How COVID-19 Presents a Unique Opportunity for Technological Advancement in Office Design and Commercial Real Estate

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Voice-controlled elevators, remotely operated printers, and the greater use of sensor and facial-recognition software – these are all examples of technology-enabled contactless solutions that are being demanded in office design following the outbreak of coronavirus

Lockdown measures were eased in England on Saturday, July 4. Yet even as public spaces begin to reopen, reluctance remains over returning to our densely packed workplaces. A recent study by Trades Union Congress found that 39 per cent of United Kingdom workers fear they will be unable to adhere to social distancing upon returning to the office. To address these fears, we need to consider how new office designs, plus how they are built and managed. Technology can play a significant role in facilitating this evolution.

Creating Safe Office Environments

Our office environments are typically much safer than other spaces we frequent. A London tube carriage, for example, has an occupation density of 4-6 passengers per square metre during rush hour. In comparison, a typical office provides 12 square metres per employee as per the British Council for Offices (BSO) guidelines.

However, employers will still need to address concerns as health and safety regulations are tightened further. Government guidelines have proposed using floor marking, moving workstations further apart, and installing protective barriers. A range of technologies – movement tracking apps, motion sensors, and other contactless technologies – will play a vital role in office design and the creation of more permanent solutions. 

Footfall monitoring systems, for example, could be repurposed to track occupant density throughout a building. Display panels, fitted at entrances, walkways, and lifts, could be used to alert occupants as they enter an area where a safe density threshold has been exceeded.

While COVID-19 is typically spread through respiratory droplets, it is thought that the virus can potentially survive on a variety of surfaces for days. We expect that this will lead to an increase in demand for contactless solutions integrated into our commercial spaces and office design. This could be a voice-controlled elevator, a remotely operated printer, or the greater use of sensor and facial-recognition software. Such contactless solutions will help to eliminate various high-contact points and significantly reduce risk in our work environments.

Addressing Long-Standing Health Concerns

The pandemic has made us more aware of our personal health, with many having formed new habits to benefit our wellbeing. Employees will undoubtedly want the environments they return to place a greater importance of health and wellbeing – and this must be reflected in office design.

Some 800,000 people die every year as a result of poor workplace air quality. Considering coronavirus, which can linger even after a contagious person has left the room, the risk posed by poorly ventilated buildings becomes even clearer.

There are solutions readily available to address poor air quality and help in the response to create better work environments. Displacement air systems, for example, allows fresh air to enter up from the floor before exiting at the top of the room. This maximises the distance between the air entering and exiting a room and ensures the air we breathe is as clean as possible. By leveraging advanced ventilation solutions, we can begin to future-proof our office against long-term health concerns.

COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to address inadequate outdoor air. There has been a significant improvement in air quality globally in recent months. In fact, major UK cities such as London, Birmingham, and Cardiff have seen particulate matter fall by as much as half during the lockdown period. Pollutant levels will undoubtedly climb again upon our return to the office. 

However, implementing adaptive energy systems could help to make some of these environmental improvements permanent. Amid unprecedented levels of remote working, such systems would minimise energy expenditure by only activating heating and lighting in parts of a building that are in use. Astudio demonstrated the potential of this technology in our 70 Wilson project using motion-activated systems to improve energy use, lower emissions, and in turn reduce its impact on our health and environment.

Changing The Way We Build

The pandemic has caused significant disruption to architecture, engineering and construction (AEC). Over a third of architects have seen projects cancelled, while 38 per cent of those in construction expect significant financial difficulties in the year ahead. With an urgent need to get back on track, technology can allow the sector to bounce back sooner.

The recent period of remote working has expedited a sudden technology uptake in building and office design. At astudio, a range of tools – from virtual reality visualisation plugin Enscape, which allows us to render, tour, and adapt designs in real-time, to the parametric-enabled Grasshopper for live time testing and cost analysis – has allowed us to maintain collaboration and transparency, even with the lack of face-to-face meetings and site visits.

Such software enables a faster design process by allowing designers and clients to communicate and make informed decisions more efficiently. As a new generation enters the field, we expect they will be better equipped to use these new tools, encouraging a new wave of innovation across the industry. 

There is an urgent need to redesign our environments and specifically provide new homes, the industry needs to improve speed of delivery in order to meet demand. Offsite construction, where large sections in whole or part of a new build are manufactured off-site, offers a ready-made solution. Advancements in AI and VR assisted design have helped to improve the quality and speed of an offsite build significantly – typically, an offsite construction is now delivered 50 per cent quicker than builds constructed using more traditional methods. The Nightingale Hospital, constructed in London in just nine days, is a testament to just how efficient this method can now be.

Those in the industry have typically struggled with digital transformation due to, among other reasons, an unwillingness to rethink how they operate. The pandemic has taken that choice away from us, and largely for the better. This presents an opportunity to make positive changes in office design. And by considering how best to use the technologies available to us, the transition will be significantly easier.

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