‘Shape-Shifting:’ Key Changes in Design

"COVID-19 is prompting a shift in the design of homes that better support our current needs, as well as those of the future.”

authors Mary Jo Peterson | September 24, 2020

We’ve all experienced the recent shift to our homes becoming the site of nearly every facet of modern-day life: work, school, personal, social, gym, infirmary, isolation space and whatever else. It stands to reason that this COVID-19-related trend is prompting a change of direction in the design of homes that better support our current needs, as well as those of the future.

Multiple experts in the architectural world are suggesting that the open plan we’ve embraced for so long may need to be rethought to provide separation of the various people and activities occupying our homes simultaneously. Our need to connect to nature and expand our living and space to the outdoors has also intensified. While everyone is talking in macro terms, it seems that a look at how this is impacting the design of kitchens, bathrooms and their adjacent spaces is worth considering.

The acronym WFH (working from home) is probably at the top of the list of life changes putting pressure on today’s notion of home. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, WFH occupied a place in the current lexicon, with those able to work from home comprising an estimated 29% of the workforce. That number, as of mid-summer, had risen to about 42%, and major employers are looking to WFH as a permanent cultural shift.

One interesting aspect of this is that not all of us want to work from home. Many people miss the social stimulus of a group setting and, on a more basic level, appreciate the private and quiet “thinking zone” that a space away from home can offer, particularly when home includes young and lively family members, or little space for office work and related storage. In addition, the technology and support services at home are typically not what they are at the office, and while the corporate world is offering stipends to get the WFH space up to needed technology levels, it has yet to support the redesign or addition of space. Although not yet a recognized acronym, “school from home” puts added pressure on the existing spaces of the home.

Beyond working from home, provisions for personal fitness are high on the list of needs, as is a flex space that can serve as a medical isolation area, as well as increased pantry and other storage to allow for stockpiling of food and supplies due to potential shortages and a desire to reduce deliveries. With limited opportunity to safely dine out or even take-out, our kitchen becomes – more than ever – a hard-used and much-needed space, and our bath spaces, spa-like or simple, become that desperately needed “away” space where family members can escape to.

Design Ideas & Approaches

Based on feedback from design professionals and local remodeling statistics, some of the same things show up on most wish lists. First, there are attributes that have to do with “attitude,” or the mental health of the home and its residents. Beyond the coziness or comfort that make a house a home (what the Danish refer to as “hygge”) we’re now also longing for space in the home that supports what the Dutch call “niksen,” or the ability to be still and do nothing, as a means to relieve stress.

Specific to layout and design, there’s a surge in demand for easy ways to maintain a safe and hygienic home, for more light and space or a sense of the same, more space for cooking and related storage, and incorporating the outdoors. Of course, there’s also the need for providing for home office and school activities, privacy and sound control, an exercise space and separation of social and quiet spaces.

A review of the wish lists provides us with some givens in terms of updating our kitchen and bath designs, as well as opportunities for new, related spaces to grow our projects. What follows are some of the ways we might do that.

Refining open plans. Although our love affair with open plans is not likely to disappear, there are ways to refine them with the addition of partitions, sliding doors or robotic walls, or by supplementing them with additional space where quiet, focused activities can be supported. This means not just separating visually, but also considering acoustics. Sound-deadening construction of the walls and the use of sound-absorbing materials can go a long way towards successful quiet spots, and technology can further that success.

Integrating nature. Integration of some of the elements of nature, water, fire and light, as well as the use of natural materials, will help create a desired connection to outdoors and nature, but nothing accomplishes that connection like the addition of windows or doors to increase natural light. Smart-home technology that increases touchless control and operation of home systems and fittings improves hygiene and independent access, but only when it’s easy to use.

Biophilic design. While biophilic design is not new in the kitchen and bath, our experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a spike in our craving for food and shelter to be as close to nature as possible, in order to contribute to household health. Green living walls, indoor gardening and the resurgence of outdoor gardens have all increased in demand, tied to an effort to reduce stress, improve indoor air quality and create a “farm-to-table” experience at home. The severe reduction in restaurant dining has increased the appeal of outdoor space for eating and, when possible, for cooking, as it’s also a critical aspect of socializing in open spaces. Kitchens today have the added pressure of supporting the preparation of every meal and storage of everything needed to manage meals, with fewer trips to or from the supply chain. So more than ever, efficient and clever use of every inch of space will be essential.

Bathroom compartmentalization. Because the bathroom must now be used by multiple users more of the time, the European design trend of separating fixtures into separate compartments might be employed. For example, the toileting area and a small lavatory or sink might be located in one enclosed space, another larger vanity with lavatory and grooming area/storage might be in another enclosed space or in multiple dressing areas, and the bath/shower space might be enclosed in a central location that’s easily accessed by various household members. This would provide privacy for two or more users at the same time.

A more compact version includes a bathroom that’s shared by two bedrooms comprised of three separated spaces, with a toilet and vanity area on either side, and each accessible to one of the bedrooms, with a tub and shower area in the center. Again, the separation of fixtures makes it possible for more than one household member to use different stations at the same time and still maintain privacy.

A place to escape to. The sheltering-at-home trend reinforces the need for an “away space,” and increases interest in the bathroom as a spa, personal retreat or sanctuary. Touchless controls of bathing and shower fittings, faucets – and, especially, toilets – address the need for maintaining hygiene and reducing risks related to viral spread. The use of antibacterial and antimicrobial surfaces and finishes addresses the same need. Another adjacent space that’s been made more critical by sheltering at home is the gym, which can be anything from a full studio to a mirror, clear floor space and computerized training program.

New Spaces to Consider

While not new, but very much evolving, the needs for home office and quiet workspaces provide a major opportunity for design professionals.

With the change to full-time use, things like privacy, proper seating, lighting, acoustics and temperature control have become increasingly important. If possible, these spaces should be connected to nature and, if they must serve multiple purposes, consider the fact that the Murphy bed has made a comeback. Concealed storage also makes the space more multi-functional.

An essential addition to the office of today is the virtual meeting room, with attention paid to lighting, the backdrop, privacy and sound. Having this as a standalone space makes it more flexible and available to multiple users for a variety of virtual meetings. As a way to satisfy the growing need for home office/workspace, and guest or infirmary space, there’s also renewed interest in ADU’s (accessory dwelling units) that are prefabricated to custom specifications and can be “installed” in the backyard.

Brand new as a result of our pandemic experience is the disinfecting station. Your clients might desire one at the family entry or the mud room, and this space would include a place to leave packages, outerwear and anything that’s possibly contaminated. There could also be a sink or washing and disinfecting space. The guest disinfecting station might be as simple as a small handwashing and sanitizing sink near the guest entry.

Also new as a standard item, a delivery station could provide a place for packages to be left in “quarantine,” so that items could be delivered with no need for personal contact.

If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud, it may be found in the design and business opportunities being created by the increased use of our homes and the resulting evolution in our priorities for the spaces within them. Hopefully, this look at kitchen, bath and adjacent space design ideas will help you take advantage of the current “shape-shifting” going on in the homes you’re designing.

A personal note: Finally, I want to say thanks and goodbye, as I sign off for the last time as the author of KBDN’s Planning & Design column. After nearly 30 years, I’ve been thinking it might be time for a new voice, and the good folks at KBDN have welcomed me to a new post as a contributing editor. It’s been a great run, and I look forward to expanding the range of subjects I’ll be able to research and report on in my new role. ▪

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