Building during the pandemic? Don’t forget the world after.

porch
A porch is an example of an opening to the outdoors that offers a flexible expansion of space while retaining a comfortably small feel for daily life. Submitted photo

After over eight months of social distancing with continued trepidation about returning to the familiar — movie theaters, concerts, gyms, restaurants and more — many of us are approaching the winter with dread. A handful of our clients have begun replacing their old routines “out and about” in the city with new ones at home. Whether out of necessity or inspiration, it’s clear many of us are longing to bring variety into our dwelling spaces, if at a smaller scale. By critically evaluating the changes we intend to make and qualities we’re trying to achieve, we can start to identify some pitfalls in our rush to return to normality.

Creating places to gather during colder weather increases already existing challenges. Re-thinking what it looks like to come together can be valuable. Consider how much space is needed for the majority of your life (“design for the everyday, not the exceptional” is how one architect explained it) and how much space is needed much less often (for small gatherings or future holidays). In the first Locus Architecture house on King’s Parkway, the main living space is an open “courtyard,” with apertures punched into walls of rooms above and a hearth to gather around. The space is ideal for gathering while not becoming too vast to feel comfortable on a daily basis.

Thinking long-term, as opposed to reacting to a right-now situation, is a common approach we take with clients experiencing a “pinch point.” Even before COVID-19 inspired some to think “I need more space,” we’ve had families hire us to create home additions when their youngsters started elementary school. We often warn that space pressure felt in the moment may only last a handful of years, as this need rapidly decreases when those same adorable toddlers enter high school and spend increasing amounts of time outside the house. Solutions such as finished basements, rooms over garages or backyard “clubhouses” can suffice while avoiding the “our house is too big” situation that inspires empty nesters to abandon houses where their memories reside. Providing choreographed openings to the outdoors offers flexible expansion of space when necessary but can maintain a comfortably small feel for daily spatial demands.

A potential consequence of the pandemic may be the temptation to spend more of our lives inside, even after we’re no longer encouraged or required to. Living spaces may need to be reconfigured to handle “pre-pandemic” routines previously done in the community.

For instance, adding a screen porch might bring some qualities from trips taken to a resort or a friend’s cabin. A relaxing setting in our home can recall our greatly missed vacations. Re-imagining bathrooms or adding a sauna might replace outings to the gym or the spa. Adding a rooftop deck could become a more intimate alternative to the bar or restaurant setting many of us miss. Including places to create — whether art, carpentry, music or something else — can add elements missed from experiences visiting galleries/museums/ live music events around town.

Amid these efforts to bring new experiences to home life, there will always be unintended results that come with well-intentioned initiatives. We can’t help but wonder what social costs and mental health issues might this home-centric “souped-up” living bring about? Some unsavory images come to mind — hospitality businesses failing, less active streets, gutted mass-transit systems, school children in front of screens, acres of empty real estate, struggling cultural institutions and increased reliance on modes of communication that don’t require face-to-face contact. Sure, Zoom is useful, but it’s still just a proxy.

Not only are our social and work lives impacted by this kind of adaptation, but one must consider how the built environment will inevitably be impacted as well. Although life may never “go back to normal” after the pandemic, what kind of “new normal” do we want to design in our homes and public infrastructure? Despite some surface-level benefits, working at home, staycations and socializing within very limited boundaries leave many of us bereft of new meaningful experiences, and long-term consequences still remain unknown.

While investing in your home can benefit residential architects, interior designers and construction professionals, it’s also important to provide experiential places and beautiful spaces where people interact as social beings. As we move forward with our projects for the duration of and after the pandemic, our hope is to continue challenging how design can bring more to our homes and communities than before, without falling into the temptation of “best of both worlds” at-home solutions.

Emily Bissen is a staff member of Locus Architecture, located in Kingfield. Visit locusarchitecture.com to learn more.