A generational crisis like Covid-19 can change the way entire societies think. And when it comes to design, that shift in thinking can extend decades into the future.
One area where this is already happening is in architecture. For much of the 20th century, buildings were considered machines. Even our homes, according to Le Corbusier, were nothing but machines designed to be lived in.
That perspective has been eroding in recent years. The pandemic now gives us a metaphor to understand how everything is related to our homes: social, economic, and environmental problems affect our health and lifestyle. It is expected to spark widespread change in how we design homes to live in this emerging new world.
Evolving to change
Machines become obsolete as the human species evolves, its wants and needs changing with the times. If you believe that a home belongs in the same category, the years will belie the discrepancy.
Any homeowner knows that property requires regular maintenance. The more reactive your stance, the more problems you’ll encounter. Anticipating issues will help you save money, time, and effort.
The inescapable reality is that we’re living in a rapidly changing environment. Climate change may not be considered generally worrisome in your location, but it makes weather effects more extreme and frequent. These days, prolonged droughts, severe storms, and unusual cold snaps can affect anyone, anywhere.
As living creatures, humans are good at adapting. But our homes need to evolve as well. We can’t be forever patching holes as they come up. We have to build them for greater resilience.
Durability in the face of harsh weather is far from the only concern we’ll be dealing with, though. The cost of living is rising in major cities as the population grows. Lowering energy consumption is already an essential cost-saving strategy for many homeowners.
Adding another wrinkle to these problems, the pandemic forces us to reconsider our homes and lifestyles in light of how we interact with others. The elderly, or those with pre-existing conditions, will want to be more isolated from general traffic while still enjoying access to urban amenities.
Housing issues and complications will continue to rise more rapidly in the years to come. Perhaps the biggest challenge we face is that, collectively, we’re slow. Our cycle of gathering feedback, processing it, coming up with design solutions, and applying them takes too much time.
Thus, design innovators have learned to look to nature for inspiration. By applying a biomimicry strategy, they learn from the principles in natural structures and phenomena or harnessed by other organisms after being refined over countless millennia of evolution.
Copying from nature saves time because it offers ideas that have already been proven to work under rigorous conditions.
Architects have long been influenced by nature, of course. Frank Lloyd Wright famously observed nature to come up with his uniquely organic buildings. Frei Otto built the Munich Olympic Stadium’s roof after studying the properties of soap. Stefano Boeri designed the Bosco Verticale in Milan, combining 20,000 square meters of forest with 75,000 square meters of residential area.
But biomimicry doesn’t need to be in the hands of professionals alone. Even a layman can apply this strategy to their home in some form.
Ideas to look for
Consider verticality, for instance. Organisms such as trees and dinosaurs evolved independently to grow tall for different reasons appropriate to their circumstances. Human cities began to exploit the vertical space as they became more crowded.
With floor space at a premium, a business can accommodate more clients using automotive lifts with mobile columns to hoist extra vehicles. Apartments in the urban center can house multiple families.
As more cities face increasing population densities in the future, homeowners don’t need to flee to the suburbs. They can add desired features to the upper floors while saving on thermal regulation costs due to the smaller ratio of structural surface area to volume.
Another option to consider is the use of plant biomass as insulation material. Inspired by the structural properties of plant cell walls, scientists have observed that pith from hemp or flax shiv, or other natural fibers, provides effective insulation with low embodied carbon.
For those who seek refuge from the pandemic but wouldn’t want to leave the city lifestyle, look for the emergence of ‘vertical villages,’ similar to what’s being done in Singapore. These high-rise dwellings offer multi-purpose facilities and community services to residents without mingling with the general population.
More of these options will begin to appear as the long-term influence of the pandemic manifests through the future work of today’s designers. It’s time for every homeowner to take heed and be prepared for an overhaul of how we build.