Pandemics shape cities. Cholera, for example, led to the creation of London’s sewage systems in the 1830s.
Of course, it is a brave person who is prepared to make predictions at a time like this. In fact, it has become almost a truism to say that we live in “uncertain times”. None of us, after all, has a crystal ball.
But often, the only clue to the future is the past. And in my industry, we can make some intelligent guesses about the future of buildings in the age of Covid-19.
Before the outbreak at the start of this year, several trends were already underway. Two of these were what we might call “mega-trends”: sweeping and inexorable shifts with far-reaching implications.
The first was a rise in the use of technology, and the “digitalisation” — sometimes reluctant — of even the most risk-averse businesses and sectors.
The second related to an increasingly serious consideration of the environment and the impact of human action upon it. In October 2018, the UN warned that we had 12 years to limit climate change to avoid catastrophe.
Covid-19 has accelerated both these trends, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the “winners” of the current crisis will be those who have embraced and adapted to them quickly and comprehensively. This applies to almost every sector to some extent, but it is especially true in real estate, as we are being given a glimpse of what the future of buildings — and the cities they create — will look like.
Sanitisers, now a feature of every bar, restaurant, office and home, are here to stay — and not simply because there is “no end in sight” to the pandemic, as the UN as pessimistically put it. The crisis has forced us to reconsider our approach to hygiene, and that will be shown in those places where we spend most of our time: buildings.
We will likely also see innovation in ventilation, and the subsequent installation of sophisticated ventilation systems in buildings. At the end of last month, the German government said ventilation was “one of the cheapest and most effective ways” to contain the spread of the virus. We can therefore expect to see ventilation technology play a greater role in the buildings of the near future.
At the same time, tech may be developed and used to gather and distribute health information around buildings. Already we have seen some companies put in place simple testing technology like temperature checks at their entrances to ensure those who enter are not sick. That looks set to continue.
Office designers will play a starring role here. They will be called upon to rethink the layout of buildings so that it suits an irregular flow of people inside and out, and allows those people to keep their distance from one another if they need to do so. Hands-free technology, in the form of voice assistants and potentially facial recognition, may well be introduced to reduce human contact with surfaces.
And though there are many people suggesting there will be an exodus to the countryside, fundamentally reshaping the way our cities across the world look and feel, the reality is that the existing rural infrastructure could not possibly accommodate a mass movement of people out of cities. The UK countryside, for example, still lacks real broadband connectivity, as rural businesses have often lamented.
And cities remain places of convenience and opportunity — places where there are many people and organisations in a concentrated area. Though we’re likely to see a sharp drop in professional travel due to the rising adoption of video-calling tech, there will still be face-to-face interaction when it’s needed.
Predictions that high-rise buildings will shrink or disappear are therefore not just premature but unfounded. As I write, construction workers in New York are building the Super High-Rise — the tallest skyscraper the city has ever seen. No doubt that Covid-19 will usher in some remarkable changes, but buildings will simply adapt, as they always have, to reflect the needs of this strange new world.
In a much broader way, the pandemic might inspire more openness, culturally, about how we live and work. We might see people come up with creative solutions to the peculiar problems of the pandemic — solutions that we can’t possibly predict now — that will make themselves apparent in the built world. It’s worth noting that some senior figures in even the most conservative industries, such as real estate, have been converted to Zoom meetings, online signings and more out of sheer necessity.
None of us can predict the future, and it is always possible that bolt from the blue could change everything. But cities — and the buildings that give them their shape, identity and outline — will remain and evolve to meet the demands of the people who live and work within them, just as they always have.
Main image credit: Getty