More Lessons From Covid-19: We Will Be Living in a Hybrid World

One foot in the real world, one foot in the virtual, and everything will be flexible and adaptable.

planning your home

American Standard

Each winter I teach Sustainable Design to students in the Faculty of Arts and Communication at Ryerson University, mostly students from the Ryerson School of Interior Design. This is a synopsis of my lecture on Design Lessons from Covid-19, some of which summarizes other posts on Treehugger.

The teaching this year has been entirely virtual, and for the traditional lecture-style course – where an old white guy like me stands in front of the class and just talks – I suspect that the pandemic has been an extinction event, that it is changed forever.

Student presentation
Student Presentation

In many ways, it has been a wonderful experience; every week I am able to bring in guest speakers from around the world. Students pipe in from Copenhagen, Bali, and Beijing. About twice as many students actually show up as did in the IRL class, and they ask ten times as many questions through the chat function as they ever did in lectures. The work they have been producing in the form of short presentations is high quality.

However, they are all under great stress, are having a terrible time meeting deadlines as their Zoomed studio courses are exhausting, and they are missing all of the other things that make University such an important experience. That's why it is likely that students will be returning to the campus for social interaction and studio courses, but the classic lecture to hundreds of students may well stay virtual. We will be living in a hybrid world, with one foot in the real and the other in the virtual.

The Healthy, Hybrid Home

Open the window!
CDC says: Open the window!. CDC

Last year when COVID-19 sent us all home, the advice from the epidemiological and medical community was that the virus was mostly transmitted by droplets that settled on surfaces. This started the six-foot separation panic, the plastic screens, the non-stop disinfecting, and the endless handwashing.

Engineers and who studied how air actually moves in buildings started complaining in about April that this was not how things worked in real life, but it took until January 2021 before the Center for Disease Control finally acknowledged the evidence that the disease is transmitted as an aerosol, that it travels very much like cigarette smoke that you can smell in a room a lot further away than six feet, and that the solution to COVID pollution is dilution, through much more aggressive mechanical and natural ventilation and filtering. Carbon dioxide levels were recognized as a proxy measurement of fresh air.

Bremer plan
Aymar Embury II

This changed design priorities significantly; I am less obsessed with sinks in the hall than I was a year ago, and more concerned about ventilation. A hundred years ago before air conditioning (and when people slept with the windows open all year round) every room had windows in opposite corners to promote cross-ventilation; we should bring this back, and also insist on a proper mechanical ventilation system with good MERV13 filters in an easily accessible location, and a heat recovery ventilator.

rear of units
Maxime Brouillet via V2COM

In multifamily housing and apartments, we should be learning from Montreal and doing more exterior walkways, and more missing middle housing instead of high-rise.

working class
From "Light, Air and Openness"

But the real issue is going to be how the home actually functions in what is going to be our new hybrid lifestyle, with so many people working from home much of the time. Today we are living much like they did in apartments in the 1930s, with everyone crammed into the kitchen, thanks to the open plan and the eat-in kitchen.

How to get crumbs in your keyboard
How to get crumbs in your keyboard and ruin your Mac. Stock photo/ Getty Images

Really, how different is the 1930 photo from the stock photo here, other than the newspaper is changed into a computer. It's likely that people are going to need a bit more space, and that all of it should be multifunctional and transformable. People will need a decent place to work with a Zoomable background, and the kitchen counter isn't it. As architect Eleanor Joliffe noted in an earlier post on design trends for 2021:

"Being at home for increased periods has given us all times when we wish to curl up in peace and quiet – cocooned from the realities of the world unfolding outside the front door. This, alongside the acoustic benefits of closing a door between you and a partner/housemate on a Zoom call, may lead to a change in the way we subdivide space and reduce the popularity of fully open-plan living. To attempt to crowbar my natural optimism into a trying year, perhaps we will come out of this with better homes and a better quality of living."

The Healthy, Hybrid Office

Lloyds Coffee House

Bettman Archives/ Getty Images

Back in 2010, Seth Godin wrote in Goodbye to the Office:

"If we were starting this whole office thing today, it's inconceivable we'd pay the rent/time/commuting cost to get what we get. I think in ten years the TV show 'The Office' will be seen as a quaint antique. When you need to have a meeting, have a meeting. When you need to collaborate, collaborate. The rest of the time, do the work, wherever you like."

The first famous collaborative office was Edward Lloyd's Coffee Shop, where people would come and buy and sell insurance on shipping. It grew into the offices of Lloyd's of London. Today, the office is turning back into a coffee shop, a place where you go to have meetings; the rest of the time, people might be working at home or in local co-working spaces or satellite offices, to keep the office population density lower and to reduce accommodation costs.

