The coronavirus pandemic has placed any number of demands on our homes, which now serve as makeshift offices, art studios, gyms, workshops, classrooms and storage lockers. And urban apartments — where all of those functions are often squeezed into a space-constrained envelope — face the biggest challenges of all.
Those of us quarantined in a city have devised ad hoc solutions to cope in the short term. But if history is any guide, the experience should have lasting implications for the future of apartment design long after the lockdowns end.
More than a century ago, diseases like tuberculosis and the 1918 influenza “had an enormous impact on architecture, with the creation of sanitariums that were very open and were all about the balcony, light and air,” said Paul Whalen, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects. “Whether it was subconscious or not, that kind of architecture had a big influence on residential architecture throughout the whole 20th century.”
We asked architects whose firms have helped shape New York in recent years how apartment design may evolve in the years ahead.
More Flexible Spaces
Working from home with the help of digital tools was a trend long before the pandemic hit. Now that it’s widely accepted as a productive way to work, it is likely here to stay in a significant way, even after offices reopen. As a result, some architects believe residential design will take cues from recent developments in office and college-campus design.
“The home is still one of those places where you find single-purpose spaces, and that, surely, is going to change,” said Maitland Jones, a partner at Deborah Berke Partners. “One thing we see on college campuses is that no one builds single-purpose spaces anymore. Boundaries between where one studies, where one socializes, where one eats, where one sleeps are diminishing.”
When thoughtfully designed, rooms in an apartment can also serve multiple functions. “If the dining room is not going to be a casualty of the pandemic, but rather a beneficiary,” Mr. Jones said, “it has to do quick shifts from dining mode to work mode to probably a third mode,” serving as a bedroom, say, or a media room.
Room sizes could also change to create more flexibility. “The open office has become a rule in so many different industries, and yet we need lots of little tiny spaces where one can either make a private call or have a very small videoconference,” Mr. Jones said. “Homes could easily be like that.”
When the firm CetraRuddy was designing Rose Hill, a new condominium at 30 East 29th Street in Manhattan, the architects were thinking along similar lines and included a “flex-space” in numerous apartments: a windowless alcove smaller than a bedroom that can be closed off with sliding glass doors.
“It’s a space where you can set up a home office, a library,” or a learning space for children, said John Cetra, one of the firm’s founding principals. “It wasn’t like we were planning for a pandemic, but it is something that people living in the city, I think, will really come to appreciate.”
Access to the Outdoors
After spending so much time indoors, having access to fresh air and nature at home is likely to become a priority.
“The one thing I find most people really complaining about is this feeling of being confined in a space,” said Morris Adjmi, a New York-based architect.
One way to provide a closer connection to nature, he said, may be with larger courtyard gardens, like the 25,000-square-foot green space he planned with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates at Front & York, a new apartment complex in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
Or it could be accomplished with more balconies and terraces, like the ones CetraRuddy designed at 200 East 59th Street, a 35-story tower wrapped by terraces on every level to provide each apartment with outdoor space.
Mr. Whalen offered another idea: “In a tight city, where every square foot is expensive to build, it can also be done with, say, French doors in a living room” and a Juliet balcony, he said. “In a way, the whole living room, or whole dining room, could sort of feel like an outside loggia.”
The simplest solution, however, could be a return to large, operable windows and designs for cross ventilation to encourage breezes, which apartments in newer buildings sometimes lack.
Facades on glass buildings could open wider to the outdoors, said Angelica Trevino Baccon, a partner at SHoP Architects, like those her firm designed for Uber’s new headquarters in San Francisco, where large glass panels open like bifold doors.
“Fresh air is just so important for wellness,” she said, and natural ventilation also helps reduce energy consumption.
Thoughtful Storage Areas
In cities like New York, where apartments can seem laughably small, it’s not unusual to shop for a single roll of toilet paper or groceries for just one meal to keep from overloading precious storage space. But with trust in supply chains now shaken, having sufficient storage space is likely to become essential, resulting in bigger, more efficiently planned closets and pantries.
“It’s about being creative with how the square footage is used, and specific cabinets or closets that are more flexible or have more storage space,” Mr. Adjmi said.
Kitchen appliances in smaller apartments may also swell in size after shrinking in recent decades. “Our refrigerators kept getting smaller and smaller,” Ms. Baccon said, including under-counter models that seemed acceptable when people were dining out regularly.
“But now this idea of storage, and being able to have food for more than a week, is a thing,” she said. “I had never thought about a chest freezer until now.”
A heightened awareness of how people pick up viruses from the surfaces they touch will lead to more widespread adoption of smart-home technology, Mr. Cetra predicted.
“Maybe it’s going to become a new standard where your lights will go on automatically,” and your door will unlock when you come home, he said, noting that such technology is readily available but usually considered a specialty add-on. “Or you’ll be able to talk to the elevator,” instead of pressing buttons.
Indoor ventilation systems could also be upgraded. “There will be a great improvement in mechanical systems, air-conditioning and heating that will perhaps provide more fresh air so you get more air turnover in an apartment,” Mr. Whalen said.
“Filters will be improved, and even ways of perhaps killing bacteria and viruses will be improved, so that people feel really safe in their apartments,” he added. “All those systems are going to be brought up to a new level of sophistication.”
A Better Entrance
“The idea of the great front entrance hall, where you make a transition between the outside world and the world of your apartment, I think has become more important now,” Mr. Whalen said. “It’s become a health issue.”
A proper foyer where people can take off their shoes and unload packages — a space that was sometimes eliminated in contemporary floor plans — is likely to be a feature apartment hunters prize.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a separate room, Mr. Whalen said. In smaller units, an entrance area might be created by a single wall that conceals views through the unit and creates a sense of enclosure. But “it needs to be accompanied by a front-hall closet,” he said.
A Stronger City
On a larger scale, many architects expect a greater appreciation for public spaces that will drive improvements outside the home.
“That kind of civic responsibility that comes around, on the one hand, with our masks, should also come around in the way that we design buildings,” Mr. Whalen said, noting that apartment buildings that positively contribute to a city’s streetscape are beneficial even to people who don’t live there.
Mr. Jones also predicted innovations in shared outdoor spaces.
“I anticipate a new focus on civic life, on public spaces that benefit everyone — parks, sidewalks, streets,” he said. “Let’s share in this kind of fantasy that some good stuff will come out of the pandemic.”