Designing office spaces with COVID-19 in mind

Ioannis Pashakis//March 24, 2021

Designing office spaces with COVID-19 in mind

Ioannis Pashakis//March 24, 2021

Commercial real estate projects have returned for architectural and design firms but they look different as businesses design office spaces with COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses in mind.

Like most real estate firms, York-based architectural firm Mulá Group’s business slowed considerably in early 2020 as its clients paused projects and surveyed the damage caused by the pandemic.

Today the firm has seen a lot of those clients return, many of whom want to make permanent changes to protect their staff and clients from COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

Those businesses are incorporating UV lighting, air filtration, glass barriers and social distancing into their floor plans.

“It’s been all commercial design changes,” said Madelyn Wolfe, administrative coordinator at Mulá. “Some people do have the thought that in a couple months it’ll be different but other clients are preparing for a permanent change.”

Social distancing space has been a big topic of conversation among Mulá’s clients, with businesses looking to create social distancing space in break rooms, restrooms, locker rooms and more, according to Wolfe.

Along with designing social distancing spaces in their client’s facilities, Mulá has been asked to use UV lighting in its designs, which allows the facility to turn off its normal bulbs and turn on the UV lights at the end of the work day to help sterilize the rooms.

HVAC and other additional filtration systems have also been a much more common topic of consideration, said Wolfe.

“Clients are more frequently asking for systems that remove viruses and particles from a room,” she said. “It has to be designed in a way that allows the air to go through.”

At Mowery Construction in Mechanicsburg, Bill Sutton, vice president of customer experience has seen similar trends with the firm’s clients. Mowery is currently creating Members 1st’s new headquarters in Hampden Township, consolidating several separate offices into one building.

Sutton said that his clients have also leaned into a larger focus on cleaning the air and minimizing airborne hazards in their offices and added that the largest focus he has seen with post-COVID office spaces has been a desire for improved flexibility.

Mowery hasn’t necessarily seen a decline in clients from the pandemic but instead is seeing companies reevaluate what office space they will need as they now bring remote work schedules into the mix.

“I believe most companies have learned about flexible and remote work schedules which has now complicated their decision making about new office space,” he said. “Inevitably, the companies that are thriving will need more office space and more flexible space.”

Sutton suggests that offices should have a mix of spaces for staff to use such as smaller phone rooms for sensitive conversations, small and large conference rooms and large community areas, highlighting the flexible space mantra that many companies seem to be making.

Mowery itself is planning a new office space and Sutton said that in designing the new space, the firm is focused on technology and flexibility.

“We want to afford our employees the flexibility to come and go with seamless interfaces with technology and their co-workers whether they are at home, in the office or on the jobsite,” he said.

However, the changes to facilities seen by some firms are not universal, according to Jill Rohrbaugh, a Principal at Hanover-based Architecture Workshop.

Architecture Workshop has been busy helping their clients in education and manufacturing make accommodations and expansions to coincide with COVID-19, but has yet to see all of their clients future proof their incoming spaces.

“We haven’t had anyone come to us and say that ‘I want a pandemic free, cleanable office,’” she said. “Many haven’t yet thought of this as a forever thing.”