This is the new "hybrid office"; Jena McGregor writes in the Washington Post about how workers will spend at least a few days a week in the office, but it will be different:

"New videoconferencing technology will be added to help in-person and remote workers feel as if they’re on a level playing field. Managers will undergo extensive training to fight against the instinct to give workers in the office preferential treatment. Logistics will be coordinated to ensure those who go into the office don’t get there and find the building empty, perhaps by setting core hours or days for on-site work."

Going hybrid can reduce a company's carbon footprint significantly, although Watershed, a new company that measures this, notes that this is really shifting the carbon and taking it off the company's books, much as it is doing when it shifts workers' desks to their homes. If people pack up and move to the suburbs, it can make things even worse.

"Research shows that suburban households emit 25% more carbon than urban ones, thanks to bigger homes and more driving. If a shift to remote work encourages people to move from cities to suburbs, total global emissions could increase even as company carbon inventories fall. Policies that encourage low-carbon living (like more generous reimbursements for public transit than parking) can prevent this shift."

The healthy hybrid office will likely have more room per person, better ventilation, bigger bathrooms, and be mostly meeting rooms that are really well equipped to make remote workers feel like part of the gang. We may well do our meetings on Zoom right from the conference room so that everyone is up on the Zoom grid, or have individual cameras built into the conference table. It won't just be a speakerphone in the middle of the table.

The Healthy, Hybrid Neighborhood

15-minute city
15-minute city.  Paris en Commun

An article in the Financial Times noted that a "permanent move to hybrid working, in which office workers operate much of the time from home, could lead to widespread failures of service businesses in city centres, such as coffee shops and newsagents." This is probably true, but people still likely want a magazine and to get out of the house for a coffee. It's likely that they might all move up to the neighborhoods where the workers live, revitalizing, re-energizing, and reinventing them as a true 15-minute city where you can get everything you need within a few blocks. Sharon Wood of Public Square paints a vision of it:

"There will be a growing demand and need to integrate creative work spaces into the public realm. Imagine pop-up offices, meeting pods, and technology centers linked to town squares. They will be anchored not by department stores, but rather by traditional institutions like colleges, county seats, city halls, libraries, post offices, and medical centers. Complementary services will cluster nearby and within easy walking distance, including copying and printing centers, office supply stores, shipping services, attorney/title companies, banking centers, fitness centers, and plenty of restaurants, eateries, and cafes."
Locaal coworking space
In the future, your office might look like this coworking space in Toronto. Locaal / Scott Norsworthy Photography 

Many of those abandoned and empty storefronts might become co-working spaces, much like Lokaal, around the corner from where I live. I wrote earlier:

"It may well be that there will be a glamorous head office in downtown somewhere, the hub, but there may also be spokes all over the place in local neighborhoods. At the end of those spokes, there might be many versions of Locaal, where you can walk out the door at lunchtime and hit the gym or the restaurant just like you do downtown, except it might actually not be part of some giant chain. It might actually be quite nice, and a lot more sustainable."
Montreal bike lane
Montreal Bike Lane. Lloyd Alter

With fewer people commuting by car to downtown, it might free up room to build proper separated bike lanes as they do in Montreal, even on streets where it doesn't look like they need them.

Lexington Avenue
Lexington Avenue. John Massengale

Architect John Massengale shows the difference in a hundred years at Lexington and 89th Street in New York City, where they stripped off the stoops, filled in the light wells, widened the streets and later made them one-way. He writes:

"Perhaps the owners of the houses got in their cars and drove out to find new homes in the suburbs. That’s what many New Yorkers did when the city converted Manhattan’s wide, numbered avenues like Third Avenue into one-way arterials. Urban designers call these 'auto sewers,' because they make it easier for traffic to flow in and out of the city – until all the suburbanites driving in clog the roads with what is known as 'induced' traffic. And no one wants to live on a clogged auto sewer."

These kinds of things can be undone. As Massengale notes: "We need city streets for people, beautiful streets where people want to get out of their cars and walk." Not just walk, but shop, dine and even work.

This is the ideal of the 15-minute, healthy hybrid city. It is one of the opportunities we have to change the way we live and work in a new, healthy, hybrid lifestyle.

View Article Sources
  1. Jones, Christopher, and Daniel M. Kammen. "Spatial Distribution of U.S. Household Carbon Footprints Reveals Suburbanization Undermines Greenhouse Gas Benefits of Urban Population Density." Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 48, no. 2, 2014, pp. 895-902, doi:10.1021/es4034364