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The Post-Pandemic Landscape of Commercial Design

The COVID-19 pandemic that continues to impact communities across the globe has put a spotlight on the role design plays in creating sanitary spaces and, in this era, in controlling the spread of infectious diseases. While the world has previously experienced widespread virus events, the severity and duration of the current coronavirus pandemic increases the likelihood that future architectural and design trends and policies will be geared toward the goal of preserving individual health and wellness. It’s important to note that designers and scientists are still in the research phase and permanent or drastic changes to the current standards may not be necessary. This article will preview the possible changes in commercial design conventions for the office, healthcare, hotel, and restaurant industries that interior designers who work in those spaces will need to know, and that even those who don’t work directly in these markets should be aware of.


Universal Changes to Commercial Design

There are several innovations that will affect design as a whole, all aimed at limiting individual exposure to viruses and quelling the psychological fears that develop as the result of pandemic events.

  • Cleanable Surfaces: We have previously covered the growing importance of healthy building materials, and that product sector will continue to be an area of focus since anti-microbial and durable materials that can withstand chemical cleaning processes are helpful in eliminating the surface spread of viruses.

  • Cleaning Storage & Accessibility: Establishing sanitary interior spaces is increasingly important, so commercial spaces are increasingly using “fogging” cleaning techniques, which use a vapor spray of bleach-like chemicals that can reach all areas of a space, even hard-to-access corners and cracks. This affects design in the type of materials that need to be used to withstand such procedures, but also the storage needed to house this equipment and built-in outlets to facilitate the process. It is important to note that the EPA recommends using wiping processes instead of fogging; however, several hotel chains, such as Marriott, have made fogging their standard cleaning procedure. Currently, robots and other artificial intelligence products are being developed to make the increased cleaning burden possible for commercial spaces to maintain.

  • Touchless Fixtures: Motion-activated fixtures help in minimizing the surface spread of germs and while they have been available for several years, they will become more widespread for commercial spaces. Fixtures such as faucets, toilets, and lights will be sensor activated. Other processes can be voice activated or employ facial recognition technology.

  • Facilitated Circulation: Improvements in ventilation will play a large role in retrofitting and new design of commercial spaces. While energy efficiency used to be a goal of not only cost savings but environmental sustainability, the new standard will be sprawling spaces with far fewer people per square foot, plus the mandate for higher and more intentional use of HVAC that keeps air circulating at all times. Architects will look to Gensler’s “breathable skin” innovation in exterior construction, as used in the Tower at PNC Plaza project in Pittsburgh.

  • Traffic Flow: More purposeful planning for the flow of users in a space may become increasingly important in design. To start, commercial spaces will likely have fewer doors so as to better control entry. The lobby will become a more important concept, used for temperature checks, booking of contact information for tracing purposes, hand washing and disinfectant stations, and storage for items that include staff PPE, but also visitors’ baggage that can potentially carry viruses into the greater building. Lastly, controlling the direction of circulation will become important, as it helps to maintain the six feet of distance needed to facilitate social distancing.


Changes to Office Spaces

All of the above changes to design conventions will affect office design. After a near-complete shift to open concept and even “hotel” desk policies, where workers can sit wherever they choose at any given time, expect a return to separated spaces and walled offices. Plexiglass be put to increased use in office settings, as it can prevent the spread of germs, is relatively inexpensive and easy to clean, and still lets you see the faces of the people you work with.


Innovations in Hospital Design

Hospitals are likely to adopt some significant structural changes to limit the spread of airborne infections to their patients, like the following:

  • Negative-Pressure Spaces: Going forward, hospitals will include more negative-pressure spaces, which keep contaminated air from spreading. Not only will Emergency Rooms transform from their current open space into smaller, negative pressure spaces, isolation rooms of the same type will be built to separate patients suffering from severe infectious disease.

  • HEPA Filtration Systems: These have traditionally been reserved for surgical operating rooms, but are likely now to be installed in other areas of hospitals, such as intensive care or critical care units, in order to help with infection control. Since flexibility is needed as pandemics come and go, architects can design removable sections in patient room windows so that they can quickly accommodate through-wall exhaust fans, which is a quick substitution for a full HEPA filtration system.

  • Cleaning Robots: Strange as it may sound, robots that project UV rays to decontaminate rooms are already being used in operating rooms, but may be used in more areas. The proliferation of this technology will require the necessary outlets and other technological integrations needed to support the generation of UV rays.

Hotel Transformations

Some of the same features in offices and other commercial spaces will also be used more extensively in hotels to limit airflow and the spread of germs between guests and hotel staff.

  • Plexiglass: Plexiglass will likely be used to separate between staff and guests.
  • Self Check-In Kiosks: While in the past these had been mainly used in economy hotel settings and shied away from for luxury hospitality experiences, they will likely become more universally accepted. Capacity limits at amenities and the elimination of valet will also require reservation infrastructure.

  • Outdoor Spaces: Conceptually, there will be a pivot from a focus on interior to exterior spaces, with nature, sunlight, and fresh air becoming design and aesthetic priorities. Future hotel rooms may include features such as open air interior courtyards.

Restaurants of the New Era

Restaurants are likely to be among the most-affected commercial spaces coming out of the pandemic, as big changes are made to protect staff.

  • Uniform Protection: PPE for waitstaff will likely continue to be required by law, and going forward, restaurants can incorporate PPE into uniform design.

  • Contact-Free Ordering & Payment: Contactless payments and menus accessed by QR code will be much more commonplace in order to limit human touch and possible virus spread.

  • Separated Tables: Just like offices, restaurants will need to maintain greater space between tables and people seated at the bar, plus distance from the patrons and the bartender. Again, plexiglass will play a role, and higher-end restaurants will employ real glass to create divisions, providing a design opportunity. Much more outdoor dining will need to be available year round, and there will be a greater focus on flexible interior to exterior spaces to take advantage of fresh air as much as weather conditions permit. One restaurant in Amsterdam has set an innovative example of building small greenhouses for individual tables, providing truly separated spaces.


Needless to say, we are living in strange times without modern precedent. It’s hard to know exactly what the long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic will be, but it’s likely that many of the above changes will come to fruition. The makeshift reactions to combat this crisis are providing a research lab for workable solutions. As time continues to pass, experts are able to develop new, science-backed innovations that will continue to shape the design of the future. While this article touches on the future of many aspects of commercial design, Design Manager will continue to follow this evolving shift.


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Margot LaScala
Margot LaScala
Margot is a writer and interior designer based in the NYC area. She is passionate about keeping up with the latest architecture and design news to not only stay informed, but inspired.

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