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April 17, 2020

Automated doors and hands-free sinks: the little changes we'll see after COVID-19

Journal Staff Reporter

Photo by Karen Kiest [enlarge]
A redeveloped section of Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Parks offers opportunities for gathering or social distancing.

Landscape architect Karen Kiest said she expects the 6-feet-away mandate of the COVID-19 pandemic will impact Americans even when it's gone.

“We're never going to forget social distancing,” said Kiest, who owns Seattle-based Karen Kiest Landscape Architects “I think it's going to imprint on all of us who've gone through this.”

Still, she and others in the local architecture profession with whom the DJC talked hope those memories don't foster design that discourages community.

“I'd hate to see safety concerns send us away from each other,” Kiest said. “It's very hard to bring us together.”

Guy Michaelsen, a principal at Seattle-based Berger Partnership, said, “This is a health care crisis. It's not a design crisis. It's not an open space crisis.''

That's the feeling of management at his firm, which does landscape architecture and urban design. It believes “stay away” is the right course now, but post-pandemic the industry should not design spaces that isolate people as “that's the opposite of what great design does.”

Michaelsen said we haven't faced a public health crisis of this magnitude since the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20.

He said it is important to not take a knee-jerk approach to future design, noting “I would need to see some sort of burden of proof when we look at this crisis in the rear view mirror that there's going to be more good in separating people than bad.”

However, he said, changes may occur in how the public is engaged to plan for new public spaces, for instance with more online input and open houses.

Michaelsen said it's important to remember that density equals sustainability and that people love to congregate. “We're reminded of hour to hour (how) we value that connection and how much we miss it right now,” he said.


Kimberly Frank, the interior design principal at GGLO, a Seattle-based architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and urban design firm, said she expects post-pandemic multifamily projects will have more plumbing and lighting fixtures that switch on and off automatically, much like in health care settings, along with easier-to-clean surfaces and wall materials with less grooves where viruses and germs can infiltrate.

Photo by Brian Miller [enlarge]
In downtown Seattle, 2+U’s multilevel public space has lots of paths, overlooks, exits and wide open spaces.

Frank, who designs for a lot of multifamily, said it is unlikely corridors in those projects will become wider for distancing as that space does not drive rents. But there may be a higher demand by residents to work in their apartments, in the building's lobby, coffee shop and in coworking or other amenity spaces. This could encourage developers to focus on the ergonomics of those spaces and to include technology that better brings people together virtually, she said.

Some multifamily buildings might have wider corridors in common areas, Frank said, to let people keep their distance.

“Whether it's a CDC mandate or not I think there is some longer-term psychological impacts that we need to be considering,” she said.

There's already a downtown Seattle project that reflects people's need to gather and still feel safe, said Barbara Swift, an owner of Swift Co., a Seattle-based landscape architecture firm. It's 2+U, a Skanska USA office high-rise with expansive public spaces.

Swift's firm led the project's site design, which incorporates crime prevention through environmental design. That translates to several levels of public spaces, where people can watch while social distancing or join the fray. There are a number of ways in and through the space, which has lots of exits, wide open spaces and lots of seating.

While the site design was done pre-pandemic, Swift said post-pandemic expect to see more of that type of design — which gives people control and makes them feel protected — locally, nationally and internationally.

“We have the tools to do this,” she said. “I think that's the optimistic part of this.”

During this COVID-19 scare, Swift said it is difficult for people, as social animals, to see others flinching or moving away or to do so themselves. But that instinct to keep ourselves safe may make people shy away from public space for a while.

“It's going to be tough,” Swift said, “because we want to see those spaces full of people and we're not going to be able to see that for quite a while.”


Ming Zhang, CEO of Bellevue-based MZA Architecture, said the virus scare may make people more reluctant to be in public and community spaces, “but they'll forget that.”

In the longer term, he envisions more automated doors, hands-free drinking fountains and sinks, mechanical systems that circulate air better, hand sanitizers almost everywhere, plastic shields between customers and employees, more easy-to-clean surfaces, the checking of people's body temperature at large events, and perhaps even more operable windows in high-rises.

Also, those developments may have more coworking spaces with better noise control, more glass separating people and lots of daylighting so residents don't have to leave their apartment buildings.

Don Vehige, urban designer and principal at GGLO said he doesn't think the pandemic is going to radically shift the way large-scale projects are designed, but it may lead to slight adjustments that allow people to be appropriately distanced from each other.

GGLO is the master planner, landscape architect and residential mixed-use architect on the Northgate Mall redevelopment in Seattle. While the design is pre-pandemic, it prioritizes pedestrians and bicyclists while allowing for cars. It provides wider sidewalks and corridors and different ways for people exiting light rail to walk or bike through the project and into surrounding neighborhoods, he said.

“We are allowing people to spread out,” but still engage, said Vehige. People will want to come together after the pandemic, and such design will enable them to do that comfortably.

Vehige said he doesn't think the COVID-19 crisis will lead to less density in urban areas locally.

“(We're) still going to be building a denser city than before,” he said.

Kiest, the landscape architect, cautions against designing for what could be a blip.

Post 9/11, for instance, the impetus was to design to prevent terrorism, with bollards and extreme setbacks. That design was necessary, but some of it “kept people back from beloved places,” she said.

Kiest said Americans have historically moved to the suburbs, and it's taken a generation or two to make them want to be in urban areas.

Humans need that sociability, she said. For instance, even when walking down opposite sides of neighborhood streets designed to keep people separate, they will say hello to each other.


Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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