Madeleine Hobern

Designing for distance: How can our architects most effectively respond to Coronavirus?


“Life after the Covid-19 outbreak will never be the same as before”, Ukrainian architect Sergey Mankho predicts, arguing that the way we design and build our homes will change substantially, and for the better. Now, more than ever, we wish for safety in our homes and health for our families, thus requiring designers of the future to consider solutions that can ease the stresses of a global pandemic, or even help prevention. Whether this be in our homes or in public spaces, I see the role of nature and combining indoor- outdoor living to be crucial in future architecture, for both our wellbeing and physical health.

In times of this crisis the home has become a retreat from virus and infection, so our designs in the future will need to protect our homes and serve to prevent further infection. In primitive times the functions of the house served as a hiding place from bad weather and predator animals, then fortresses were built to prevent the enemy from getting in. Today, people need a house that can effectively provide isolation and safety against virus. A rise in demand for ‘Smart Homes’ is easy to understand. Their programs will not only control the temperature of the air in the house as it can now, but also improve the air quality and automatically clean it if necessary. Preventing spread of infection, the outdoor environment will be physically separate from the inside of our houses, air will be filtered and a cleaning room will become the norm, with antiseptic dispensers and a space for deliveries and guests to enter the house. Alongside this, open plan living may be a thing of the past, where, in the aftermath of the pandemic the entrance area will be separated so we can leave our shoes, clothing and belongings instead of carrying germs into our safe living quarters. Whilst germs may be a strong consideration, working from home is going to change house plans drastically where we dedicate separate rooms for offices. However, one of the most important things we can learn from lockdown, is the value of a garden. Only one in eight British households have a garden, and in times of isolation we appreciate nature and a space to take a breath of fresh air, away from the dense rooms of a city townhouse or 1930 semi. In light of this, there will be less value in high rise buildings as homemakers will be on the hunt for homes with gardens and outdoor relaxation areas, city blocks and tiny flats will be less desirable. For years, these blocks were designed to organise as many people as possible in one confined space. Health and hygiene were not a top priority for design. In times of pandemic, it is essential to reduce contact with surfaces, lifts, lift buttons, door handles and above all, neighbours. As a consequence, will the desire to live in cities deteriorate? It is important to note that without a need to commute or with fear of high-risk spreading infection, country life may become much moreappealing in the aftermath of Coronavirus. Here, architects need to embrace our connection and affiliations with our outdoor world and design in response to our desires.

Not only is this a problem in the home, but the city is also in need of attention to change. With a sudden demand for homes with gardens and more green spaces around our living environments, the city life as we remember it, busy with commuters and business men and women, may not be the same again. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York state tweeted at the end of March that “there is a density level in NYC that is destructive,” highlighting the risk that overpopulated spaces can cause in times of a pandemic. It may even be suggested that we reduce the size of our cities and create ‘walkable cities’ where we walk to what we need, reducing public transport spreading infection, notes Wouter Vanstiphout. With high- rise buildings becoming more of a risk, this could have a knock-on effect on our skylines, becoming more expensive and less efficient to build, they become less economically attractive to builders and developers. However, technology can tackle the problem of high-rise buildings or office spaces in the city. For example, lifts can be called from a smartphone, avoiding the need to press buttons to get inside or out, and office doors will open automatically using sensors and facial recognition. Not only will this reduce contact but also improve our security within the city – changing the way we build. An increasing interest for open spaces and appreciation for our natural surroundings means it is essential for architects and landscape planners to work together to design public spaces fit for distancing. In all public spaces, shopping centres, parks and markets must be considered to keep the ‘2 metre’ distance and tackling the spread of germs on surfaces. Architects have already designed fibreglass frames to keep social distancing in practice for public spaces. In pathways, this may be addressed too, plans have been put in place in cities across Europe and America to take street space away from cars in order to free up space for cyclists and pedestrians, allowing for the distance necessary in the event of a pandemic. And from all of this, it is most evident to notice our need for nature and how architects must consider our need for public spaces, even if 2 metre apart.

Therefore, in both the home and city we are aware of our need of nature, something that architects can most importantly learn from the pandemic. This may even avoid problems of people migrating to the country and out of the city with simple renovation of including outdoor space, to improve mental health in times of isolation of full lockdown in the future. Gardens and access to public spaces nearby are a thing of luxury at the moment, where one eighth of Britons are left without. In recent studies it is shown just how much we need natural affiliations to support our wellbeing. Edward Wilson’s study of Biophilia notes just that, of how we often feel restored when we spend time in nature, and how we can incorporate this into architectural design. Time spent in nature can cause lower stress, a balanced nervous system, increased levels of cancer fighting natural killing cells and most importantly, lowering rates of anxiety and depression. GPs in Manchester have even gone to the lengths of prescribing pot plants to patients to improve wellbeing and mental health. The phytoncides released from trees and plants are known to enhance immune function, ideal for times of virus, whilst also relaxing the body and reducing stress, therefore including it in designs within the home and our public spaces is a simple way architects can effectively respond to the virus.

In conclusion, the most effective way for architects to respond to the coronavirus pandemic is by embracing our natural surroundings in future design. Responding to the virus, it is more apparent than ever that we want a future of happiness and safety away from virus and threat of infection. We must appreciate the fact that we need a green environment to support our wellbeing in uncertain times of lockdowns and ‘endless’ isolation. Tackling the way we design homes consists of considering home offices, less open plan living and using technology to refresh the air and provide a barrier between indoor/ outdoor air particles. However, this does not mean a smart home cannot involve the outdoors within its interior, it just simply means we must cleanse the air that mixes within our retreats from the virus- the home. Whilst also giving attention to our cities, the element of social distancing will become essential in future designs, ensuring healthy and safe environments, whereby architects will work together globally to prevent the spread of infection through our buildings. In both designing for the public and designing for the family at home, I see the future of architecture as full of green spaces, embracing our natural environments and putting our global health as a new priority. The future we want is happy, and the future we want is healthy, our future is shaped by our surrounding architecture.


This piece is speculative in the sense that it imagines the future that might arise from the current pandemic and hints at a wholesale change in architectural thinking to account for the need to be socially distant. The author has a clear sense of imaginative flair which might have been mirrored by a little more expressive flair across the piece. That said, this is a well-researched piece with some genuine insights to offer its readers. 

Kayo Chongonyi, Orwell Youth Prize Judge

Madeleine Hobern is a senior Orwell Youth Prize 2020 Runner Up, responding to the theme ‘The Future We Want’.

What was the inspiration for your piece?

My main inspiration was the world we were living in, in a pandemic that affected everybody on earth. It was almost impossible to ignore. Given my interest in architecture, hoping to study it next year at university, I wanted to fully gauge how our world can change in the built environment after Covid-19.

What is your one tip to young writers?

Get stuck in! Don’t be scared to start writing, although it is always the hardest part. Always write about something that you genuinely enjoy or can’t get bored of easily, this makes writing a lot easier and more enjoyable.

Given the global pandemic, has your idea about the future you want changed since you wrote the piece?
My view was very much centred around the pandemic, I believe that our houses and public spaces will change for the better, keeping us safe from virus and infection. Although rules are relaxing across the globe, I still see it as vital to keep Coronavirus in mind when designing spaces for people to live, work and play in for the future.