In a New Yorker article, Kyle Chayka details the architectural features of the Paimio Sanitorium, a facility built specifically to combat tuberculosis, in which he asserts, “each element of the Paimio was conceived to promote recovery from the disease.” He not only highlights the features of the specific building but argues the large-scale impact of tuberculosis as having a significant influence on the Modernist architectural movement.

We may now be, in the face of the escalating coronavirus pandemic, on the verge of a similar sea change moment in the structural design of commercial and industrial buildings. Builders currently face not only the functional and aesthetic challenges of creating spaces that fulfill sanitary and spatial needs but also the logistical problems that COVID-19 causes in implementing construction.

Designing for the Future

We are already seeing shifts in the way space is being used as businesses try to return to a degree of normal. Accommodations have to be made for social distancing, and creating more sterile environments has become a central concern. But what businesses are now doing as temporary fixes, structural designers will have to take into account and incorporate as permanent fixtures in the facilities they imagine.

Space will now come at a premium, and designers will need to maximize the use of space while still maintaining safe social distancing. Social areas will need to be conceptualized to promote interaction while also encouraging safe distance. Workspaces must do the same or offer alternatives that shield workers from exposure to the virus.

New movements are already forming toward incorporating COVID-19 driven design features into construction, such as the increased use of natural ventilation in buildings. Such ideas challenge longstanding practices that maximize energy efficiency thus forcing building designers to think creatively. COVID, for example, is less robust at humidity levels that are higher than those maintained by today’s building standards.

Jordan Goldstein, Gensler’s Principal, and Global Design Co-Leader spoke about renewed interest in design innovations such as the breathable skin that “Gensler used, to great acclaim, on the Tower at PNC Plaza project in Pittsburgh.” The pandemic has driven designers to think of other elements, such as lighting where UV-C light of 200-280 nanometers provides the greatest germicidal effect, or materials that best maintain sterility and are most easily cleanable. Lexington Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, for example, has extensively used copper for high-touch areas because of the shorter lifespan of the virus on its surface.

The Challenges of Today

But even as thoughtful new elements are incorporated into design schemes, builders face real world challenges toward constructing new buildings. Because of a lack of funding, many companies have had to delay or cancel projects in the works, which has been a particular problem for many mid-level contractors who sometimes face bankruptcy from even short-term delays.

As funds have dried up and fewer projects are available, skilled laborers have had to seek alternative employment, leaving builders with a scant labor pool from which to work. Even available workers have fallen victim to the virus and thus left employers in the lurch.

And it’s not just ill frontline workers that are causing construction problems and delays. It has become more difficult to find inspectors to complete permitting work and those that do often work remotely for at least part of the process. The challenges and glitches caused by the digital environment thus further delay necessary inspections and the completion of permits.

Furthermore, the virus has caused disruption of supply chains so that builders see delays in material deliveries or may not be able to find the necessary materials to complete projects. This not only creates further operational struggles, but the delays place increased financial strains on all involved as projects lag.

Moving Forward

Innovation is going to be key for the future of building design post-COVID, not only from a conceptual standpoint but also for logistical implementation. Our population will demand safer spaces and more effective commercial cleaning and sanitation. The connection between Modernist architecture and tuberculosis offers the hope that today’s designers will offer us a new world built to protect us in the days ahead.