field-hospital-central-park via ny1

How Architects and Designers Can Respond to COVID-19

In times of crisis, it is human nature to want to help. Where can designers be most effective? How do we put our skills to use in the right context, at the right time? COVID-19 is a medical crisis, certainly, but it’s also a psychological, economic, and logistical crisis. Without a vaccine on the immediate horizon, with no initial herd immunity, our primary method of stemming the flow of destruction is a spatial response: social distancing and quarantine. 

Surely the design community has something to contribute here, right? 

At the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD), the organization I lead, we’ve learned a few things about responding to crisis. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, in November after the August 2005 storm, we convened a special session for Gulf Coast mayors. The stench of death so breathlessly reported by the media had faded, but officials in New Orleans were still pulling bodies from buildings. Our tour of the Lower 9th Ward, which remained closed, had us walking through inches of caked mud and sidestepping boats that had washed into houses. While the Institute no doubt had value as a group-therapy session for mayors, we saw pretty quickly that the design community had not been a first responder. In the immediate aftermath, when the disaster was still unfolding, there simply was not enough information to engage decision-makers in the types of long-term and strategic recommendations where our organization excels. After Superstorm Sandy in 2013, we again convened a special MICD session for the small coastal communities along the New Jersey Shore, this time 10 months after the storm. By then, mayors acutely knew their needs, understood the limitations of federal and state funding, and were able to engage our assembled team of design and development experts in creative solutions to rebuilding with limited funds. 

COVID-19 is not a weather event, however. And the response-needs for it are changing every day. One of the mayors at the current epicenter of the outbreak recently said, “You start with three or four cases, and in only a few days, it’s a tsunami. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Mayors can’t get the personal protective equipment (PPE) their cities need, and even in areas that aren’t yet hard hit, they worry about a limited supply of ICU beds and ventilators. We do not have time to spare, but luckily we have agencies and organizations that already know how to, quite literally, save lives in temporary structures on the battlefield. And make no mistake: this is a battlefield. 

Cities have more volunteers than they know what to do with, but simply raising your hand doesn’t have much value when people are in a crisis mode. Designers must think about the specific skills they have and map them to the mission at hand. The handful of examples listed below are not meant to be comprehensive, merely to demonstrate areas where people, firms, and organizations have spotted specific opportunities that match their existing expertise and relationships where they can pitch in, either immediately or in the near future. 

When it became clear that New York State needed to prepare for hospital surge and space needs due to the number of projected COVID-19 cases expected in the coming weeks, the New York Department of State reached out to the state component of the American Institute of Architects (AIANYS) through an already-established disaster response network that included the AIA. In a matter of days, AIA members identified buildings across the state that met a specific set of criteria laid out by the NY state department. As the AIA New York Disaster Coordinator in those efforts, Illya Azaroff, told me recently, “We did that work quickly, but more importantly, we followed up with what we could do next. You can’t just hand it off and wait for a phone call. We said, ‘Once this is done, here’s what we propose our assets and skillsets are to get you to the next step.’ You have to very clearly say what you’re here for, how you’re going to serve, what you’re going to solve, and the timeline you can do it on. If you can’t do that, you won’t be able to help in this disaster.”

In Washington state, DLR Group is working with King County on a variety of solutions to provide 2,500 clinical beds for those exposed to or recovering from the coronavirus. These include quick-response field clinics, portable housing, as well as transitioning a warehouse and motels into quarantine facilities for homeless individuals and others who have been exposed to the virus but do not need intensive care. DLR Group had an existing contract with the county for homeless space design services and signed a new emergency contract for COVID-19 response. According to Principal Lori Coppenrath, justice and civic planner at DLR Group, “This need emerged quickly, and the existing relationship and trust that had been built over the years provided the county with the confidence to move forward. The fact that we had in-house engineering also made things a little simpler for the resource- and time-stretched county.”

MASS Design Group, based in Boston, has taken a different approach. Having spent the last decade building new spaces and retrofitting existing buildings to promote infection control, they are creating new tools and best practices for the design community at large, anticipating that infectious-disease mitigation will be an increasing need in construction moving forward. They saw a skill and expertise they had and mapped it to a future need. 

And designers have an unmatched ability to visualize things that do not yet exist, and to bring clarity to complex ideas graphically. Opportunities abound for designers to help the public understand the spread of this disease, the shifting structures of now-remote city governments, and even the process for obtaining financial help during this crisis. We can point to the “Flatten the Curve” graphic as the moment the general public understood the need for social distancing. Graphics have power.

What ties all of these examples together is a high level of specificity about what the individual brings to the table. That, and in many cases, existing relationships. No stimulus bill will change the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers simply do not have the capacity to manage a disaster that is unfolding at a national scale. Decisions and actions are happening at the state and local level. This is a great time for designers to use their hyperlocal knowledge to plug into bureaucracies and help. As Salisbury, Maryland, Mayor Jacob Day, trained in architecture and urban design, said to me last week: “Your local elected officials and decision makers should already know you and know who to call. In the absence of that, pick up the phone with very specific ways you can help. Letters and press releases don’t save lives.”

Featured image: Field hospital in Central Park, via NY1.


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