Architects are not the only ones obsessing about learning spaces and working spaces

A friend of mine passed me a copy of Architects Journal this week which has some interesting observations on life, and valuable insights into how schools and offices will operate when they re-open.

The Architects Journal: Adaptation + Workplace, 21 May 2020.

“Things architects obsess about are everyone’s obsession now: public space, green space, learning space, working space,” writes editor Emily Booth.

“Where do the bikes go, where do pedestrians go — and why, oh why, have we prioritised polluting cars for so long?” Indeed.

As we think about getting our kids back to school and our feet under an office desk we can look forward to “learning outside” and perhaps a “greener future”. The return to work on the odd day could offer a “more immersive experience” and be “more relaxed, social, collaborative and enjoyable”, she muses.

I must say the thought of mixing with people again makes me very nervous and I’ll be wary of colleagues dropping their guard all too easily having been starved on human contact for so long. Don’t be surprised if I’m a little spiky.

But I perish at the thought of being a teacher. Schools will be expected to keep pupils two metres apart, which means controlling “inquisitive, roaming young children”.

In a news feature, Richard Waite and Will Ing explore what the government guidelines mean for schools and offices.

The guide states that only certain age groups can return to school and that class sizes must be halved and children kept two metres apart.

Helen Roberts, of Tottenham Street-based Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, says that with fewer pupils, keeping primary school children apart is “not so difficult to implement”.

I’m not so sure about that, and neither are the teaching unions and some other architects.

At nearby Charlotte Street, Chris Boyce of Assorted Skills + Talents says: “The only way to beat this virus is not to go back to school and for human contact to be minimised for all of us. We have to get the R rate down to 0.1/0.2 or less.

“The virus needs us — without a host, it dies after only a matter of days. But can we do this with a government set on ensuring we put the most-mobile and least-hygienic group of humans — children — back into the classroom?” he wonders.

“Kids are not predictable and, from my experience over the years (and as a father of five), this issue won’t just be spatial — distancing in class will be impossible to deal with for most schools, as the [National Union of Teachers] has stated already. We just can’t rush this, and children really don’t need to be in school now anyway,” says Boyce.

The government guidelines also pose a challenge to the high-density office spaces most of us are crammed into.

Arjun Kaicker, of Zaha Hadid Architects, says the average density of offices is just 9.6 square metres per person, having shrunk almost 20 percent from 11.8 square metres in 2009.

Kaicker says it is mathematically impossible to maintain two metre social distancing with anything less than around 14 square metres, which means many open plan offices will have to reduce their on-site staff by 30 to 50 percent.

A starting point for most firms is going to be about 20 percent occupancy, says Helen Beresford of Sheppard Robson. Which means that staff would be coming in for one day a week and continuing to work from home for the rest.

Any hot-desk working will mean a regular disinfecting regime, and ventilation is a hot topic of discussion between clients and architects.

Things may never be the same again for office workers. The lockdown has shown that many jobs can be done from home. Meaning there is less travel, less impact on the environment, more time to juggle home responsibilities, and just more time away from unpleasant, crowded transport at the best of times.

The “enormous global experiment in home working” is good for people, and could be good for the planet.