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Placing wellbeing at the center of design

Article-Placing wellbeing at the center of design

Daniel Hajjar
Daniel Hajjar, Managing Principal at HOK, global design and architecture firm, shares his insights on the impact, response, and predictions for the architecture profession post COVID 19.

How has your firm been impacted by the current climate?

It is inevitable during a crisis that something has to change, across the field of architecture we are seeing certain sectors slow down, notably commercial real estate and offices. Conversely, we are seeing growth and investment in other areas such as healthcare, science and research as well as interiors. Many clients are exploring how to reconfigure their spaces. As an architect you have to be an optimist, we are confident the firm will be in a good position coming out of this. The real issue is what will the economy be doing on a global level.


How has your firm responded to these challenges?

As a firm we were founded on the basis of diversity of sectors and geography. That range of diversity has allowed us to adapt and shift our focus and resources to maintain stability. Although arguably most of the world was not ready for this, we as a profession, and certainly as a firm are used to working virtually.


Our profession has gone through peaks and valleys in the past, but currently staff and team members are looking to be supported. We are committed to creating an environment and policies where our team can perform at their best. A huge part of that is understanding what will be the mental well-being impact and how can we ensure our teams are mentally healthy? We as a practice have looked at optimum performance and strive to understand what individuals need both on a professional and personal level in order to thrive. We work with a third-party service provider to support us with this, we issue a newsletter every month on wellbeing and generally try to make people aware that we are all facing the same challenges and they are not alone.


We are seeing that people are now reaching a point where they would like to engage with colleagues and clients, but there is a resistance driven by fear. One thing we have tried to do to for the team is to have a clear policy that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable to come to the office, we will respect their wishes. Adopting small but significant stances during this time helps employees feel reassured. The key priority is everyone’s health and safety.


What has been the greater impact of the current pandemic on the field as a whole?

It is yet to surface, but from what we have seen so far, I predict there will be greater flexibility on how firms work. Everyone has been forced to adjust and go virtual, we will see a greater acceptance in how work gets delivered. The challenging thing with architecture is that we rely and thrive on creative energy and the buzz of our environment. I predict we will start seeing creative solutions developed to balance the need for flexible working with the demand for portable and intuitive creative environments.


How do you predict architects will change the way they design physical space and cities?

In terms of the office landscape, there is an interesting paradox, because on the one hand there is a need for social distancing in existing offices, clients and businesses are looking at what they have and doing their best to make changes and adjustment to existing infrastructure and spaces. On the other hand, we are seeing less requirement for people to physically be in the office and organisations are looking at ways to creatively reduce and use less space.


For urban and public realm, there is a big surge of people using bicycles, I think new developments will have a different level of conciseness, in terms of bicycle lanes and fitness lanes.


In regard to public spaces, I think it is complex in terms of designing the optimum space. It goes against human nature to design public spaces for social distancing. However, what we might start to see is more open spaces, more flexible planting and seating arrangements. Open spaces with more dynamism and the ability to respond to different cultural and societal requirements.


What impact will the current pandemic have on new design and development, is there such a thing as an ideal city design?

No, there is no such thing as an ideal design. However, no matter what city someone lives in, even a brand-new city people tend to want three fundamental things; to be safe, a healthy environment and to easily avail services and green space with minimum energy.


When you look at the neighbourhood parks, that were designed in Victorian and Georgian squares, they serve an amazing function, the building themselves are zero-lot-line but they have parks right in front of them. We will probably begin seeing a lot more of those elements in future designs.


Going forward consumers will have much more consciousness in relation to what they buy. Take Dubai for example, there is a terrific breadth of choice for all consumers. Also, zoning regulations will probably change, there will have to be an element of affordable housing into future developments.


Given the way things have evolved, I predict we will see much more flexibility in planning. Dubai as a city has done remarkably well in trying to do that. That is the beauty of cities, they evolve and grow as a response to different environments. Even in early Dubai developments you still have this acknowledgement of public realm and spaces for people to congregate.


From the outbreak of this pandemic, what do you think the biggest takeaway has been for this generation of architects?

When you look at great cities of the world, they are not homogeneous. People from all walks of life come together to make a city happen. I think going forward one thing that might and should come out of this is creating and designing cities where peoples’ wellbeing is at the center of the entire design. If we as a profession cannot make environments that encourage wellbeing, healthy environments I am not sure who else can.

Photo credit: Agnese Sanvito, Commercial Interior Design
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