NEW NORMAL: COVID-19 Design Impacts on Commercial Interiors

various covid-19 work & life image collageChange can be exciting, frustrating, challenging, disruptive, refreshing and overwhelming.  And as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be abrupt and unexpected.  The present challenges to creating safe workspaces, hospitality venues, educational spaces and senior living communities are daunting. Social connections and the use of shared and public spaces are confined to the parameters of social distancing guidelines. However, the renewed focus on healthy environments and infection control may also yield positive COVID-19 design impacts on commercial interior design. Our interior designers share their professional perspectives regarding COVID-19 design impacts, the current realities and anticipated lasting changes.

COVID-19 design impact, heightened interest in copper

Copper has received much attention lately due to its antimicrobial properties and in fact has been used in hospitals, airports and other public venues for this purpose. Proper cleaning is still a must and the EPA Antimicrobial Stewardship website has posted clarifying statements including the fact that copper has not yet been tested for COVID-19.

What new materials are we likely to see?

Amy Kleinfelter:  In this post-COVID-19 world, we will likely specify more smooth surface products that can be cleaned with bleach or are inherently antimicrobial. For any public spaces, we recommend avoiding materials with crevices that can be difficult to sanitize. Our goal will be to select products that meet the performance standards of a healthcare environment, but are not too “institutional” in appearance. It will be necessary to carefully vet some of the emerging products that have “additives” to avoid leaching of toxic chemicals. We will continue to review products for potential health risks to the end user or damage to the environment at the end of their life cycles.

“For any public spaces, we will want to avoid materials that have a lot of crevices that would be difficult to sanitize.”

What are supply chain/cost impacts we expect to see? 

Kristin Novak:  In the current climate we are seeing materials and supply chains change.  Some lead times are shorter because less orders are coming into the factory, but other manufacturers are having longer lead times because they have had to furlough workers or stagger employees which reduces efficiency.  Shipping has also been affected because product is moving slower, distribution centers are not as efficient with social distancing limitations, and essential items have taken priority for the major shipping carriers.

We also see risks to the raw materials and supply chains for our manufacturers.  We often try to specify American-made products, but even these companies utilize components or tools manufactured overseas.  International shipping and U.S. ports have been slow and/or closed in recent months so when an American-made manufacturer runs out of a product—whether ball bearings, casters, fabric, or tools—they have to pause production.

Amy Kleinfelter:   Manufacturing facilities have been impacted due to limited capacity of workers or reduced hours of operation during the height of the crisis. This has caused product delivery delays which impact construction schedules and potentially add cost when the project completion timeframe has to be extended. If the owner is paying interest on a loan or not generating revenue because they cannot open for business, their bottom line is affected. We are trying to build extra lead time into schedules right now.  Noone knows how long we will be feeling the effects of the global shutdown, even after manufacturing ramps up and construction projects move forward.

cubicle office photo next to an open office photo

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate our offices, open office designs were coming under scrutiny. Opinions vary regarding an appropriate compromise for the cube farms of the past and contemporary open office designs. Photos from Today, Open Offices vs Cubicles?

What are the COVID-19 design impacts for offices?

Jessie Shappell:  For more than a decade, “benching” has been loved by companies looking to cut down on square foot lease space cost per employee, but loathed by many office occupants. This trend, along with open offices in general, will certainly decline. To help improve infection control, high partitions will emerge in its place.  This may be a good change, as there have been complaints about noise and distractions in open offices—particularly where benching is implemented.

Higher partitions provide more acoustical and visual privacy, which can result in improved focus and productivity throughout the day.  The drawback is reduced connection to colleagues and views to daylighting.  Workstations will need to balance partition heights to avoid the “cube farms” of the 1980s as well as the benching of the 2010s.

Workstations will need to balance partition heights to avoid the “cube farms” of the 1980s as well as the benching of the 2010s.”

How will space planning, circulation and programming in public spaces change?

Amy Kleinfelter:  It will be even more important to coordinate interior design with Mechanical / Electrical Plumbing (MEP) engineers. We expect an increased demand for certain plumbing fixtures and HVAC upgrades such as the following:

  • Sinks may no longer be limited to bathrooms and kitchens. Building operators may decide to incorporate additional handwashing stations throughout an interior environment.
  • More frequent air changes within a space would help to keep the circulating air fresh and healthier.

Workstation areas and classrooms may become larger with more separation between desks. Circulation corridors may also be widened to accommodate the six-foot social distancing rule. These changes could add square footage to the total programmed space. However, companies that can allow employees to work from home or stagger work hours to reduce the number of employees in an office at any given time will need fewer workstations.

In educational settings, the additional space requirements for student social distancing may not be a long term solution. Institutions may elect to temporarily utilize larger spaces such as gymnasiums or large group instruction areas to meet social distancing guidelines and get students back to the classroom.

