As the pandemic wanes, lifestyle changes and new sustainability mandates will change commercial real estate design forever. Here’s what the AEC industry should know.
MGM National Harbor, a planned destination casino resort in Oxon Mill, Maryland, defies the stereotype of a gambling spot with its elegant design and meeting facilities, hotel rooms, restaurants, retail and theater complex.

5 Ways COVID-19 Will Change Commercial Real Estate Design

As the pandemic wanes, lifestyle changes and new sustainability mandates will change commercial real estate design forever. Here’s what the AEC industry should know.
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After more than a year of tumult thanks to COVID-19—which has changed the way we will live, work and play for the foreseeable future—the architecture, engineering and construction industry is seeing resurgence and growth. In fact, many of the projects we’re working on are forging ahead at breakneck speed, especially those in multifamily as the nation faces a severe housing shortage.

This is spurring enormous changes in the AEC industry, especially as rising construction costs, labor shortages and stricter regulations are creating an environment where there is a drastically reduced margin for error or waste. While commercial real estate covers a wide range of property types, each with differing fundamentals, changes spurred by the pandemic will affect all structures. Here are five macro-trends that will have a lasting impact on all commercial real estate design.

We see office spaces becoming not only smarter, smaller and harder working but also more multipurpose and adaptable to diverse requirements, like Population Service International’s Washington, D.C. office.

1. Office spaces will be smarter, smaller and harder working.

Do we really need all that office space? That’s the $64 million dollar question right now as many people work from home. More than one-in-five companies are planning to reduce their office space in the coming year, a recent American Institute of Certified Public Accountants survey concluded. Surveys show most office workers actually want to go back to the office, but only two or three days a week, Harvard Business Review noted in July 2021.

But that doesn’t mean companies won’t be expanding. Instead, they will grow without increasing expensive square footage as virtual options allow everyone to have a “seat in the room” efficiently and economically. A McKinsey survey of 100 executives found that 90% envision a future with some combination of remote and on-site work. But with less space, every square inch will count and must be maximized for sustainability and performance. Workers will also want offices where they can work more productively and focus on activities they can’t do at home. While most companies aren’t jumping into physical changes now, they are imminent as we innovate to meet changing demands spurred by the pandemic and its repercussions.

Residents want multifamily communities to offer private and public spaces to accommodate their new needs; units with high-quality, sustainable fixtures and finishes; and plenty to do outside! LEED Silver-certified Tam Ridge Residences in Marin County, California, an adaptive reuse development that was once a manufacturing plant, offers all these assets.

2. Multifamily design is recalibrating.

More people working from home means big changes for multifamily design. Residents want private and public spaces that can accommodate their new needs. Not necessarily more space, but space that is more multifunctional, comfortable and outfitted with higher quality, longer-lasting, antimicrobial finishes and furnishings—and by nature of these new requirements, far more sustainable than ever before.  

Feedback on new lifestyle needs is still flowing into owners and property managers, and there’s probably more to come. But one thing is certain: From common spaces and amenities, residents want smaller, safer options interspersed throughout buildings to accommodate more intimate meetings and activities organized around residents’ special interests or specific themes. Air quality and ventilation systems—already improved thanks to the pandemic—may get even more sophisticated. The same need for more intimate spaces applies to apartments, where more nooks and crannies enable privacy for remote working.

Dead malls are getting new life as schools and residences, or adding untraditional amenities like gyms, bowling alleys and grocery stores. They’re also getting more sustainable with the addition of green roofs and solar panels. (Illustration: Aida Amer/Axios)

3. E-commerce is facing reinvention.   

Retail was already changing pre-pandemic thanks to the Amazon effect; why shop in person when shipping is free? But the pandemic has left millions of square feet of retail space ripe for adaptive reuse; 25% of U.S. malls are expected to be shut by 2025. At the same time, it has fueled an increased need for warehouses. But there is hope; new warehouses are popping up in thriving communities and city centers rather than the far-flung outskirts of metro areas, partially due to the need for final-mile delivery centers. To wit: Amazon has been buying up dead malls and ringing cities with warehouses.  

But adaptive reuse projects for retail are getting more innovative as they are designed to fit into local neighborhoods. Right now, malls are adding gyms, bowling alleys, grocery stores and even schools to their tenant rosters, but we can foresee the day when medical facilities, places of worship and apartments are added to the mix. And with a growing number of major cities (including New York, Denver, Portland and San Francisco) requiring all new residential and commercial buildings to have green roofs, complete with either plants, solar panels, mini wind turbines or a combination of all three, these buildings are getting more sustainable.

McKissack was on the design-build team for the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters on the west campus of historic St. Elizabeths. It features an 11-story, 1.2 million sq. ft. office building for 3,860 employees, a separate central utility plant and two seven-story parking garages, achieved LEED Gold certification and won an AIA award.

4. Sustainability and resilience will be ingrained in every project. 

While there are many standards today, and more energy performance criteria on the horizon thanks to Biden’s climate plan, the point is to not only do what’s right in every situation but to look at ways to go above and beyond. That is our mandate and mantra at McKissack, where sustainability is built into every aspect of our design and program management services—especially as we work on major school systems, airports and convention centers.  

Resiliency is also on our minds this summer as we have record-setting heatwaves and wildfires, floods and storms. Many speculate extreme weather—especially flooding in every region of our nation—maybe the new normal, and Biden’s proposed infrastructure frame work designed to address and prevent damage across the country echoes projects we are already working on. While all these projects already have high-level goals, our work with partners that range from utilities and public systems to developers and builders allows us to innovate and enhance measures to increase sustainability and resiliency.

“Tele-everything” will be the new normal by 2025, the Pew Research Center predicts, and smart home technology will be prevalent. More significantly, multifamily building owners and managers are beginning to embrace it to differentiate their buildings and offerings. (Image: Multifamily Executive)

5. Smart technology is getting smarter, more widespread and totally integrated.  

Smart technology was already very smart and extremely prevalent before the pandemic. Increasingly, we’ve been seeing it migrate to every home system and device imaginable. Now, thanks to the pandemic and the advent of touchless technologies it spurred to minimize human interactions and increase sustainably, we are seeing tech take over construction processes, building operations, medical diagnoses and more. These technologies have helped us get commercial interior design and construction management right, even allowing us to know when building plans need tweaking to avoid structural mistakes.

Experts surveyed by the Pew Research Center earlier this year think our society will be far more tech-driven by 2025. Next up will be a slew of sophisticated smart technologies to run entire metropolitan areas as smart cities become the new standard for urban living. From building smart grids to aid energy distribution and resource conservation to tracking traffic, transportation, waste management, safety and public services, technology is providing real-time data cities can use to improve the way we live. We look forward to incorporating these new advances into current AEC practices.

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