The coronavirus will transform the design industry, design practice and designers alike, but perhaps none are more equipped to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.

“There will be this incredible wave of reinterpreting built-space,” predicts Simone Oliver, Principal of Architectus, one of Australia’s leading interiors, architecture and planning studios.

“Taking [designers and interior architects’] great skills of being able to look very closely at the needs of human beings and to design accordingly, to make life a better place for people will be absolutely critical,” she says.

The designer joined an industry panel with UNSW alumni and other leading practitioners discussing the future of interior architecture in a post-pandemic world.

The future of the workplace

For Ms Oliver, the success of working from home will mean reassessing the role of the office

“I think that it’s important to – at this point in time – to keep a very, very open mind as to where work will be found and the kinds of work that will be done,” she says. “I also think [we will] reinterpret … suburban life and what it is to work from home.” 

Keith Dougal, Senior Associate with Studio Nine Architects, a boutique Adelaide-based studio, says the viability of workplace-based work is in question. 

“The biggest question for me, and it has been for a long time from a workplace point of view particularly, is why would you go to a building in the first place, with the kind of realisation of the last few weeks that people can really work anywhere, anytime,” he says. 

“I think building owners probably need to start looking at what their buildings are and what they mean to potential tenants.” 

He believes workers will likely be reluctant to return to the workplace as it stands.

“My kind of gut feelings from a building point of view, there may be a little bit of a lag getting back into enclosed spaces,” Mr Dougal says.

Neil Christopher, Principal of Gensler, a global design and architecture firm, agrees. “I think that many of us, particularly in the large cities, are really dreading this idea that we’re going to be travelling on trains, packed trains and so forth, to come back into the CBD every day,” he says.

Kirsti Simpson, Principal of Hassell, a multidisciplinary architecture, design and urban planning firm, says that while we may not be keen to jam into lifts or hot desk in the future, the traditional office may still be a primary place of work.

She says conventional office space may shrink as working from home becomes more common, but what remains will need to accommodate teamwork and collaboration better.

“The kind of workplace we’re really missing is collaboration. We’re seeing that this kind of [digital] method of communication is fabulous for problem-solving and dealing with the crisis. But in terms of innovation and ideas generation, we’re not finding it as successful,” she says.

Preparing for the cultural shift

Mr Christopher says that while we can deal with changes to the workplace, we may be underprepared for the loss of cultural aspects of the world.

“How do we help the cultural shift within the world so that we, as people, can adapt to and embrace different ways of experiencing the built environment,” he says.

He says while the next crisis may not be a pandemic, now is the time to prepare build spaces for greater resilience.

“Something is going to happen that will require us as humans to pivot, and our buildings need to do that. We need to be able to do that culturally; we need to do that experientially; I don’t know what that means. But I suspect it’s going to be about creating spaces that allow fluidity and flexibility.”

Mr Dougal says buildings and interiors will need to be designed for greater resilience.

“I just hope that we kind of come out the other end of this, whenever it is, with a real understanding of what we do, why we do it, and how it benefits people,” Mr Dougal says.

“There’ll be much room for creativity in the future because the world will need creative and lateral thinkers to be able to overcome problems, to be adaptable, and to be able to create new environments that have great meaning and great resilience,” Ms Oliver adds.