Kristin NovakIt is hard to know exactly what is coming and how best to prepare, so flexibility will be key in future planning and programming.  We expect group sizes will be limited for quite some time. However, it is important for our clients to address the needs of those using the spaces.  Senior living communities must continue to offer worship services, group exercises, clubs, and other opportunities for socialization.  Our education clients need to allow for in-person classroom instruction, research, group projects and opportunities for collaboration.  As the risks wane, larger groups may be possible. As a risk increases, whether it is COVID-19 or the annual flu season, the size of groups may diminish.  Spaces that allow for this flux in group size are an important resource. You may see this trend materialize through multi-purpose rooms with operable partitions or smaller lounges and gathering areas.

“Flexibility will be key in future planning and programming.”

COVID-19 design impact, we may see more handwashing stations at dining venues

Even prior to COVID-19, some cruise ships, like Royal Caribbean Quantum of the Seas pictured, here, had implemented handwashing sinks outside of buffets. Expect to see more of these in commercial dining settings.

What are the COVID-19 design impacts for dining venues?

Jessie Shappell:  In accordance with CDC guidelines, handwashing stations at entries will be key, particularly in venues with self-service such as bistros and buffets.  Self-serve buffets will likely decline rapidly, with gloved and masked staff instead dishing out portions.  We have seen this trend in our client’s senior living communities prior to COVID-19, with self-serve salad bars replaced with build-your-own salad stations.  Other COVID-19 design impacts include increased cleaning regimens and use of cleanable, bleach-resistant and durable textiles with high double rub counts.

Amy Kleinfelter:  Dining tables may become larger to create more separation between diners. This poses a challenge for senior living residents who have difficulty hearing. Another consideration could be to design a venue with fewer tables to limit the number of diners during meal times.As a result, it may become necessary to increase the hours that a dining venue will be operational and stagger mealtimes. This would increase stress for management as they try to accommodate with full time equivalent staff. Educational facility operators may have shorter lunch periods so that all students can be fed during staggered times.

What recommendations do you have for educational facility clients as they evaluate potential changes? 

Amy Kleinfelter: Short term considerations have focused on a transition to distance learning and bolstering technology resources to complete the 2019-2020 academic year.  As we move past the end of the school year or semester, additional consideration should be be given to maintenance and preparation of facilities that have been unoccupied for a longer duration than the typical “summer break.”  This includes flushing potable water supplies, humidity control, and cleaning furniture and physical spaces thoroughly.

As we move past the end of the school year or semester, additional consideration should be be given to maintenance and preparation of facilities that have been unoccupied for a longer duration than the typical “summer break.”

Mid-term solutions that address the needs for returning to the classroom, supplemented with distance learning offering will likely be considered.  Each institution must decide what is best for its students, staff and communities based on CDC, state and local guidelines.  These considerations may include variations in student scheduling, start times, and transportation where provided. They may also include providing meals in the classroom setting or utilizing larger existing spaces within buildings for meals or instructional activities. When evaluating occupancy of alternative spaces, occupant and instructor circulation pathways should be considered along with suggested or required social distancing parameters.

Long-term goals will allow students and staff to focus on education and will likely increase the opportunities for distance learning.  We anticipate additional focus on cleanliness and handwashing, as well as finding a new balance between these health considerations and classroom safety and security.

What recommendations do you have for senior living clients before they implement changes? 

Kristin NovakClients should consider short-, medium-, and long-term changes.  The first priority for senior living communities is to keep residents safe and healthy. Many have made necessary short-term changes to policy, visitors, interaction, cleaning, and the physical building infrastructure.  These changes are effective at reducing the spread of disease. However, they also have negative side effects for residents. These include increased feelings of isolation, boredom, and frustration from the disruption to their daily routines. Families are concerned about loved ones. Staff members are under personal stress and forced to change how they deliver care.

“Many of the short-term changes will be replaced with permanent, well-designed solutions and some of the current restrictions will go away entirely as the risk subsides.”

Medium-term changes must address ongoing physical distancing needs, while allowing for more social interactions. Each organization must decide what is best for its residents and staff based on CDC, state and local guidelines. This may include wearing masks and gloves, limiting group sizes, and providing separation in dining venues. It also requires creative approaches to group activities like movies, fitness, and worship.  Medium-term changes must balance the change in approach as the risk for disease is reduced.

The long-term goals must allow residents to return to normal socializing, visits from families, and trips outside the community.  Staff members must find a way to balance disease risk with freedom and independence.  Many of the short-term changes will be replaced with permanent, well-designed solutions. Some of the current restrictions will go away entirely as the risk subsides.

At each stage, communities must weigh resident safety and emotional health, staff performance, and cost.  Communities should evaluate programming and infrastructure needs to strategically develop medium- and long-term goals before implementing permanent changes.

mobile tables that look like inner tubes at Fish Tales Bar & Grill, in Ocean City, Maryland

To maintain social distancing, Fish Tales Bar & Grill, in Ocean City, Maryland, has new mobile tables that look like inner tubes. Credit:  Penn Live

What  cautions do you have for clients before they implement changes? 

