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The pandemic’s impact on the architecture industry

Some architectural ideas that were not as popular before the pandemic have since become top-of-mind for many businesses and school districts.

Lewis & Clark Academy
BWBR is working with Fargo Public Schools on an addition to Lewis and Clark Elementary that will serve students who benefit from the specialized programs in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Image: Courtesy of BWBR
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Jeremy Altman has been keeping a notebook since early 2020. It is filled with ideas and observations about how the pandemic has sparked new trends in his industry.

Altman, an architect with Architecture Incorporated in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, South Dakota, said much has changed over the past two years.

Some architectural ideas that were not as popular before the pandemic have since become top-of-mind for many businesses and school districts. Often they’re not big alterations, but changes that make working and learning indoors potentially healthier environments for employees and students.

Better ventilation

Take windows, for example. Altman said that pre-pandemic it was popular for some schools and businesses to go with non-opening windows because they were less expensive. Nowadays, however, many request the pricier windows that open in an effort to provide better ventilation.

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Because COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, having better ventilation in enclosed spaces makes sense.

“We've always, as architects and even our engineers, placed high importance on indoor air quality,” Altman said. “The idea has been that we spend so much time indoors, but the air indoors is quite often worse than polluted air outside.

“Our idea has always been that the solution to pollution is dilution. That has been a catch phrase, that you produce some fresh air by diluting the polluted air indoors with some windows that are operable. Sometimes in the past we saw a bit of resistance to that. Not so anymore. People recognize that's a good thing to have. It's almost an auto-include (in projects) anymore.”

Other tools that provide better ventilation indoors include one on the mechanical side called the bipolar ionization system.

Altman, who works mostly with public schools, said the system has been popular in these learning environments but that other types of buildings also have adopted it. He said even some airplanes now use the filtering system.

“It's a system by which air can be purified,” he said. “And, it is a relatively simple addition to either existing mechanical systems or to new ones.”

As for the price tag, that also is “relatively inexpensive,” Altman said.

More space to work

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Something that’s been touted ever since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected was the importance of social distancing to help lessen the spread of the virus. This is something that Altman said he’s noticed schools – and some businesses – are paying attention to. In an effort to provide more distance learning for students, buildings have remodeled space. Businesses have learned to leverage the use of rooms.

“People have had to make use of storage areas, even if only temporarily for somebody's office,” he said. “When they're thinking about future spaces, they're thinking about that flexibility – the ability for a space to serve multiple uses, which is something we've always kept in our minds as architects and designers, but now we're seeing it come from the owner side as well, which is validation of what we've always believed.”

Flexible spaces are good options for schools and multi-use areas, and are projects he continues to work on with clients. Flexible classrooms, Altman said, which can be modified to accommodate distance learning, allows education to continue at the school instead of students having to take virtual classes

“That’s something we’ve been incorporating,” he said.

Some restaurants also have created more space for their customers. Altman said restaurants that had access to outdoor space or an area that they could use for overflow helped them stay afloat during the early stages of the pandemic. And since at this point the pandemic continues, many businesses are pushing for similar options.

“We're seeing the same for some businesses,” he said. “Those that serve the public, they also need the flexibility to go outside or to accommodate more space between users. … Before the pandemic there was a focus on consumer behavior, but now there’s more focus on human behavior – such as what are people going to do, as opposed to how do we sell things to them? That's been kind of interesting.”

New buildings 

Stephanie McDaniel, president and CEO of BWBR, a multidisciplinary architecture firm based in Minneapolis but which has projects in both the Dakotas and western Minnesota, has also seen trends in the architecture and design fields, some of them related to health care. As one example, she said hospitals are becoming more focused on outpatient care and less on inpatient care.

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There is an effort to create specialty hospitals for instance, and putting these buildings in places that are convenient for patients. One trend is that health care organizations are developing ambulatory surgery centers away from their care campuses.

“It is certainly something we’ve seen for a while, but continues,” McDaniel said. “It allows them to focus on the acute care of their main campuses.”

BWBR has a number of projects in health care, public education, and other fields that McDaniel is excited about, including with Fargo Public Schools and its Explorer Academy at Lewis & Clark Elementary.

Additions there will serve students who benefit from specialized programs from the Disabilities Education Act. McDaniel said the Explorer Academy is a “school within a school” model, an extension of Lewis & Clark Elementary that allows students to develop not only their academic skills, but personal and social skills and behaviors that help them better transition into a general education setting.

“Behavioral health is certainly something that we're really keen on helping our clients with, because it's such a key issue for us as a society,” she said.

BWBR is focused on “human-centered safety,” McDaniel said, noting that among its many other features, there is secure access to the Explorer Academy. It also is designed in such a way as to meet the building’s student and teacher needs instead of being a cookie-cutter model.

“That’s a bit of a BWBR trademark, to focus on the needs of the students and teachers as the center of the design, she said, noting the company’s motto is to focus on “transforming lives through exceptional environments.”

Evolving challenges 

Trends in architecture and design stretch beyond the office setting to the home office. According to a December report by Forbes , 33% of designers noted “luxurious comfort as a big trend, with soft materials and shapes” used “to bring a sense of well-being.”

That makes sense when more people these days are working from home. “With more time at home, people are more sensitive to comfort and feel,” according to the article.

As for challenges in the industry, there are those, too. Trent Stone, owner of Stone Group Architects in Sioux Falls, said the biggest has to do with supply and demand.

“We’ve actually been asked to do a bunch of emergency response projects, COVID isolation units,” Stone said. But with a tightening supply chain, it’s been tough to get needed materials. “Salt Lake City, Omaha City, St. Louis, Kansas City, Sioux Falls, Fargo, Minneapolis – they all ask the same question: how quickly could we have a COVID isolation unit put together?”

Answer: Not quick enough.

“I would say the biggest trend that we're seeing right now is just a slowdown of delivery of raw material and increased cost of raw materials and labor,” he said.

Stone also said his field, like other industries, has been impacted by workforce challenges.

“Finding good people is a challenge probably everywhere,” he said. “I think we'll probably start to come back to a quasi-normal if we end up going back to a little more stable environment, but our industry right now is just swamped. Everybody and their brother is trying to do something. We're pretty fortunate right now to be able to pick what projects we want instead of every one that comes in the door.”

As the pandemic continues to evolve, so do the architecture and design fields.

Altman, of Architecture Incorporated, shared his perspective on that: Sure, the current times have brought some challenges to his field, especially as it relates to the supply chain, but architecture remains not only his bread and butter, but his passion.

He keeps his notebook handy, ready to scribble down any new ideas or trends as they come along.

Andrew Weeks is an award-winning journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers and magazines. He currently is the editor of Prairie Business, the premier business magazine of the northern plains. The magazine covers various industries and business topics in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.
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