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Coronavirus: BCO architects call for short and long-term changes to office design

Shutterstock busy office dense exterior floor floorplan

Big changes should be made to office buildings before workers return after the government-imposed lockdown, a panel of leading architects and experts has urged

The British Council for Offices’ (BCO) technical affairs committee called for alterations in everything from building services to toilets and kitchens in light of the coronavirus – and, potentially, the end of hot-desking.

The panel, which includes architects from practices Make, Adamson and JMA, said Covid-19 showed there was need for major changes in workplaces.

In a paper published this week, it predicted a reversal in the recent drive to make office floors more dense, now typically 8m² per person. The BCO also called for more cycle parking; strict limits on numbers using lifts and meeting rooms; and for ventilation to be kept running even when buildings were unoccupied.

Committee chair Neil Pennell said: ‘While we do not know when we will all be back in the workplace, it’s important to start planning ahead.

‘Adaptations can ensure that the risk of virus transmission is reduced and can accommodate our new reality, enabling us all to gain the real benefits that come from working in an office, while ensuring we are safe.’

The paper suggests a number of changes, including:

  • Reversing the ’trend to share desks’, ie hot-desking, with more desks being individually allocated to particular users
  • Extra cleaning of all spaces, especially shared desks
  • Introduction of screens to protect receptionists
  • Replacement of communal toilets with individual pods featuring touchless doors, taps and soap dispensers
  • An increase in bike storage to allow workers to avoid public transport
  • Strict limits on the number of people that can use a meeting room or share a lift at any one time
  • An end to communal cutlery, coffee pots and water bottles
  • Adaptation of ventilation and humidification systems to create tougher climates for virusesa
  • Windows kept open even if rooms become cold
  • Suspension of some heat recovery systems and filtering of certain recycled air
  • Use of apps and other digital tools to maximise worker safety.

Pennell said that, as well as a need for immediate adaptation, there was a role for longer-term rethinking of building design.

‘There is a short-term imperative that will hit us as the government releases the lockdown,’ he told the AJ. ’Building operators need to organise people to go into offices to effect the works so when people return they are ready.

‘[However] architects and engineers will have a longer-term perspective to address. With the emphasis on social distancing, we need to think about the design of receptions, lifts and lobbies in future buildings.’

Pennell said the coronavirus pandemic, potentially the worst illness to strike the globe as a whole since the ‘Spanish flu’ at the end of the First World War, could have major consequences for the built environment.

‘How much will this affect the psyche of what people want from offices?’ he asked. ‘Will it affect the design of homes? Some people may have found their homes restrictive for working. Transportation systems will also be reconsidered.

‘How much things change depends on how long the pandemic goes on, how we resolve it and how long until it happens again.

‘If you look at history, there are parallels with people dealing with plagues and adapting their buildings. The reason we have a great drainage system in London is people getting cholera from contaminated water sources. Pandemics and outbreaks affect architecture and infrastructure. This one will also have some impact.’

Pennell said architects would be looking how they could design building layouts, materials and systems to be more effective during times of health crisis. He added that construction method would also be under the spotlight following the social distancing measures imposed in recent weeks.

‘Increased offsite construction will mean fewer people on site and more reliance on machines, which will make construction less vulnerable to health challenges,’ he said.

Opinion: Rob Partridge, director, AKT II

’The short-term practicalities of a return to work while the pandemic continues as a threat is a popular debate at the moment where the BCO is centre stage.

’The advice being given is quite correctly about density, cleanliness, air quality and circulation. How different buildings are able to react is of course a function of how easily they can respond to these new conditions, and while designing for a pandemic doesn’t usually fall with the usual design thinking, buildings that can flex are clearly going to triumph.

’And this flex isn’t just large floorplates that can accommodate change, it’s about generosity in movement and communal areas – an aspect of building spec that will surely now change. Also infrastructure capacity plays a part here as the way we work and communicate changes.

‘It is interesting to debate how the response of the design community will differ to that of other industries. One aspect of this is the psychology of humans and how this may differ depending on a wide data set of variables. Assessing the effects of human behaviour and social impact is as important as the technical issues we are all debating. We are working with various organisations to research this anthropology imperative through surveys and interpretation.’



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Readers' comments (2)

  • There's a direct - if grotesque - analogy with industrial-scale fish farming on the Scottish west coast, where cramming a species into unnaturally close proximity creates a massive increase in risk of disease.

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  • In times of great economic and social upheavals strange psychological distempers often arise among those most profoundly affected. Usually manifested in a form of willful blindness, denialism, oblivion to reality and self delusion, it is a sad reaction to problems that need robust and clear thinking.
    The authors of this report need to face the facts: The era of large offices is over, and since the development of the internet it should have been obvious to all.
    To address the problem all of an already existing oversupply the BCO are, astonishingly, proposing changes that will demand large capital expenditures and a consequential huge increase in rents, furthering the distress of all those invested in the obsolete office development business.
    I must add that I am very sympathetic to everyone impacted by this Black Swan event.

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