The coronavirus pandemic has created some new trends in business and accelerated others. While it’s yet to be seen what all of the new trends might be on the horizon for architecture and engineering firms, the pandemic certainly has sparked fresh ideas about what buildings may look like in the future.

Some of the ideas being tossed around now in the industry are about modifying office space, installing more touchless features, and creating better airflow in buildings to help mitigate virus spread.

“At this point I don’t know if new trends have been created but it has brought certain discussion to the forefront,” said Andrew Eitreim, principal architect with Architecture Incorporated in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Six months, a year, two years from now it will be interesting to see what further developments have come about in the industry because of a heightened fear of viruses. Mike Dunn, business development manager with Construction Engineers Inc. in Grand Forks, N.D., who works with architects and engineers all of the time in his line of work, said he is confident these professionals in the upper Midwest will meet the challenges of a quickly-changing world.

“The architects in our area really stay up to date on those trends,” he said.

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Touchless Features

Ryan Anderson, senior architect and vice president of Ackerman-Estvold, an architecture and engineering firm based in Minot, N.D., was the first to suggest to Prairie Business what some of the trends might be for his industry going forward in a post-pandemic world.

“Obviously this whole pandemic has created an interesting situation for everyone,” Anderson said. “It really gives us a chance to kind of take stock of our surroundings and look at the potential sources of spread.”

He said the pandemic has raised further awareness not just about the dangers of COVID-19 but other diseases, such as the common cold or the seasonal influenza virus. If people were to examine their office spaces, he said, they’d realize just how many places germs can settle and contaminate.

Anderson is not being dramatic, he’s being practical. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, the novel coronavirus may remain viable on surfaces from hours to days, depending on the surface material.

“We're never going to fully stop the spread of something like this,” he said, “but we can certainly take a look at our surroundings and say, ‘What can I do to reduce or mitigate the risk?’”

That’s something A&E firms across the country have been considering since at least March. A new standard for many businesses is to disinfect surfaces and often-touched items several times a day. But even that might not be enough for some businesses. Marc Mellmer, vice president of JE Dunn Construction, who is based in Minneapolis but oversees projects in North Dakota, said some companies that installed touch-screen devices may very well consider now going to “touchless” devices.

He and Anderson were echoing what a national architecture journal explained about the subject.

“Almost everyone predicts that public spaces will move toward more automation to mitigate contagion, with COVID-19 speeding up development of all types of touchless technology,” according to the Architecture Digest. That includes more “automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, cellphone-controlled hotel room entry, hands-free light switches and temperature controls, automated luggage bag tags, and advanced airport check-in and security.”

Restrooms with doors were already on their way out, but the pandemic has hastened their retreat. The digest also said hotels will likely have self-cleaning bathrooms and pod rooms, which are “smaller modular spaces that can be sealed off from other guests while also offering the ability to be quickly torn down and disinfected.” What’s more, firms “will increasingly call on antibacterial fabrics and finishes, including those that already exist – like copper – and those that will inevitably be developed.”

While such things as automatic doors and paper towel rollers are nothing new – big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart already have auto doors, for instance – Anderson said he believes more businesses will come on board wanting those types of touchless features. At Ackerman-Estvold, he said, designers are considering what else may be beneficial for companies going forward in the fight against contaminants and viruses.

“The more automated you can make things, the better off you're going to be,” he said. “Having automatic entrances that don't require you to touch something in order to enter that building may not be practical for everyone but it's certainly a strategy.”

Highlighting the benefits of touchless light switches and occupancy sensors, as well as the touchless features in restrooms, he said: “Anything that you can automate where you don't have to physically touch something is certainly positive.”



Office Space and Building Access

A trend for many design firms before the pandemic was to create open common areas and offices that had an airy feel to them. Now, ideas are going in another direction: how to make work space inviting and collaborative without cramming people together in the same room.

“The big wave has been these open office environments,” Mellmer said, readily noting he is not an architect but works with design firms often on construction projects. “Providing these open office environments, opening it all up and not having individual offices, creates an opportunity to densify that space and put more people together. Well, that's kind of a touchy thing to talk about right now. … It is how do you create a little bit more separation and social distancing? … If you went into an office that was built 20 years ago it’d have a whole bunch of individual offices.”

In a more modern-designed building, however, there might be “a couple of individual offices” but the rest of the space includes “cubicles and standing cubicles as businesses densify these spaces and pack in more people. That's kind of where everybody has been going, but now they’re scratching their heads and saying, ‘This is not necessarily what we should be doing.’ So I think that's going to create a little bit of a change throughout the industry with the open-office environments. That's what we're hearing on the construction side.”

Anderson, who is an architect with a number of years under his belt, said Ackerman-Estvold is considering how office space may help mitigate virus spread. It’s been top of mind for several weeks now: “How can we provide adequate space so that people don't feel like they're breathing right into each other?”

It’s not an easy question to answer when just a few months prior the mindset was different, but Anderson is confident and energized about the challenges that these new developments bring him and the firm. And, he knows, these are changes that won’t happen overnight; the idea machine continues to revolve.

Something else being tossed around are ways to create airflow in buildings, such as using more air filtration systems to purify air as it travels through a furnace, and creating applications that require using more air filters.

“We haven't seen that application very often, if at all,” Anderson said, “but it's something that we definitely want to start looking at to see if it's a feasible solution.”

Another consideration is customer and client access to buildings. Going forward some companies probably won’t want to admit just anyone into its building, depending on the services it provides; and for those who are admitted, in what space will they be waiting?

“Sometimes when you first come into a building you stand in the lobby, but the lobby is so small and cramped … and you’ve got people that are way too close to each other to mitigate something like this. And so we’re thinking about … how do you restrict access to a building if you want to make sure that you're not letting anyone and everyone into your building.

“Can you put access controls on your front door, like a card reader or proximity reader, that would restrict booking and who can get in? Also, restricting the number of people that might be able to enter your building. I think there are all kinds of solutions out there to help with that. We're doing our best to try to identify some of those things so that when businesses get through all of this and they’re taking stock and say, ‘OK, what can we do now to mitigate this in the future,’ we’ve got some ideas there at the ready for them.”



Strategies and Cost

Anderson said Ackerman-Estvold will be publishing a series of articles on its website to identify strategies, which it then will push to social media in an effort to get in front of more people “so they can start thinking about these things,” he said. His team will then help clients identify the strategies that “make sense for them.”

“Of course, there's a cost benefit analysis that has to go into that too,” he said, noting how a business approaches the future depends in large part what its budget looks like. Some businesses may come on board with more touchless features rather quickly, for instance, while others, because of budget constraints, will have to find other avenues to make their buildings appealing for clients, customers and staff in a post-pandemic world.

“It all depends on how conservative they are or how progressive they are,” he said. “Are they going to see this as an opportunity to mitigate risk in the future or do they not see an issue. I think generally people will be open to the idea but I think it'll probably take a good four to six months or longer before they're ready to start looking at that kind of stuff. But I don't think we can say that everyone is going to be ready to do something now, that everyone is going to be on board with upgrading their facilities. I think it's just going to be different because everyone's situation is different. That's just the way it is.”



Prairie Business Editor Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@prairiebsuinessmagazine.com or 701-780-1276.