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Mix Roundtable: Hygiene and wellbeing in post-pandemic interior design

An expert panel of designers from a multitude of sectors discuss creating hygienic spaces that don’t compromise on style, comfort and character.

Feature in partnership with CDUK

26/10/2021 7 min read

Now more than ever, designing hygienic public spaces is conducive to supporting people’s wellbeing and mental health, where safety and comfort will be key concerns – involving careful consideration of materiality, spatial design, as well as product and services. So, how do you achieve this? How do you design hygienic spaces that support both physical and mental health?

As lockdown restrictions ease and we return to normal life, hygiene and wellbeing will not only remain high on the agenda, but will be at the core of interior schemes – not only in the short-term, to ensure reduced transmission, but also in the long-term, as our attitudes towards hygiene and cleanliness change.

Sarah: I don’t think we’ve seen the full scale of things yet. We’ve obviously been involved with projects that have been designed for a pandemic – and will now have to be revisited. You change and you adapt as you go along but, like I said, I don’t believe we’ve seen the full results of that yet – and won’t until things settle down a bit. How much we need to revisit varies from client to client. One of our clients, for example, was quite happy to remain cellular and to maintain social distancing. What has changed there is the cleaning regime. They have stepped that up several gears. What we have to do is to think about what the materials we use can withstand.

Megan: That is an interesting point. How much does go into matching up the operational structure with the client’s needs? A lot of the work we do is dealing with semi-external spaces and one of the trends we have seen – rather than a compromise – is towards touch-free, hands-free, anything you can do with sensor controls to make things easier, speedier and safer. I do think that a number of clients are now also thinking about which materials they use in relation to this.

Jane: I think a large part of this is the psychological element – about how you can make end users feel more comfortable. Spaces should be cleaned well, of course, and that is what we are saying as much for the psychological aspect of reiterating this as anything. We’re working on a hotel at the moment and the scheme we had previously conceived was quite dark and a bit gentleman’s club in style. When we revisited the scheme, we decided to completely lighten it up, freshen it up, make it feel more natural and bring in elements such as biophilia – and the reaction to that was that everyone immediately felt more comfortable.

I do think that everything comes in cycles – and this might be necessary right now and for some time to come, but I’m sure (and I hope) this will fade with time as we become more comfortable overall.

Morag: Humans are incredibly adaptable and adjustable – and people will forget and move on. Underneath that, however, there will be a natural tendency towards perhaps cleaner, more spacious, lighter design with more emphasis on wellbeing and sustainability.

Megan: People are quite vocal at the moment if they are not comfortable – there’s a lot of audible feedback if people don’t like the spaces they are in. A lot of us will have been to conferences, for example, where you’re stuck in windowless rooms for an entire day – and just being able to look out of a window or open a window makes such a huge difference. Thermal controls have also become more stringent – they are trying to be energy saving and more efficient, but you still need that open window to get that feeling of fresh air. So there’s quite a balance required, where people feel comfortable but also feel a sense of control over their environment as opposed to being put into an environment where everything is controlled for them.

Does this also ring true of ‘pre-loved’ buildings as well as more technically advanced modern buildings?

Megan: We have worked on a lot of 1930’s town halls, which were originally designed with natural ventilation, so it’s important to realise the original design intent of these buildings and not try to force something different. You have to look at the densities and the spatial arrangements so that you’re not forcing an old building to do something that it was never intended to do.

We move on to talk about users’ post-pandemic experience, and whilst we’re getting used to returning to the workplace, visiting a hotel or restaurant or watching a game of football, there is an altogether different mindset and recovery period needed for certain facilities – cruise ships, for example.

Alexandra: Actually, what we’ve found is that, whilst cruise ships did face quite a harsh review and stigma at the beginning of the pandemic, they already have some of the most rigorous operational cleaning regimes as well as strict material regulatory requirements. We were brought into these projects to bring an updated, modern aesthetic and, along with the client, we’re still pushing the boundaries of materiality whilst testing durability at each step – a process that has always been important but more so now because of changes in the way we view/use public space from a health and hygiene perspective.

