The pandemic is prompting design trends that were once solely the domain of the office


Former Protea cricket captain Graeme Smith was in the middle of a COVID-era press conference – from his home via video link – when his son’s head popped into the frame. ‘Daddy, tie my shoe lace,’ the small boy whispered, and SA’s director of cricket eventually bent down to oblige. Coming back into view visibly flustered, he told the online audience, ‘you can’t hide anywhere in the house; they will find you’.

The pandemic, with its social-distancing regulations, strict hygiene protocols and shift towards work-from-home and online schooling, has made even expansive, architecturally beautiful houses seem in need of a re-design, while the proliferation of online meetings has also offered over-the-shoulder glimpses into the interior design of those we wouldn’t typically see in such an intimate setting.

For example, online participants of an SA investor conference were treated to what looked like Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s thatched home office, where the traditional African art on the wall and tidy stacks of documents distracted from his opening address. Meanwhile Trevor Noah’s followers regularly see the comedian’s favourite spot in his New York apartment, as this is where he now records the Daily Show. He told Variety magazine about ‘the little nook where I read books and play PlayStation and Xbox. This is my Trevor area. So it’s like “welcome to me”, essentially’.

The pandemic has blurred the lines between work and personal life, turning private homes into anything from a broadcasting studio, office, school and crèche to an art studio, restaurant, gym, entertainment area and sometimes even a COVID quarantine ward. Spaces that seemed adequate just more than a year ago, when family members still spent most of the day away from home, are no longer fit for purpose.

‘As the year progressed, we had to come to terms with the fact that the pandemic has become part of our lives, which of course has a direct impact on how we design and live in our homes,’ says Kirsty Ronné, director at Colab Concepts Architects. She shared photos of herself, her husband and three daughters (aged nine, seven and four years) during lockdown, sitting together at a large table working, studying and drawing. In another photo, she’s giving a virtual client presentation while her youngest daughter is building a den under the desk.

‘Our homes have become our sanctuaries and it has motivated me to think about how we use our home differently,’ says Ronné. ‘Personally, I want our home to be a place where we can enjoy each other’s company but also provide places to go to be alone, or work without distraction. In a time where everything is so uncertain, many people are craving to create a place of safety and are investing in creating that, no matter the budget constraints. We’ve found that clients are spending less money on travel and rather choosing to invest in home-entertainment design and in upgrading or renovating their home.’

One key change in post-pandemic design focuses on the entrance or threshold area. ‘It’s possible that entry areas will in future [continue to] be points of de-contamination and temperature testing,’ says architect Robert de Jager, who owns a Cape Town practice that is named after him and focuses on bespoke architecture. ‘The likely physical features will be vestibule-like, where shoes are removed or put on, hands are washed, masks are put on or removed, and goods brought in from outside can be cleared, as sanitary procedures allow,’ he says.

‘In many cultures such a space already exists, such as the genkan in Japan, and locally we also have stoeps and afdakkies. It’s long overdue in South Africa that we ought to be leaving our dirty street shoes at the threshold, in favour of padding around our interior domestic areas in clean socks, pantoffels, or what Germans call Hausschuhe [house shoes].’

As people spend more time at home, they strive to make this space as comfortable, stylish and functional as possible. Adrian Maserow, MD of AMA Architects in Johannesburg, says it’s evident that the design of the post-COVID home in SA has ‘a very strong focus on high-quality finishes and excellent appliances, plus beautifully thought-out spatial flows that are bespoke and aligned to a more thoughtful and informed client expectation’.

He sums up some pandemic design trends (not necessarily in this order). ‘Home theatres, wonderful crockery and cutlery, growing cooking skills, collecting wines and whiskeys, work pods, studios, great beds, places to meditate, quiet corners, touchless technologies, fresh air, garden views, outdoor action, pets, gazebos and seamless and flowing daily routines.’

COVID has also accelerated trends that were already happening within the residential sector prior to the pandemic, says Derick Henstra, executive chairman and co-founder of dhk. ‘Working from home has required spaces to be more flexible and adaptable, but we are also seeing a trend towards more shared spaces and amenities.’

In the US, architects are also noting an increased demand for spatial flexibility. Where previously layouts saw the kitchen, dining and lounge flow into each other, clients now require separable spaces, sometimes with acoustic ‘buffering’ between rooms. Sliding walls can, for example, turn larger areas into separate rooms and allow for more privacy. In the post-pandemic home, flexibility also means multi-use.