Jessie Shappell:  Avoid trendy furniture solutions, such as these bumper tables.  Sure, they promote social distancing, but there is a lot of surface to clean after use by each patron. The spread of infection is mitigated only if each unit is effectively sanitized at each turnover.

There has also been a trend for mannequins and stuffed animals filling empty seats in restaurants, and while it is novel and perhaps cute, it also introduces more soft, absorptive surfaces into the dining space.  Will the stuffed animal or mannequins’ outfits be routinely laundered and sanitized?

Are there any positive COVID-19 design impacts that we might see?

Kristin Novak:  A silver lining has been the acceptance and integration of technology to help our clients respond to the pandemic.  Many staff members are helping senior living community residents and families connect through Zoom, Face-Time, and other platforms.  This is a powerful way to connect even after communities are ready to welcome visitors again.

Schools and higher education institution were able to quickly adjust to providing only online instruction to students. This included providing the appropriate resources to students as well as the proper communication to parents. As schools and campuses open in the Fall, a blend of in-person and online instruction will likely be utilized now that the infrastructure has been implemented.

aesthetically appealing options for essential PPE items

We have been able to find some aesthetically appealing options for essential PPE items. Photo Credit: Peter Pepper Health First

One other topic that I’ve been exploring is how to aesthetically integrate hand sanitizer, masks, tissues, and trash disposal.  This was a design challenge before the pandemic, but even more so now. Commercial business, schools and retirement communities are placing PPE kiosks prominently at building entrances and abundantly throughout their common spaces.  We look for user-friendly options with wipeable surfaces that comply with ADA guidelines for our clients.

Jessie Shappell:   Increased awareness by the general population about hygiene and infection control is a great benefit.  With more people being mindful of how pathogens can easily spread in an interior environment, hopefully behaviors will change to reduce the spread of disease. Handwashing, rigorous cleaning protocols and improved interior air quality strategies are all positives.

Likewise, COVID-19 is leading many people to take a second look at design principles such as the WELL Building Standard. WELL has been around since 2014.  Designing to WELL criteria may have been a luxury before the pandemic. Now it’s becoming standard not only for design, but also for operations and policy management.  Designing for WELL requires ongoing verification that registered buildings maintain maximum air quality, ventilation and water quality standards. Proper ventilation and air filtration are essential for distributing clean, outside air to occupants while limiting recirculation and potential spread of unwanted particulates.

“Designing to WELL criteria may have been a luxury before the pandemic. Now it’s becoming standard not only for design, but also for operations and policy management.”

The WELL Building Standard also focuses on cleanable environments to promote healthy indoor air quality.  Material selections must go beyond being low-emitting, and also be smooth and free of crevices or hard-to-reach places so the product can be effectively cleaned.  WELL does not allow permanently installed wall-to-wall carpet, instead promoting removable rugs, carpet tiles or alterative hard surfaces.

WELL promotes the use of non-leeching antimicrobial surfaces for countertops, kitchen and bath fixtures, handles, door knobs, light switches and elevator buttons. UV cleaning devices are also recommended.

COVID-19 design impact, renewed interest in WELL Building Standard for cleanable products

The easy to clean or replace carpet tiles used in the sales center for Chestnut Ridge at Rodale work well with the contemporary industrial aesthetic.

Handwashing stations must be provided at entryways to areas intended for food consumption, bathrooms, and kitchens. They must meet minimum sink dimensions and length of water column.  Fragrance-free soap must be provided in sealed and disposable cartridges.  Research indicates that air hand dryers, valued for saving trees, recirculate unhealthy pathogens and spores.  While WELL does not forbid electric hand dryers, paper products must be provided along with proper waste collection.

COVID-19 Design Impacts Checklist

For our clients who are interested, we would be happy to review our COVID-19 Design Impacts Checklist with you.  The checklist is based on the latest CDC guidelines, industry research, technical input from our engineering consultants and other resources. Please contact us if this would be helpful for your organization. We continue to update the checklist as new information becomes available.


Amy Kleinfelter, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C holds a Bachelor of Arts, Interior Design from Marymount University; Arlington, VA. If this situation has taught us anything, it’s that we need to take care of each other and watch out for those who are most vulnerable. We can design any space to look “pretty” but it must also function properly and contribute to the overall health and well-being of our clients.

Kristin Novak, IIDA, earned a Bachelor of Arts, Studio Arts and History of Art & Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh. She also holds a Master of Fine Arts, Interior Design from The George Washington University.  Kristin is looking forward to hair salons reopening.  As she puts it, “things are getting a bit desperate in my house and I’m about to hand my husband a pair of scissors!”  On a more serious note, she’s looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends.

Jessie Shappell, IIDA, RA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C, earned a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She also holds  a Master of Science in Interior Architecture from Chatham University and is a Board Member for the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ). As a lifelong germophobe, Jessie is looking forward to a future with healthier and safer interior spaces that we can all live, work and play in—at an appropriate physical distance!

Jodi Kreider, LEED AP, Blog Editor