Thought Leadership

Design in Covid-19: Conclusion

Published May 28, 2020

Five weeks ago, we began collecting information for this series, compartmentalizing input and insight, interviewing clients and partners, and soliciting information through firmwide emails.

The information came rapidly and plentifully, and it hasn’t stopped. In an interesting contrast to weeks where each day often seems identical to the last, there’s concurrently been a non-stop search to build a knowledge base in ‘what comes next.’ As a conclusion to our Design in Times of COVID series, today is a grab bag on what happened after we posted our stories, highlighting the questions that still need answering.


Few employees in our immediate areas have returned to the office on a regular basis over the past two months, therefore the majority of change is still speculation and suggestion. We do know the design shifts thus far have been primarily limited to furniture layout and workspace separation. Partition walls are likely going up, desks are being moved further away from one another, and monitors re-arranged to ensure fewer people have face-to-face positioning over the course of an 8-hour day. That said, all we’ve really adopted as truth so far is a skepticism when reading an article or ‘return to work’ manual that professes a specific design alteration as one of “best practices.” There aren’t any best practices yet; there hasn’t been time to establish any sort of change as such. All we feel at this point is a responsibility to do, to remain attentive to the culture of our clients, to stay true to the proven points of our work, and to design with sensibility, empathy, and practicality.


Soon after we published our Public Space installation, Smart Growth America launched an opportunity for transportation agencies seeking creative expertise to assist in their pandemic response.[1] The program aims to partner selected agencies with an artist who will work with the agency on initiatives like crowd management, signage, and street blocking. Transportation is going to be a huge variable when things begin to re-open and movement becomes more frequent. Not only do we need to worry about crowds at bus stops and subway platforms, but cities should turn their attention to the frequency by which lines run, as more frequent options mean fewer people waiting around at any given time. In addition, the hesitancy of individuals to crowd themselves on public transport means the potential for more cars to clog roadways, surging traffic, fuel prices, and infrastructure. With initiatives like this one, there’s a strong and necessary focus on public transit design and support, though the infrastructure by which the systems and schedules are handled is out of this purview and will be a key responsibility for cities. 


When we published our focus on multifamily housing, there had yet to be a client who wanted to change their project design in response to COVID. This changed when Nick Aello reported that a DC-based client felt that in order to be competitive in the market, they need to address the work from home concept through design of new units and amenities. Design Collective already had unit designs with a built-in desk area, but was now discussing how to incorporate work from home amenities in every unit type, whether it’s a built-in or custom furniture component. “We’re playing around with the idea of an island concept which could incorporate into multiple unit types,” Nick writes. “Pair it with a wine fridge and you are good to go for a productive day at the ‘office’.”  

In addition to multifamily housing are implications in the placement of housing, as post-COVID design also relates directly to sprawl. Planner Caitlin O’Hara explains, “over the last few decades, the urban design and planning profession has challenged the concept of sprawl, placing a heavy emphasis on limiting greenfield development, retrofitting suburbia, and re-urbanizing our city centers. Parallel to this, society rediscovered the benefits and conveniences of healthy urban places, showing a desire for more walkable, diverse, transit-oriented environments. Cities experienced reinvestment, downtowns were reactivated, main streets transformed, and older, more centralized neighborhoods attracted new residents and businesses that wanted to be a part of a more mixed-use community. In contrast to this growth, income rates have failed to keep up with the cost of living. Home ownership remains out of reach for many, student debt is high, and now with a pandemic that will have lasting economic impacts, there will be an even greater demand for affordability. Today, statistics show that millennials are migrating to the suburbs, leaving more urban areas for “greener pastures” where there is increased job opportunity and a lower cost of living. We have to wonder; will the pandemic reverse the progress of more urban environments and create a resurgence of “bad growth?”

Learn: K-12

As we just pushed this out last week, not much has drastically changed in terms of planning and design for K-12 schools. Speculation continues, but what seems new this week is the addition of ramifications to proposed solutions. Instead of just theorizing on students returning on a rotating basis, there’s discussion on what happens to parents who need to return to the office and who can’t leave their kids home alone.[2] Instead of just focusing on getting kids in front of teachers, we’re now considering how some teachers are older, or have pre-existing conditions, and thereby might “not feel comfortable coming back into school buildings.”[3] It’s almost as if uncovering or responding to one issue uncovers five more issues that must be solved.



Learn: Higher Ed

Principal Marvin Kemp relayed a conversation he had with Winston Salem State University, where campus leaders determined that Design Collective’s new Science Building on campus is “the most flexible and safe because of the new HVAC systems, high levels of filtration, rate of air changes, and the flexibility we designed into the spaces.” Should fall semester take place with students on campus, the building will be “as fully utilized as possible.” And with the incredible interest in Higher Education and design in response to COVID, we’re going to dive more deeply into this sector, beginning next week, with a new three-part Thought Leadership series.

 Perhaps Caitlin says it best, “More than ever, I hope our profession is able to focus comprehensively on the lasting effects that could potentially come out of this pandemic. We cannot look at our work in isolation.  As architects, landscape architects, planners, and designers we play a critical role in creating environments that have a profound impact on the way people live and interact. In order to build lasting and meaningful places, we have a commitment and should feel a sense of responsibility to foster equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of our every day mission. Our strategies should be collaborative and holistic in order to establish a shared vision informed by a sincere commitment to positive change.”




[3] Ibid

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