In the world, cities ubiquitously have one thing in common, they bring people together. Socialization has enduringly been the norm rather than the exception, the hallmark of city life, supporting human productivity and economic well-being. However, the ongoing battle against corona-virus infection has had a tremendous influence on social interactions. Governments and health experts alike have been advising city dwellers to limit contact and to maintain a distance of 2 meters or 6 feet (3 steps) in everyday life. With the lack of vaccination to tackle the virus, social distancing and frequent hand washing appear to be the lone viable strategies in place for now.
But in a country like India, home to some of the most densely populated cities in the world, is it truly possible to practice social distancing? With a population of over 1.4 billion people and an average population density of 464 people per square kilometer, the country faces numerous challenges in applying social distancing measures.
Be it public-use commercial and office buildings, the crumbling healthcare infrastructure system, or the congested residential apartment buildings, executing social distancing guidelines comes with its own set of obstacles in each building typology. The article sheds light on how social distancing policies can be efficiently introduced in buildings of overcrowded cities, offering suggestions for the short term as well as the long haul.
As the clock is ticking, some policy decisions have to be taken now, rather than later, to face the pandemic. So, what can the property owners, building managers, and most importantly, the users or the residents of the buildings do in the short term?
1. Use staircases instead of elevators
Riding an elevator forces you to share a cramped space and touch surfaces that could harbor germs, the exact opposite of social distancing. You are best off avoiding elevators altogether and taking stairs instead, especially if the walk is under 4 floors. If you have to travel to a higher floor, avoid crowded elevators, and limit the usage to 30-35% of the capacity. Do not touch the lift buttons directly with your hand, use a napkin, handkerchief, glove, or preferably your elbow.
To increase elevator capacity, feasible alternatives should be explored to compartmentalize the elevator car with acrylic or fiberglass partitions allowing more passengers to be transported per elevator. Additionally, foot-operated elevator buttons or foot pedals could be introduced to limit human touch.
2. Utilizing common amenities at off-peak & alternating times
An immediate solution is to rethink how common spaces, for instance, mailroom, club facilities, grocery shops in a residential society, pantries, meeting rooms, reception in an office, etc. will function while abiding by social distancing norms. Huddling in a small space with inadequate ventilation does not sound appealing to anyone. These spaces need to develop structured schedules with staggered timings.
Moreover, tech and app-based smart solutions need to be designed to cater to the needs of the tenants whereby slots can be booked in advance, ensuring adherence to social distancing standards. Also, wherever possible, people should try visiting these amenities early in the morning or late at night when the foot traffic is likely to be lesser.
3. Implement building-wide cleanliness protocols
With all the instructions being circulated about hand sanitizers and cleanliness, hand washing has become a new ritual whenever you enter or leave a space. In conjunction, buildings need to implement protocols to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces such as railings, lift call buttons, doorknobs, switches, etc. at regular intervals throughout the day.
A high-tech solution for the same could be installing motion or voice-activated interfaces in common areas. Installing hand washing stations or hand sanitizers outside public areas could also help reduce the spread of viruses.
4. Long-Term Solutions
Social distancing is becoming a part and parcel of life and is expected to last for a much longer period than anticipated. At some point, this will become the new normal and would require long-term design and retrofit solutions modifying the core principles of building design.
5. Connection with Outdoors
The rigorous lockdown would have taken a toll on the mental health of every person sans the connection to outdoor spaces. People and designers alike have realized the importance of a seamless indoor-outdoor connection- verandahs, balconies, terraces, porches, courtyards- essentially, any space that connects us to the immediate outdoors. A well-designed outdoor space serves the dual objective of providing a sense of community and neighborhood whilst permitting social distancing.
6. Indoor Air Quality
While designing buildings, a strong emphasis on designing ventilation strategies that allow ample fresh air to circulate should be a pivotal factor. A combination of right placement of openings along with biophilic elements can be a game-changer, decreasing stress levels and enhancing health and immunity.
For mechanically ventilated buildings, retrofitting, or redesigning existing air filtration systems to install high-quality filters which can help destroy bacteria and viruses can help create a safe indoor environment. With a heightened awareness of how recirculated air is treated and zoned for safety and health purposes in an area, the occupants would demand a more reliable ventilation system. Adding UV lights to the air handlers can help purify the air as well.
7. Rethink Floor Layouts
To provide a more hygienic environment with adequate social distancing, floor plans can be redesigned, particularly in office spaces, to decongest the workspace. Designers should take this opportunity to examine the fundamental design practices being followed for many years to create a more open-plan layout. Common areas such as toilets can have doorless entries, similar to airports, helping reduce the amount of high-touch surfaces considerably.
Likewise, in residential buildings, the new work-from-home culture has exceedingly altered the way spaces are ordinarily utilized in a house. Home offices and exercise or meditation rooms have become a necessity and should be regarded while designing the layout and not as an afterthought. Open-style kitchen and living spaces will allow a maximum volume of air to breeze through the house while heightening the spirits of the residents.
Ultimately, with COVID-19 hitting the world hard, the isolation has taught us the value of human connection. Copious everyday solutions are being developed with common sense and understanding. But as we move forward, with school, hotels, and malls commencing anew, the world needs to reevaluate how to get the pre-corona momentum back with increased caution and efficiently designed environments. Utilize the learnings of today to design a better world for tomorrow.
“As an architect, you design for the present with an awareness of the past for a future which is essentially unknown.”- Norman Foster