Cover A cafe area at the Poly Huchong Station Transit-oriented Development sales gallery in Foshan, China

Paul Ma, design director of LWK + Partners, sheds light on the future of the built environment and designing in a post-pandemic world

With an emphasis on developing “human-centred solutions”, multi-award-winning architecture and design firm LWK + Partners is one of the notable players in the regional planning and urban design scene, since its inception more than 30 years ago.

The Hong Kong-based company—which established 12 offices in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and more recently, an office in Singapore in 2019—has adapted to the ever-changing needs of the built environment over the years. 

To understand the extent of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the built environment, we asked the firm’s design director Paul Ma for his thoughts on what we can expect in the future.

(Related: Home Office Ideas: See The Workspaces Of Creatives In Singapore During The Circuit Breaker Period)

1. More emphasis on spatial planning

The way we approach building design will never be the same in a post-pandemic world, says Ma.

“Health and safety in the built environment have always been hot-button topics even before Covid-19, and the pandemic has underlined and intensified a much-needed change in attitudes. In the future, priority will be given to how well a building or space promotes the safety and health of people—both individuals and the community as a whole,” explains Ma.

 

Priority will be given to how well a building or space promotes the safety and health of people—both individuals and the community as a whole.

—Paul Ma

Social distancing is also inherently more difficult in cities with high population densities and this poses challenges to epidemic containment. He adds: “Because of this, I believe society will put heavier emphasis on spatial planning—all the way from urban planning to the layout of individual apartments.”

To ensure that health and safety concerns are built into the development, Ma says everyone from the government, property developers to office tenants and property owners will be more interested and willing to contribute to the earlier stages of design, take part in brainstorming sessions and be willing to put up with long periods of research and planning. 

2. More nimble working spaces

“The impact of the economic downturn is drastic. Most businesses are left with limited leasing budgets, leading many to relocate to smaller locations while dealing with pressures of social distancing requirements,” says Ma. 

But as telecommuting becomes more popular, the demand for flexibility in the office environment continues to rise, even as businesses procure more affordable workspaces. As a result, he predicts that mobile workstations will become increasingly popular as staff may not need to return to the office regularly.

“Even in a traditional workstation, spaces will be planned with increased considerations for social distancing. Portable partitions and flexible furniture are some of the possibilities,” he shares.

For instance, a well-designed staircase would ideally be placed in an accessible location within a multistorey office, while acting as the visual focal point of the workspace. This could also encourage people to take the stairs and get up from their seats every now and then. 

The quality of lighting will be as crucial, as it affects how efficiently people work and collaborate. Thoughtful space partitioning can significantly improve the experience of both virtual and physical meetings.

Even in a traditional workstation, spaces will be planned with increased considerations for social distancing. Portable partitions and flexible furniture are some of the possibilities.

—Paul Ma

3. Going digital

Ma also states that the market needs to adjust to the needs of a post pandemic world. The demand for online services, long-distance control mechanisms and real-time, accurate information-sharing  are on the rise as businesses look to expand and diversify their products in the digital sphere.

He elaborates: “We can expect new technologies to assume a more impactful role in the near future. Online meetings or video conferencing will replace face-to-face meetings. New applications will help people working more efficiently. Online learning and lectures will be a new trend. And responding to these changes in lifestyle and way of work would be a constant challenge for designers in the long-term.”

For interior designers, this means that residential and commercial buildings must be integrated with telecommunications technology while retaining the element of personal privacy. 

“While the convenience of technology makes it easier to collaborate, it could potentially expose individuals to cyber security issues. As designers, we need to also consider spaces for private physical meetings, free from any type of technological intrusion,” says Ma.

4. A heightened focus on hygiene

Around the world, there will be a heightened focus on hygiene and ventilation systems in all public areas, which Ma thinks will continue to be a global challenge. 

For example, sensor devices and automatic doors may become the trend for restroom areas so that users do not need to touch the door handles after washing their hands. There could also be greater potential for door-less layouts, and the availability of sanitisers and disinfection equipment will be standardised.

“As city dwellers, we have spent more than 90 per cent of our time indoors since the pandemic this year. We now work, shop, study and even exercise at home. As interior designers, this presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to review the function of our living spaces,” says Ma. “In the past, we focused on fulfilling the functional requirements of design. Now, it becomes more important than ever to design for flexibility and adaptability, especially in dense urban contexts like Singapore and Hong Kong, where living spaces are limited,” he says.

Now, it becomes more important than ever to design for flexibility and adaptability, especially in dense urban contexts like Singapore and Hong Kong, where living spaces are limited.

—Paul Ma

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