Impact of COVID-19 on architecture

August 3, 2020 | By: Arch. Amado De Jesus (as published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer last July 18, 2020)

A house is only habitable when it is full of light and air,” thus declared Le Corbusier, internationally influential Swiss architect, one of the pioneers of modern architecture and a leader of the International Style.

The movement promoted a set of principles affirming purity of form, strict geometries, modern materials and a repudiation of ornamentation. These principles responded to the ravages of war and disease that defined the first half of the 20th century.

It is a fitting reminder of the strong connection between health and architecture. In the past, buildings and cities have been designed in response to an increased understanding of disease. Some classic examples are Hausmann’s renovation of Paris in the 1800s, London’s infrastructure renovation in the wake of the city’s 1954 cholera outbreak and 19th century New York’s reaction to the squalid conditions of tenement housing. Pandemics have forced architecture and city planning to evolve. It is therefore not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to make changes in our built environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings up the question of designing for infectious diseases and will surely impact future research and practice.

Design of cities

The design of cities in the age of pandemics will have two basic tasks. First is how to deal with a sudden increase in the number of sick people while providing large scale needs of medical supplies, spaces and cemeteries. Second is keeping life in cities as normal as possible for the residents. This means, designers should consider functional spaces to protect health as people spend more time in homes and buildings.

With more people working from their homes, neighborhoods can provide the necessary public service facilities to make the residents’ life less stressful.

Healthy homes

As people work from home, the issue of healthy homes comes into focus. Not all homes are healthy. Many homes have poor indoor air quality caused by molds or poor ventilation. It is time to take the advice of green designers seriously about introducing daylight and natural ventilation in homes.

Design during a health crisis

Many designers now are predicting that public spaces will adopt automation to address the challenge of contagion mitigation. They are speeding up the development of touchless technology like automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, facial recognition, cell phone-controlled hotel room entry, hands-free light switches and temperature controls. Contemporary designers are utilizing anti-bacterial materials in forms that can easily be sanitized.

For hotels, there will be self-cleaning bathrooms where the toilet bowl and seat are automatically cleaned, disinfected and air-dried after each use. The floor is also washed automatically after each use. For airports, to reduce congestion and encourage smoother passenger flow, they can be redesigned to have more security lanes and advanced automatic check-in procedures and automated luggage bag tags.

For hospitals, the biggest problem that has come up is their inability to accommodate the huge number of sick people. To increase capacity, hospital rooms must be easily transformed from an acute care room into a critical care ICU room. Modern hospitals and clinics are eliminating the typical waiting areas and instead creating compact nooks located in several areas and relying on RFID technology to track and alert patients. RFID is an acronym for “radio-frequency identification” a technology where digital data in RFID smart labels are captured by a reader via radio waves.

For office buildings, the focus will also be on personal health and wellness. Green offices can decrease the rate of sickness, reduce absenteeism, improve mental functions and moods. Displays can be installed in lobbies for developers to show the occupants’ steps being taken to measure indoor air quality or environmental cleanliness at different areas in the building. Operable windows, a constant refrain of green architecture, will be popular again as building owners look to redesign air filtration systems and bring in more fresh air into spaces.

Innovations for redesigning cities

Buildings must be flexible in design by switching to a different use in the case of an epidemic or another disaster. Hotel guest rooms can be designed with provisions for transforming them into rooms that can handle critical care patients.

UV-C light can eliminate viruses in air treatment system while simultaneously making the equipment last longer. UV-C light is a short-wavelength, ultraviolet light that breaks apart germ DNA, leaving it unable to function or reproduce. UV-C can even neutralize “superbugs” that have developed a resistance to antibiotics. In the future, sensors will be able to detect viruses on surfaces in real time and can be used to warn building occupants or trigger air cleaning.

Some changes can be simple like providing temporary washing stations at bus stops and asking riders to wash their hands before boarding. This should be permanent in major transportation hubs.

We could learn from the hygienic example of Rwanda in Africa. They installed portable sinks and hand sanitizers in almost every public space and to avoid contamination, they have installed foot-pedals to bring water to the taps instead of using hands.

The author is the principal architect of A.P de Jesus & Associates-Green Architecture, and vice chairman of the Philippine Green Building Initiative. For comments or inquiries, email

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