Taking the Grand Atrium staircase as an example – an incredibly high traffic area, thousands of hands touching handrails each day – it almost becomes one person’s job to constantly clean, polish and maintain! Daytime people traffic, coming and going between F+B outlets, and evening guests adorned in cocktail rings scratching their way down a beautiful balustrade results in an intense maintenance operation from both a physical durability perspective as well as hygiene and cleaning.

Alexandra: What I think COVID has done is to highlight these issues that were once primarily an operations concern to a very focused design issue from earlier stages – each party within the design development phase currently has a heightened sense of awareness around the issues due to our shared experience this last year. But rather than a design ‘compromise’, I think we’re still approaching it from a design ‘challenge’ perspective and trying to push for further testing and ‘proving’ of performance properties in our material selections.

There has (for obvious reasons) been a shift away from hygienic concerns being the sole concern of areas such as the kitchen, as Alexandra points out. Andy is only too happy to confirm this from his own perspective.

Andy: We’ve seen a real shift over the past two or three years from kitchen worksurfaces accounting for 45% of our business to around 25% of our business. So, today, commercial interiors account for 75% of what we do and who we are. Our ambition is to add more products to our portfolio in the coming months and years, keeping Corian Solid Surface as a big part of what we do, but adding new core products that will hopefully inspire designers going forward.

Speaking of cruise ships, a customer of ours refitted some of their ships last year based on what they thought people would want – and after asking questions they came back in January with what people really did want. We had a five-year plan to engage more with the commercial market but, due to the pandemic, we’ve seen that plan condensed into two and a half years.

Sarah: We’re finding that some clients want BREEAM Outstanding and SKA Gold and the rest of it, but when you delve deeper into it, that enthusiasm starts to go away. You’ve got materials such as stone or marble that don’t tick the right boxes because they don’t have any recycled content. But, when you think about it, you can actually recycle all of it! However, it just doesn’t tick those right boxes – just like leather doesn’t. These are natural products. But there are now expectations that we simply can’t use these materials.

Jane: I think this offers real potential for innovation. I’d really like people to focus on what they could achieve rather than find it a hassle.

Morag: In our profession, what we do is a lot of really complex strategic thinking and a lot of the directions we’re already going in – focusing on BREEAM and LEED and SKA – are things that do apply here but they are part of a larger conversation. I think there is a conversation to be had where we talk about how we can achieve more and we can produce better buildings – but it will cost you more to achieve these things. You will be able to get more out of this building in terms of its lifespan – and actually it’s also going to be better for the occupants on a psychological level as well as a physical level, and they are going to be far more likely to be convinced to come along on that journey with you.

I don’t think this is specific to COVID – I don’t think any of this is. I believe it is another step towards achieving the things we, as a profession, are already working towards. I hope so anyway!

Bridget: Also, if you put in a higher spec for a commercial client, they can then rent out the space at a higher rate, it will last longer and therefore be more sustainable. These kinds of criteria are becoming more and more important if you talk to agents – these are the kind of spaces that they are really looking to push at the moment.

Andy: We were talking with a customer – a washroom company – yesterday, who said exactly that. There was a time when they would spend a lot of their time value engineering washrooms, but now they’re spending their time working out how to add more value to these facilities because the client sees this as one of the flagship features of a building.

Morag: Before COVID, people were already looking at how to get people to cycle to work, to walk to work or to go for a run at lunchtime, so washrooms and shower rooms were already becoming more important to a lot of schemes – and I hope that COVID continues to push that even more so.

Conclusion

There’s little doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the conversation on not just hygiene and safety but on the wider wellbeing issue. While many businesses, pre-pandemic, thought of wellbeing as something they really should be focusing upon, it is now something they simply must put at the very top of the agenda. Certainly, when it comes to commercial spaces, people NEED to be returning to amenities, facilities and spaces that make them feel safe, comfortable and happy. And, to do so, we need to re-evaluate how we design and specify materials/products for public spaces to ensure people’s safety and health.

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