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  • Writer's pictureRebecca B.

Adapting, By Design

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

If you’re like me, back in March you figured we’d all just hunker down in a hole and wait to come out till things got back to normal. Well I think we’ve all figured out, normal ain’t coming. Isn’t it wild? Life as we know it has changed irrevocably and we all need to just figure it out. There is no alternative. The better we are at adapting, the more likely we are to succeed going forward. Now, much of the time I’m still in denial and choose to remain in my hole. But one thing that gives me inspiration to try this adapting thing is architecture.

456 Washington Street rendering by Zakrzewski + Hyde

New York has a history of adapting to pandemics. The cholera epidemic of 1832 led architects to the regular installation of indoor plumbing. Yellow fever in the 1920s led to changes in housing project design, exchanging outhouses for bathrooms and adding courtyards. And tuberculosis scares in the 19th century gave us the concept of sunrooms. If it took sickness to push forward indoor plumbing and outdoor space, maybe having to adapt is not all bad. So what can we look forward to? (Please, let there be more to look forward to!) Clean air, better use of space, touchless options, and more efficiency. Ok, those are things I can get excited about.

One of the largest design responses to COVID-19 is the growth in popularity of Passive House construction. In this design style, buildings are constructed to be energy-efficient, well ventilated, and amazingly quiet. Spaces are completely sealed and energy recovery ventilators create a steady flow of filtered air, carrying stale air out and pumping fresh air in. The truly exciting thing about these choices in architecture is that the materials and labor needed are not more expensive than what is already in wide practice. This means no extra cost in construction and huge savings in monthly utility costs. Plus, healthy air and QUIET. Can you imagine, in NYC? To read more on passive house construction, check out this article in Brick Underground--

Another big concern in the post-COVID era is outdoor space. Looking at our history of pandemics, we should have learned our lesson already on outdoor access. Everyone designing residential buildings right now is trying to figure out a way to add a terrace for every apartment. Of course codes need to be changed for much of this to happen, and that is also in negotiation. Also urban planning these days is all about park area and how to make green space happen.

Katz's Architecture's prototype for a new live/work solution

Probably the biggest demand in architecture right now is more actual living space. Yet no developer is going to give you more square footage. So architects are sacrificing things like pantries or larger window walls to create an office. Recently Katz Architecture introduced a plan for a building with lots of live/work space that includes duplex apartments facing the back of the building and separate office spaces facing the front of the building. In the proposal, these spaces can be used for home offices or “isolating sick family members”. Talk about a new way of living.

Look for apartment layouts to change as well. The open floorplan we all coveted in days of yore is not practical if you are trying to quarantine. Expect separate living rooms, dining areas, and kitchens. These choices also create more “flex space” in general, so if you are home all day with four family members, you have the choice to be in separate spaces. And there will be added small details like antibacterial kitchen surfaces and door knobs, antibacterial cork flooring, and touchless faucets. All low cost choices with big safety benefits. One impressive new trend is an added UV light to HVAC systems, to kill the virus. This cost is probably $3,000-$5,000 for a small building. Again the benefit to cost ratio here is a no-brainer.

Bluestone's rendering of 11 W 126th street, planned to be NYC's first Passive House building, but construction seems to be stalled.

It’s hard to say quite yet if real estate values will change for buildings constructed with all these pandemic-friendly choices. Costs for Passive House construction are low, therefore one might think prices should not be affected. Yet that doesn’t really matter in real estate does it? If demand is high and inventory is low, prices will rise. I predict a temporary rise. These homes are hard to find now, but if they are so in demand, developers will jump on board with these easy and efficient adjustments. I look forward to the architectural contributions that will come out of this historic time. Cholera brought indoor plumbing, perhaps COVID will bring filtered air. Now if only I can find some easy and efficient adjustments for myself…

Stay strong NYC! May you find the inspiration to adjust!

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