How lockdown could lead to fundamental change in the design of our homes

The new realities of working and schooling at home have led to a shift in perspective – with implications for private spaces, energy use and self-sufficiency, writes Tara Hipwood

Saturday 20 June 2020 11:12
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Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, our homes have been serving as makeshift workplaces, schools, gyms and pubs, and many of us are spending more time in them than ever before.

People often choose to buy or rent their particular home because of its location; perhaps it offers access to good schools or an easy commute to work by car or public transport. This means people often invest in more expensive homes in locations with access to quality facilities and then adapt them to accommodate the activities of their daily lives.

As an architect and researcher in housing and sustainability, my research examines adaptations ranging from extensions and loft conversions, through to the installation of renewable technologies and retrofits. Many homeowners view their homes in desirable areas as a financial asset they can cash in later. For this reason, renewable and energy efficiency measures are often not included in adaptations because of uncertainties about how these will be valued when the property comes to be sold.

But with fewer people now commuting and more people working from home, where people choose to live and how they want their houses to function may change after this prolonged period of lockdown.

There have already been suggestions that people may want to escape city life and move to the countryside, with many longing for more space and better access to nature.

Privacy can be a major issue for those working from home regularly

It’s likely that for many families, this period has also highlighted that when they are all in the house at the same time, it can be hard to find any personal space.

A popular trend in recent years has been for open plan living. This often involves opening up several ground-floor rooms to create a single, open-plan, multi-functional space – usually a kitchen, dining, living, utility and work space. These open-plan areas usually function on the premise that any homeworking parents can occupy this space during the day, before the family comes together to socialise in it in the evening.

This, however, relies on a “phased” pattern of occupation, whereby different members of the household occupy the home at different times of day. This is very different from the “concurrent” pattern of occupation – whereby all members of the household occupy the home simultaneously – that lockdown has made more prevalent.

Being able to supervise children while working may be beneficial for some. But for others, the lack of privacy afforded by these large, open-plan spaces has no doubt presented challenges. Particularly when, for example, you might want a quiet corner in which to hold online calls. Self-isolating is also more difficult in such spaces, as is quarantining objects coming into the home.

A growing preoccupation with exercise and health could also see more people thinking about the impact that internal environments have on our well-being – prioritising natural light and access to nature

It is likely that changes in commuting or work habits could also prompt a fundamental shift in what people perceive as priority features in the home.

People who regularly work from home use their heating far more to maintain a comfortable working environment. So an increase in the number of homeworkers could see a wider preoccupation with thermal comfort and the energy efficiency of their homes.

Homeworking could also bring many of the environmental considerations associated with workplace productivity – such as indoor air quality, noise pollution, and visual comfort – to bear on the domestic environment. This may lead homeowners to invest in measures such as triple-glazing or high-performance windows, increased insulation and draught-proofing – which would also lead to reduced CO2 emissions.

Lockdown has led to a growing interest in food self-sufficiency

Research shows that for children, a comfortable, private space to study away from the communal areas of the home increases their educational attainment. So a preoccupation with the educational welfare of their children that encouraged parents to reside near to high-performing schools may now be channelled into optimising their homes for study.

A growing preoccupation with exercise and health could also see more people thinking about the impact that internal environments have on our well-being – prioritising natural light and access to nature. This could lead to reduced reliance on electrical lighting and greater demand for gardens that encourage biodiversity.

Food shortages in supermarkets at the beginning of the outbreak have also resulted in a renewed interest in self-sufficiency, which may continue long after lockdown. This could lead to gardens being used for growing food, ultimately leading to a reduction in food miles, and could even prompt more people to produce their own energy at home using solar panels or other renewables.

There could also be increased demand for new housing, particularly where the design of it responds to the realities of working from home and home schooling, as well as a healthier, more self-sufficient lifestyle.

The experience of lockdown will, no doubt, have a lasting effect on us all. And many will be rethinking the kind of life they want to live post-pandemic, along with the role their homes could play in this.

Tara Hipwood is a lecturer in architecture at Northumbria University, Newcastle. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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