If you work, or used to work, in a relatively new office building — like, say, GBH’s Brighton headquarters — the windows around your desk probably don’t open.
According to Russel Feldman, principal emeritus at TBA Architects in Concord, there are a couple of good reasons for that.
“Over the past, roughly, 15, 20 years, we’ve become increasingly concerned with energy efficiency and the impact of course on our operating costs for buildings,” Feldman said.
Over the past year, though, so-called fixed windows have become a public-health liability, since less air flow means more risk from the virus.
As we emerge from the pandemic, Feldman predicts, our renewed awareness of the potential benefits of windows that actually open will abide.
“There’s no question that the COVID events have opened that topic up again, in a much more emphatic way,” he said. “And I have a frank expectation that we’re going to see a lot more operable windows, in both new construction and renovation.
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be buildings with sealed windows only,” Feldman added. “But I suspect many occupants and building owners will be more mindful about relying exclusively on mechanical systems to ventilate their spaces.”
That’s not the only way the workplace may get airer. Roof decks — which have traditionally been a residential amenity — are drawing increased interest in office settings, according to Michael Cannizzo, the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s deputy director for urban design.
“Within the last year, we reviewed, I think, about six to eight roof decks … downtown, where a number of office buildings have been looking to provide outdoor space for their tenants,” Cannizzo said. “So I think that’s been a shift.”
There are two related impulses at play here: a push to make offices healthier, and a growing recognition that they can also become much more inviting, at a moment when some wonder if they’re still necessary at all.
“When the business community says it’s time to come back to the workplace, the question is, why?” said Mike Davis, the president of Bergmeyer, a design collaborative based in the Seaport. “What is it about the workplace that’s going to make you want to come back?”
Right now, Davis and his colleagues are grappling with that question in their own space. Their answers include decentralized work areas, and curated common spaces where employees do the decorating. In other words, they’re making the Bergmeyer office more like home.
“The old, cubicle-driven office … that’s going to change,” Davis said.
Of course, office space was just one part of Boston's pre-pandemic building boom. Residential buildings were a driver, too — and they’re also getting a rethink.
“Especially as we’ve been spending a lot more time in our homes, you can imagine we start to notice some things we didn’t before — to crave certain things,” said Greg Minott, managing principal at Boston’s DREAM Collaborative and the 2021 president of the Boston Society for Architecture.
At 2147 Washington Street, an artist live/work community in Boston's Nubian Square, Minott and his colleagues are responding to what they see as an increased appetite for fresh air and open space with a central interior courtyard that’s open not just to tenants, but also to the public at large.
“Given what we’ve just gone through, folks that live in that building … but also anyone from the neighborhood could come to that courtyard and enjoy it, and have distance between themselves and others, and fresh air and daylight,” Minott said. “Quite frankly, even socially distanced, [they can] be around other people, which is incredibly important.”
Inside residential buildings, though, the recent vogue for big, shared spaces where people gather when they leave their private residences may be over.
Even before COVID-19, said interior designer Lindsay Bach of Cambridge’s Prellwitz Chilinski Associates, “at the large, communal table, once one person was there, nobody wanted to sit there.”
She anticipates a new push to create smaller, private spaces inside those interior common areas, capable of being disassembled and reassembled throughout the day. As Bach puts it, that could yield “coworking [spaces] by day — and then open it up, and it’s dining by night. Having that constant adaptability and evolution in a space is critical at this point."
COVID-19 may also end up reshaping basic assumption about schools, according to Laura Wernick, senior principal at HMFH Architects in Cambridge — especially after individual schools’ strengths and weaknesses impacted the ability of students to learn in person during the pandemic.
“Many of the schools that are suffering most in communities where COVID has been hitting hardest are also the places where the schools are oldest, or in the poorest condition,” Wernick said.
“I think there’s a greater awareness of the role the school plays within the community,” she added. “We’ve seen, during COVID, that schools are operating as food distribution centers, sometimes as technology distribution centers, emergency shelters, heating and cooling centers. So I think and I hope that there’s a greater awareness of how important the school is as a centerpiece for our communities, and really as a … piece of infrastructure.”
Other significant shifts may also be in store. If commuters balk at taking public transit, building near the “T” might cease to be the no-brainer it once was. And if enough people keep working from home, some empty office might end up being converted into housing. And at restaurants, walk-up windows and outdoor dining could be here to stay.
"Even just restaurants...we've gone to a totally different place," said Lauren Shurtleff, the BPDA’s director of planning. "We always thought we were like Montreal, this freezing cold winter city. [But] I know plenty of people that were perfectly comfortable sitting outside on the sidewalk, and it really activated the city in a different way."
Shurtleff suggests one significant caveatt: Given the long lead time involved in new development projects, it may take months — or even years — before we learn how many basic architectural and design assumptions were upended by the pandemic.
“It just takes a long time for innovation from an idea to actually bear itself out in a drawing or a plan,” she said.
Still, Shurtleff added, "We’re totally going to be there, and it’s going to be an exciting time for our practice — to kind of watch and see how we all come out of this better, more efficient, greener, healthier. Somebody’s going to do all that, and it’s probably going to be pretty soon.”