The COVID-19 pandemic has shined an intense spotlight on the design of our cities, and has subsequently emphasized areas in which design is lacking. When citizens are unable to congregate indoors or utilize public transportation, we begin to uncover pain points that were previously overlooked within our cities. Though the pandemic has been challenging, it does provide an opportunity. If ever there was a time to implement transformative, innovative concepts and plans to reshape our cities, it is now.
Aptly, many city leaders are doing exactly that. In Paris, city officials are removing large swaths of parking spaces to rapidly accommodate outdoor dining and expand bicycle infrastructure. The city of Oakland recently announced 74 miles of “slow streets,” open only to local traffic. Additionally, the city of Seattle has shut down 20 miles of streets to all traffic, and has converted several greenways into walking and biking paths.
While it is encouraging to witness cities seize the current situation by putting plans in action, which would typically take ages to implement in a status quo environment, these initiatives only represent a portion of the equation. The pandemic also has the ability to serve as a catalyst for change among multifamily developers, who now have the opportunity to make bold changes in apartment building designs.
Transforming Our Indoor Space
The same pandemic spotlight that has illuminated the shortcomings of our cities’ public areas, has also revealed the limitations of the status quo in our homes and indoor spaces. While mayors and city councils have rapidly modified public spaces, based on evidence and programs developed by urbanists and public policy experts, most of the changes that we have seen implemented in indoor spaces have been executed as hastily-arranged, temporary solutions, such as stickers on the floor to encourage social distancing, plexiglass partitions and improvised workspaces at home. But these changes do not provide solutions to long-term problems, such as the need for added personal space to accommodate the drastic increase in professionals working from home.
Long before the pandemic, multifamily developers throughout US cities were faced with a challenging environment; characterized by a scarcity of vacant land and compounded by restrictions on density and high construction costs. For a sector in which the yield on investments has been getting tighter – multifamily cap rates have fallen from about 6% to 5.5% throughout the past four years, according to Real Capital Analytics – it is not financially feasible to simply build larger spaces in order to meet the increased demand for personal space.
Utilizing smart space solutions to create adaptable and flexible living spaces will serve as a necessary ingredient in preparing our cities for what the next half-century will bring. By harnessing new technologies that achieve these goals, we can make cities more accessible, inclusive, affordable and vibrant—in short, more livable.
Multi-functionality within a space is a longstanding concept that has gained additional traction in recent years. Though murphy beds and moveable air walls have been around for decades, the popularity of “tiny houses” on social media alone points to a desire people have for living large in a small space.
However, some major issues have prevented these alternative solutions from becoming more widespread. For one, they are often not scalable solutions. Architects may design a beautiful tiny home with custom, creative storage solutions that are difficult to replicate in different environments. Separately, murphy beds and airwalls have met resistance because they require too much daily effort; the cognitive load required to transform the space several times a day leads most people to leave their bed out at all times and accept the limitations.
In contrast, the reason cities have been able to quickly make the radical changes like we’ve seen in Paris, Oakland or Seattle is precisely because it avoids these two complications. The implemented changes are scalable solutions that can be quickly deployed without major construction and can be easily utilized and enjoyed by residents.
To rapidly meet the new demands that renters are placing on living spaces, similar scalable and easily deployable solutions are required. Emerging innovations in smart technology for the home are meeting exactly these challenges by automating the choreography of spaces so that we’re not required to lift a finger. These solutions are beginning to be produced at scale and deployed quickly and efficiently within multifamily buildings across the country. Most importantly, data prominently shows that these new smart space solutions deliver a significantly improved user experience. As the category of smart spaces — where technology enables the transformation of interior space — continues to develop, new ideas and products must be designed to optimize scalability, efficient deployment and convenience if they are to meet the needs of diverse environments and dynamic lifestyles.
Moments of crisis — such as the one the world finds itself in today — can be catalysts for change. This disruption in our lives, as challenging as it has been and continues to be, provides the opportunity to accelerate the adoption of disruptive solutions that will prepare our cities for 2030 and beyond, both outdoors and indoors.