Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

The past two years have had an impact on the design industry and how customers view their living spaces.

by Tracy Hegg

Maybe COVID-19 will be in the rearview mirror when this publishes. Maybe we’ll be experiencing a new variant or a new wave. (I sure hope not!) No one knows what the future holds, even a month or two out. That’s the nature of pandemics. 

What we do know is that something on this scale will leave us all impacted in some way – personally, professionally, almost certainly both. What lessons have you taken from the past two-plus years? Which ones will stay with you long after your testing kits and masks have been stashed away? A range of industry pros share theirs: 

  • San Diego-based designer Amala Raj Swenson; 
  • Wisconsin-based designer Becky Olkowski;
  • New Jersey-based contractor and board member of the National Remodeling Foundation John Quaregna; 
  • Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery’s Director of Showrooms Caroline Danielson; 
  • Toronto-based Linda Kafka, managing director of livableCanada.com, a trade resource for living in place and organizer of the LivABLE Design Summit.

VIRTUAL EVENTS

When Kafka started planning her first conference in the ‘before times,’ she was challenged with determining how much meeting space she’d need. How many Toronto area professionals would attend? How many colleagues from outside the area would travel in? She was among the leaders in the design accessibility movement in Canada, working on mainstreaming aging and living in place concepts there. “My in-person events went virtual,” she shares about COVID’s impact, but there were silver linings she expects to continue post-pandemic. “Virtual events mean opportunity for global attendees, which supports greater brand awareness to a wider market.” 

She has seen a significant increase in online events, press conferences, Instagram Live programming, video tours and other digital substitutions for face-to-face gatherings across the design industry, and these are likely to continue, she believes. (Don’t you love training without travel?) 

Ferguson developed a successful virtual event for its customer loyalty program, Danielson recalls. “Customers still felt connected and enjoyed a unique experience. When it was safe to begin smaller, in-person events, we did so with safety measures in place.” 

For events with large expo components – like the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show – the imperative is to return to an in-person format; virtual show floors don’t yet have the appeal or functionality of their physical versions. That may evolve in time to hybrid live-virtual blends as the technology improves, but we’re not there yet. 

Bathrooms have taken on more importance as home wellness spaces. — Photo: Brizo

PRACTICE CHANGES

COVID-19 has also impacted the practice of design, particularly with regard to client meetings. “At the height of the pandemic, our employees would only work on interior projects that were non-occupied during working hours,” recalls Quaregna. He continues to have safety protocols in place for staff and customers. “We still have our employees wearing masks and sanitizing,” he notes. Customers, employees and others entering their offices do, too. “I believe that the safety procedures now in place will continue after the pandemic until everyone feels safe around other people. This will take some time,” the contractor predicts. (It is also likely to vary for different individuals. That will require sensitivity to people’s concerns.) 

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 ushered in a new era of consumer behavior,” observes Danielson. “One of the many things we’ve learned is the importance of being flexible and adjusting while remaining responsive.” This has included changes to their showroom operations, she says: “Contactless pick-up and online ordering in our counter locations allowed customers to continue their day-to-day projects while maintaining social distance. These simple solutions remain in effect today and for the foreseeable future because it’s convenient and our customers love it!” 

At the same time, retailers like Ferguson want to bring clients back into their well-equipped spaces. This has required adjustments, too, Danielson observes. With a blend of virtual meetings and showroom appointments in a less populated space, the company has been able to maintain in-person meetings in a safer environment. 

Virtual design has also expanded tremendously since the pandemic began, with some designers practicing entirely online. “I started my business in 2020 as a result of the pandemic,” explains Olkowski. “The idea was to minimize face-to-face interaction through the benefit of eDesign practices.” This allowed her and her clients to work closely together, but at a safe physical difference. 

To take advantage of the latest technology, Olkowski has homeowners view their projects through headsets. “You can completely immerse your client with virtual reality, showing them exactly what their remodel could look and feel like. I expect the technologies of VR and AR (augmented reality) to continue post pandemic and not just be a trend,” she offers.

Olkowski also predicts a continuing role for virtual design post-pandemic. She counts its advantages beyond the safety of distance, including “quicker turnaround time, minimal overhead costs, and better communication between those involved in a project using the advanced technology and tools that have emerged in the last couple of years.”

