How COVID-19 is forcing homeowners to rethink design
In just four months, a global pandemic has dramatically altered the way we live and work. It’s changed how we dress: Now we favor pajamas, shorts and sweats to work at home while our business attire gathers dust in our closets. Even casual Friday clothes are too dressy when there is no one to see you but the dog. People are cooking and baking again. Board games, gardens, arts and crafts, playing musical instruments and backyard amusements have made a big comeback in the era of COVID-19.
The shelter-in-place orders prompted architect Melanie Turner to ponder how residential design might be altered to address the new normal, from our fears of bringing infection into the house to the fallout of spending so much more time at home.
“We’re asking our spaces to do a little something extra now, ” Turner said. She lives in a small apartment off Alamo Square in San Francisco with her artist husband and 4-year-old child but does a lot of architectural design for clients in the North Bay and Wine Country.
She’s identified two major concepts that already have emerged as areas to reconsider in light of the coronavirus. One is the entryway and the other is the long-popular open floor plan.
Turner, director for residential design for Pfau Long Architecture, suggests the entrance to a home is more important than ever as a “mediating” space between the inside and outside worlds.
Design, she said, may need to address how we use this threshold, both practically and psychologically, to prevent contamination inside and allow ourselves to feel we have entered a safe space.
Within the house, people may increasingly want more defined spaces as they work and recreate more at home. That could mean carving out areas to separate work from leisure or areas to have a feeling of privacy, quiet or separation while hunkering down with family members, Turner said.
In rethinking the entry, it is important to consider practical needs. Most of us, when coming from the car into the house, are schlepping and juggling bags, keys, coats and other disparate stuff. A mudroom or staging area can be a smart feature to work into a remodel or new home. Even if your main entry is more formal, you can create “visual cues,” Turner explained. Add an attractive bench that signals to guests that this is where you can sit and remove shoes and coats. During a pandemic, you may want to leave outerwear outside your living area while it sits and potentially decontaminates.
Adding a package station to your formal entry or mudroom, if that’s where you typically enter the house, is another practical adaptation. This can serve as a processing place for groceries, keys, outerwear, umbrellas and packages. Create spaces to store items, sort mail or leave packages if you want to let them sit and decontaminate.
This could be achieved as simply as adding a console table to the vestibule, entry hall, laundry room or mudroom. Here you can keep masks, sanitizer and scissors readily available when a package arrives or you’re ready to leave. No more fumbling for items or forgetting to leave without your mask.
“We carry so much out into the world,” Turner said, “we don’t necessarily want to trail that with us into our homes.”
This, she said, “is the Swiss Army Knife” of the home multiple uses.
“You pay attention to cabinetry, you make cubbies, benches, places for extra shoes, dog leashes, dog food and dog treats,” Turner said.
If you are planning a remodel or designing a new home, it may be worthwhile to incorporate a few extra square feet into your entry to accommodate this.
Open floor plans
Another challenging aspect during the COVID-19 pandemic is the open-concept home. In the last 20 to 30 years people have embraced this design trend. But with everyone home at once, perhaps kids playing or taking online classes and one or more parents trying to work at home while another seeks some quiet time, it can be harder to meet everyone’s needs.
One solution, without a return to more walls, is to create differently scaled spaces, so that even in large open areas, there are smaller spaces to permit some time alone without feeling lonely.
This can be done by creating furniture groupings or setting off spaces with rugs. That can offer the sense of separation within an open space.
But it also can be done architecturally or through use of materials. For one home, Turner layered the space, with the kitchen leading into a family room and eventually into a home office. Different ceiling heights and flooring can delineate separate spaces, from kitchen to family room to home office, which flow into one another but also seem distinct.
Turner also likes what she calls “nap spaces.” They aren’t separate rooms but nooks or window seats tucked into larger spaces. One can curl up in a corner for some quiet without completely retreating.
“When you’re with your family for the entire day for days and days and days at a time, and the weekend is every day, it’s hard to balance this feeling of being isolated with this feeling of not having enough time alone,” she said. “It’s a strange mixture of needs. How do you feel like you can be in the action and not isolating yourself, but still feel like you have your own personal space?”
You can design your home to give a sense of distance between the home office and the living area. For one home, Turner created an open area on the first floor. But on the second floor she designed a catwalk that had to be crossed to get from the work area to the living area; it serves as a real and psychological divide between the business space and bedrooms.
Sometimes you don’t have the room or the budget to add square footage for a home workspace. In that case, there are things you can do within your existing space, however tight it is. Turner did that for herself and her husband. With both working at home during the pandemic, what seemed like the best short-term solution back in March, setting up her workspace on the dining room table, felt invasive months later. So they decided to combine their workspaces. They moved their furniture around in the bedroom, bought smaller nightstands and freed up a few extra feet for a small multiuse work table they built themselves and which they both now use, in shifts.
“Having space outside the main core of our house makes it quiet and less stuff gets piled up onto it,” she said. “Now they’e talking about a second wave and second surges of the coronavirus. It can be hard to sustain this level of isolation. But with little tweaks, we can make more sustainable.”
Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.