‘Spaces need to be able to accommodate and meet the needs of more functions,’ says Ronné. ‘This way the kids’ playroom can be an exercise room as well as a classroom. Many companies are promoting remote working, so the bedroom might be an office, which needs to be more formal and meet the functional and ergonomic needs for working long term. Parents are re-thinking the school system entirely. We have been forced to create a formal school set-up at home for our children. It has become important for these flexible spaces to be well designed and considered, as well as a beautiful space that we want to spend time in.’

To this end, workspaces are being upgraded, as the trend to remote or hybrid working is likely to become a permanent fixture even after the pandemic. ‘We have seen that people are considering building office and school workstations into suitable areas of the homes, and then purchasing the correct operator chairs, instead of using any available chair,’ says Colin Dix-Peek, managing partner at interior design firm Collaboration.

‘Many corporates have instructed us to either design these workplaces, or purchase a loose-standing desk and a chair for their staff who are at home. And then everyone has upgraded their data connectivity, even if their companies have not elected to pay for it; they are doing this on their own accord.’

A dedicated workspace with fast broadband and the right set-up is crucial. As De Jager explains, ‘the connected digital world relies on a monitor and input/output devices, with correct lighting and posture in a separable, acoustically and visually discrete space. The backdrop of visual meetings has become a decor problem apparently best solved for many with props of choice to show influence, group affinities, and emblems of status’.

Yet, he adds, the dimensions of a COVID-era office can vary from ‘a piccolo telephone booth to a colossal hall’. For those in need of a separate office, Boogertman + Partners have come up with a clever solution: a pre-assembled or flat-packed office that can be installed inside a house or outside in a driveway, carport or garden.

The ‘box office’ comes in three ready-made sizes, from a smaller light-weight version for indoor use only (R36 400), to a larger, heavy-weight one that is waterproof, insulated, air conditioned, acoustic and WiFi-enabled, with built-in desk, audio and electronics as well as glazed double doors and a leather chair (R102 400).

Now that work and home life are overlapping, the green-building trend is also gaining traction in home design. ‘Since the pandemic hit, we have observed a shift in focus from commercial sustainability consulting to residential sustainability consulting,’ says Wardah Safi, sustainability consultant at Ecolution.

‘Clients want to improve the spaces they are now occupying for an additional eight hours per day. Various interventions are investigated closely to help conserve and reduce [energy and water] consumption. There has also been a shift in certifications uptake from commercial to more residential typologies.’ She explains that homeowners are incorporating interventions such as ‘more indoor plants for better air quality, external views to the outside, thermal comfort, natural daylight within a space and the like, which has a direct impact on one’s mental health and wellness, and in turn overall productivity and ‘presentness’ within the virtual office’.

COVID has also brought occupant health into the home-design equation when there may be the need to quarantine a family member or care for an infected one. ‘Many homes have, over time, adapted to dread-disease, or viatic care,’ says De Jager. ‘Keeping septic atmospheres, fluids, foods and linens apart from the healthy can be enhanced through design but is a regimen that is best effected with caritas [a charitable attitude]’

On the other hand, there is the need to boost mental well-being, as COVID has raised people’s stress and anxiety levels. ‘Many find that the connection to nature alleviates that anxiety and stress,’ says Safi, who as a result expects an increased use of outdoor spaces in SA homes.

Henstra points out that architects can accommodate mental and physical health via open-air, well-lit and well-ventilated spaces. ‘In addition to having the ability to simply walk outside for fresh air, an indoor-outdoor design and connection to the environment is incredibly important for mental health,’ he says.

‘While previously inside-outside architectural design was a trend, now it is more of a necessity. For home design, this specifically translates to better HVAC systems and a focus on how well we ventilate spaces – this will result in the increased flexibility and agility of being able to open one’s house and encourage the natural movement and travelling of air. There will be a greater emphasis placed on outdoor entertainment areas when socialising in groups.’

Ultimately, SA with its sunshine and warm climate is well positioned for the post-pandemic home where the indoors will flow into the outdoors, and the little ones’ shoelace needs can be more discretely managed.

By Silke Colquhoun
Images: Gallo/Getty Images

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