The Design of Homes post-Covid

Sarah Wigglesworth, the award-winning architect and founder of the sustainability-focused Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, discusses how the design of homes might change for the better, post-Covid

Words by Sarah Wigglesworth

During lockdown it has been interesting to observe the new practices and procedures being put in place to help people avoid each other. At the same time, we yearn to live a quasi-normal life that is still meaningful and fulfilling. The situation has prompted us, as architects, to think about the role of design in facilitating this, and what changes we’re likely to see in the design of homes in the future if viruses such as Covid become endemic.

First up, people live in varied ways and in many kinds of homes, so there will be no standardised solution. However, it seems likely that living is probably going to become more atomised. Anywhere where groups of people live together, especially care and residential homes for older people, will reduce in popularity. We will probably see many closures as a result of Covid, as care homes go into liquidation.

Scotswood-Sectional Perspective2 © SWA
SWA’s competition-winning proposal for terrace-and-mews home in Scotswood, Newcastle. This regeneration project aimed to create a type of flexible homestead on the model of an 18th century town house and associated coach house at each end of a shared open space. Our proposal makes provision for anticipated expansion of both homes, a push-me-pull-you negotiation between different parties with a view to accommodating kinships networks across the life course.

Brexit will provide a further blow as staff are likely to be in short supply. Older people will opt to stay in their own homes for as long as possible, making arrangements to live close to or with kinfolk who are happy to look after them. Of course this will have implications for the people who shoulder the caring, which Covid has shown is still mainly women. Supporting them through recognising this task as a social service should be a matter of course for our Government.

In the case of student residences and hostels, shared facilities such as kitchens and social or communal work spaces are likely to be underused or abandoned as they become a less attractive experience for many. Offices may become increasingly unpopular as commuting is avoided and home-working becomes normalised.

BHA_Axo options © SWA
Simple Smart House: Diagrams illustrating four potential ways of occupying the same dwelling. These are: a growing family; a house share; an accessible home (made possible by the addition of a lift); and one-bed flat on ground floor with downsizer home above.

The emphasis on individual homes plays into the isolation agenda and could be a gift to the co-housing movement where friends sharing homes or residing in close proximity are on hand to attend to each other’s needs. Homes can also support inter- and multi-generational living. Multi-generational living is where several generations of the same family live together within the same curtilage, offering mutual support and care going both ways across the generations.

Inter-generational living is where communities comprise a range of housing models for all types of people, from singles to groups including families, across all ages. In many ways this is a normal, mixed social model of urban living, but one too easily forgotten in the targeted offer of many developers. Again, these forms of living can offer self-help and non-professional support, avoiding the expensive fees paid to bought-in care professionals.

Flexible Housing Model-2  © SWA
SWA’s shortlisted competition entry for Re-imagining the Garden City competition (2019), a sustainable extension to Letchworth Garden City. The concept is for a very well-insulated and airtight central core to the dwelling. Residents can use simple construction techniques to add their own structures onto this according to need. As self-build elements, these need not be insulated and can be altered, amended or removed over time.

Homes, however, will have to adjust, with demand rising for many alternative housing models. Houses will need to be adaptable, flexible and contain assistive technology, allowing changes that can respond to the needs of the whole life course. This also implies larger space standards, with room to store a range of things, space for a buggy or mobility scooter, wide doorways, a walk-in shower and accessible bathroom.

We all appreciate the importance of space after being cooped up for so long. ‘Slack’ spaces afford us organisational flexibility so we can have a change of setting in which to unwind after a day working from home. Additional space enables a home-office, allows a friend or carer to stay temporarily, the child of a single parent to overnight at the weekend and offers a place to pursue a hobby or run a business. In the UK we build to minimum space standards and we measure this in numbers of rooms. Perhaps post-Covid this will change, so that open-plan space you can carve up to suit your preferences will become more desirable, both for distancing but also to create that much-valued head space.

SarahWigglesworthArchitects-TheSimpleSmartHouse4a_with labels © SWA
SWA’s shortlisted competition proposal for a large house that can accommodate flexible living for a range of occupants. The British Homes Award contest asked for homes that could stand alone, be twinned or combined into terraces. Key to its flexibility is a front extension with its own bathroom; a stair and lobby arrangement than can be isolated and a number of flat roofs and double-height spaces that invite infill.

In addition to physical space, good environmental conditions are going to be really important. Fresh, clean air with ventilation systems that clear airborne germs quickly will become very attractive and MVHRs are likely to become far more prevalent. Comfort (warmth, air tightness, low humidity) will be assured through high quality environmental design with a fabric first approach. Natural materials that don’t off-gas but that can be cleaned easily are going to see greater demand. These approaches are good not only for our health but for the environment, as they support a sustainable building agenda.

As always, as obvious as some of these things are, they need supporting through new regulations and the planning system, together with increased funding. But the key learning is clear: we should stop building for the short term and for niche markets, and build to invest in a more sustainable future. Building for long term resilience means investing now. We saw what happened at the start of the Covid outbreak due to our failure to prepare. Let’s act now and plan for a better future for all of us.

Feature image:

130619_BHA_terrace © SWA
External view of the Simple Smart House shown as a terraced option.

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