Kafka agrees: “Trades are having to change their business model and are offering new services relating to e-design.” She also hears from firm leaders “complaining that their staff is not making as much of an effort to find new products. It’s easier now to just rely on online specifying instead of going out to look at products.” That can certainly prove problematic; as anyone who has worked with computers for any length of time knows, you cannot depend on screens to truly represent finishes. 

Many designers are practicing a local/online hybrid business, building on client and vendor relationships they already enjoy and expanding their offerings with long distance virtual services. “I have been able to take jobs further away thanks to technology, and it’s something I would like to continue to do to expand my business as time goes on,” Swenson shares. She has also been able to migrate some local meetings and presentations online. That’s a huge potential time saver, especially in spread-out, high traffic regions. 

Clients started creating new home entertaining features. — Photo: Chelsea Mudlo
2020’s great toilet paper shortage inspired a bidet toilet and seat sales surge. — Photo: Amala Raj Swenson

KITCHEN TRENDS

Technology has become a mainstay in client homes, too. This will continue – and increase – post-pandemic, sources agree, for the convenience, accessibility and wellness benefits many began to explore while keeping themselves and their loved ones safe at home. “I’ve recommended voice-activated faucets, smart window shades, smart light bulbs, and smart appliances with integrated apps that allow you to monitor and control through a mobile device,” Olkowski notes. 

“Keeping germs out of the home is on everyone’s mind, not just our homeowners working in the medical field,” observes Danielson. “Whereas at first, hands-free and voice-activated technology in the house was seen as a luxury and reserved for the tech savvy, individuals living with physical limitations or are aging in place, now it is becoming much more commonplace,” she adds. She also sees this trend continuing post-pandemic, reflecting on vendors: “Manufacturers knew that they needed to continue to push the boundaries with the incorporation of smart technology that could multi-task to increase functionality, improve sanitation, safety and more.”

The Ferguson executive has also seen a strong trend in easy design customization, which she expects to continue post-pandemic. “Homeowners are tailoring their spaces to their tastes after spending 24 months at home and learning their exact wants.” This includes appliance panels, apron sink fronts, faucets and lighting, all without remodeling. 

COVID has also changed how people shop, seeking to minimize visits to the store. “Customers are asking for larger pantries, refrigerators and freezers to store additional food and supplies and larger islands for storage,” Quaregna comments, adding, “I expect the trend to continue. Once people get used to having more storage room, that’s something they don’t want to reverse.”

Changes in cooking have also emerged during the pandemic. Kafka anticipates growth in connected appliances, emerging sensor technologies to detect food safety and allergen issues and multi-tasking appliances like combi-steam ovens and flexible fridge-freezer drawers. 

Swenson has seen clients start to do more entertaining at home, she says, and incorporate features into their kitchens and adjacent areas to facilitate that. “I think once customers see the benefits and luxury of having access to home bars and coffee stations, it becomes a standard for them.” 

BATHROOM TRENDS

The first sign that COVID might impact bathroom trends was the great toilet paper shortage of early 2020, which made bidets a top search and sales surge in the months and year that followed. All the major brands have seen significant growth in this category, even after rolls began reappearing on store shelves. “I recommend bidets for all my clients. The benefits of having a heated seat and overall cleanliness boost is life changing!” declares Swenson.  

Another trend the designer is seeing is an increase in steam shower requests, which she also expects to continue post-pandemic. “This is especially true of clients who have shifted away from a traditional gym environment and want to bring some of what they miss home with them,” the designer notes. 

Part of this COVID-inspired wellness trend is enhanced bathroom lighting. “More homeowners are starting to integrate automation into their homes using simple systems that work with their smartphones and tablets,” Danielson says. Circadian lighting, which blends wellness and technology, is expected to experience double-digit global growth in the next six years.

LAST WORDS

One of the most widespread trends connected to the pandemic is a strong surge in home remodeling that is expected to continue in 2022, both in kitchens and baths and beyond. Danielson is seeing appliances move into outdoor living areas, home offices and enhanced mudrooms. Contractor Quaregna observes, “We have seen many more people upgrading their homes the last two years. People are using the money they are saving since the pandemic to live a better life.” I’m completely sure that we all deserve one of those, regardless of our remodeling plans! ▪

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