How can bricks and mortar reinvent itself for an unknown future?

As restaurants, retail, offices, and other public spaces reopen their doors after an entire season of shutdowns, guests can expect to enter a new reality of sneeze guards, cubicle seats, six-feet floor markers, and more. Unfortunately, many small businesses and even large corporations were not equipped to weather the initial storm of COVID-19, but if those still standing want any chance of survival during and after a modern pandemic, they’ll need to think beyond these sterile quick fixes.

How do these businesses, built on human connection and interaction, redesign their physical spaces to ensure safety, without evoking a scary dystopian cityscape?

With no real end in sight, brick-and-mortar businesses are forced to not only make hasty design choices that will allow them to reopen, but also consider an unknown future. They’ll need to move away from the former trend of creating a flashy, Instagramable experience to focus on core values that directly consider and benefit customers, employees, and the environment’s well-being. (The architecture firm I run could financially benefit from organizations redesigning their physical spaces.)

So, how can these business owners think beyond getting through the next few months and prepare their locations for a long-term customer experience that feels safe, human, on brand, and aesthetically inspiring?

Make it safe

Judging by anyone’s Facebook feed, it’s clear that people have varying levels of comfort in the current physical environment. Some are ready to eat indoors, while others barely feel safe with curbside pickup; some are eager to try on clothes in a dressing room, while others are just fine ordering online. For a brick-and-mortar location, it’s imperative to communicate that guests can safely move through the space. Many of the ways a business needs to adjust its space will go unseen by employees and guests, so it’s important to ensure messaging and signage convey these choices. 

The good news is that there are a variety of solutions to fit every budget. While the gold standard for ventilation and airflow would be the installation of expensive UV-C light air purification in the mechanical system, an improvement in air quality can also be achieved in an existing system by installing higher-efficiency air filters, consistently running the air conditioning, utilizing fresh air intake, and simply keeping windows and doors open.

Material choice is another major consideration in redesigning for a post-COVID world. Bleach-cleanable materials and textiles (typically used in health care settings) are becoming the norm for commercial settings and are readily available to ship on demand without long lead times. Additionally, copper, an on-trend material in the design world right now, is also naturally antimicrobial. Manufacturers have quickly adapted their product lines to include cost-effective options for the utilization of copper such as peel-and-stick solutions, which allow for a quick application that can be completed in a matter of minutes.

Make it human (at a distance)

Many small businesses are the cornerstone of their local communities. How do public spaces where community members gather and connect maintain this purpose in an environment that makes them inherently unsafe? In response to widely accepted social distancing guidelines, making ample space for personal boundaries is key to maintaining the health and safety of employees and customers. The challenge is translating those design choices without losing a sense of connection.

The primary areas of concern for most businesses and offices are common spaces like reception waiting areas, dining areas, meeting rooms, and break rooms. All of these gathering rooms will require a little creative thinking to draw a new floor plan to accommodate social distancing. Seat counts will need to be reduced and should remain adaptable to increase or decrease depending on future social distancing rules. Design choices should also emphasize privacy, with solutions like portable dividers that offer screening between seating.

Technology will also be a major tool in bridging the gap in human connection from six feet away. Smartphone apps will continue to gain momentum, as most small businesses have moved operations online while closed, presenting an opportunity to foster community through a digital experience. Strategically installing viewing monitors at contact points can aid communication of key information between employees and guests.

A successful socially distanced guest experience will also include clear signage directing customers. A more long-term solution than floor marker stickers could be creating clear, yet seamless, flooring and ceiling transitions that more subtly tell people where to go without distracting from the overall design of the space.

Make it pretty

Even though the catalyst for these design updates is grim, it doesn’t mean the aesthetic needs to reflect fear or sterility. Creating a post-COVID space that feels comfortable and inviting is no small feat, but it’s possible to make a space both safe and aesthetically pleasing.

In the current climate, most people have readily adopted outdoor distanced socializing. This shift has created an environment where people associate being outside with safety. So, moving forward, indoor design modifications should bring in more nods to biophilia—an approach to architecture that seeks to connect building occupants more closely to nature—to help create a sense of safety. Our design team predicts that the stark, minimalist interiors that have dominated trends over the past couple of years will start to recede as the public longs for this reconnection to the environment.

Redesigning to incorporate wood grains and a softer color palette adds simple sophistication to an airy environment. Shades of grassy green bring fresh pops of color into the space, while hints of earthy clay and natural metals throughout add underlying balance and warmth. Utilizing real plants and functional art as partitions are a creative way to create a safe distance between guests that feels intentional.

All of this said, any visual communications or design solutions put in place by brick-and-mortar spaces should be flexible and nonpermanent. We have not yet learned all about this virus, and we must give organizations the ability to adjust their spaces to meet the shifting demands of state mandates and guests’ comfort levels.

Lauren Chipman is CEO of Chipman Design Architecture.

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