People visit brick and mortar locations – whether grocery stores, boutiques, or medical offices – because they offer something online interactions can’t. In some cases, this is an issue of quality; medical professionals can typically provide better care in person. Often times, though, it’s about pleasure. Brick and mortar businesses are designed with all the sense in mind, but in the post-COVID moment, all of that has to be rethought.
What will it take to design for the senses and for user pleasure while also designing for safety? The process will demand innovation, but it is possible and, when all is said and done, everyone will benefit from well-designed, but health-conscious conditions.
What Will Survive
Before considering the issue of redesigning spaces, it’s important to be clear what types of businesses will and will not thrive post-COVID. While small businesses may struggle to survive the economic downturn, the PPP has kept an unusually large number afloat. Meanwhile, places like malls, which were already rapidly shuttering before the pandemic, are unlikely to see much business since they thrive on the precise types of crowds now seen as dangerous.
As part of their post-COVID reopening planning, some stores will go through radical redesigns, but many have already started making small adjustments to make their spaces useable now. That includes the many essential businesses, like grocery stores and pharmacies, that have remained open this entire time and which often installed glass screens at customer service points overnight in order to protect their staff and customers alike.
Other takes on these screens are likely to pop up in less expected locations, including offices, schools, and critical service centers like auto repair shops. It all comes down to minimizing contact and, after years of “open plan” spaces, screens are the quickest way to put such barriers in place.
One caveat about glass screens: while useful, designers should be attentive to how they interrupt the flow of light and sound. Cultivating ambiance in newly divided spaces will be challenging, and will likely require smart, site-specific solutions, such as built-in speakers.
The Outdoor Option
Recently, Rice University announced that they were constructing a number of tents to hold college classes in. Students would carry their own chairs and sit under the tents, which would be open to promote air flow. This may sound like an extreme example, but COVID-driven design will likely make greater use of outdoor space than previous iterations of the same or similar businesses did. This includes obvious choices like outdoor dining, but also more dramatic developments like “The Porch,” a five-story terrace currently in the works in Chicago’s trendy West Loop area.
Building For Behavior
Redesigning interior spaces will go a long way towards making post-COVID operations safer, but it can’t all be about touchless, impersonal interactions – people won’t come out for that in the long-run, when they can get the same thing online. Instead, smart design will encourage people to behave in health-focused ways in the course of their ordinary activities.
Among the key ways businesses should design for approved behaviors, are a number of simple steps. All businesses and public spaces should offer ample opportunities and facilities for handwashing or sanitizer use, and they should fully automate all doors and high-touch areas. Such automation is important because it will cut down on sanitizing needs, and prioritize human interaction and engagement at sites where it’s actually meaningful.
On a simple, yet more well-hidden level, much new design will include cues for social distancing. Such markers don’t have to be obvious or unsightly, like tape or ropes, but might include rethinking how grocery store rows are designed, using garden beds or shrubs to space outdoor areas, or indicate spacing through colored floor tiles. Aesthetically pleasing spacing cues will also be psychologically valuable, allowing users to enjoy their environment without the constant alarms caused by more obvious cues.
Spaces Of The Future
Even as many services remain online and telecommuting stays popular, rethinking public space will be critical to long-term economic performance, as well as social health. Overall, though, the more designers and business owners can collaborate on innovative, but safe approaches to public space, the more exciting – and virus-free – returning to communal life will be.