether an existing or new commercial office space, civic building, or school, certain social distancing best-practices seemingly can be implemented with ease, but may present new and unforeseen challenges.


Facing Forward


Facing students or employees forward (or “unidirectional” seating) and spreading people out is now being considered a better seating arrangement during social distancing. And it is, until you run out of space. Recent moves to high-density office seating (or “benching”) place people 2 to 4 feet away from each other, face-to-face, almost shoulder to shoulder. With current social distancing recommendations, the space needed for office desks could double or triple.

Current occupancy calculations can call for anywhere from 5 to  20 square feet (SF) per person/student, in a socially distant future, 6 feet of separation = 36 SF per person. Where does the extra space come from? 


In a school, class sizes would need to be greatly reduced which means the annexing and redesign of larger areas such as cafeterias and gymnasiums to serve as instructional space. In an office environment, it could mean commandeering a conference room or two, or a complete structural redesign.



Separation By Six Feet


It sounds simple enough, just stay six feet apart. This could be accomplished with painted circles or duct-taped X’s on the floor, but it’s not attractive nor accurate through the twists, turns, and narrow corridors in most office buildings and schools. Not to mention challenges in elevators and stairwells.


Creative design solutions solve this problem by rethinking the floorplan, use of carpet patterns, one-way routing, signage, and other visual cues that remind us to keep a safe distance in a manner that is pleasing to the eye and difficult to miss.



Increased Airflow


Many are calling for increased airflow in schools and commercial office buildings to bring in more outside fresh air, with the CDC pointing out that coronavirus and other contagions live in the air not just on surfaces. 

While good indoor air quality and increased ventilation has long been a key to the high-performance buildings SSP designs, it must be carefully planned to account for energy consumption ($$), operational wear and tear, humidity control, and maintenance needs – to name a few.  In other words, running your mechanical system with more air across better filters means increased run time and strain on the units, means more energy is used to heat, cool, and dehumidify the air, which could mean the system is no longer working in compliance with the required energy codes.





We long for the days when all we had to worry about was someone squeezing the Charmin.  A communal bathroom presents unique design challenges – from entry doors, the distance between stalls and urinals, to multiple touchpoints such as stall doors, latches, sink knobs, dispensers, and more. Bathrooms are loaded with contact pitfalls.

Limiting usage to a smaller number of people as well as increasing the space between stalls, sinks, and urinals can be achieved but require either limiting usage of specific fixtures or costly remodeling.

Architectural design can solve some of these high-touch commode issues with a little creative thinking and modern technology. Bathrooms without doors can be achieved by simply creating blind angles. Foot pedals to operate levers, seats, and handles, as well as touchless dispensers for sinks, soap, and hand towels all help in limiting exposure and creating a safer place to do your business.  


The list goes on – from managing visitors to material selections. A new normal forces everyone to rethink space and how we use it in a safe and effective manner. We must now consider larger entryways, partitioning, directional pathways, signage, materials used for furniture, countertops, desks, and walls, and so much more.  


Social distancing creates challenges for businesses, some of these challenges can easily be solved with creative architectural design, however, the problem lies in melding practicality with reality, and for that you need an architectural firm that sees the world in fractions of an inch. 


For more information on architectural design modifications for your building, school or office space, contact our NJ based architectural firm for a consultation. 


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