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Exploring Challenges to Our Communities in 2020

March 1, 2021

In 2020, we launched our second annual tour with IIDA to discuss Community as a Strategy, a movement to build and design with intention to support how we live, work and play.

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Our goal was to visit eight cities. But the pandemic put those plans on hold after our first stop.

So, we took the tour online. IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA, moderated a series of virtual events, each of which yielded valuable insights into complex current events and safe spaces in support of culture and connection. Following are a few highlights.

Focusing on Health and Humanity

When the pandemic hit, health and safety quickly became a top concern. With their ability to think differently, interior designers and space planners played a crucial role transforming space in response to the crisis -- whether that involved turning convention centers into field hospitals or modifying workplaces for social distancing. 

“Designers are helpers in the aftermath of crises,” Durst said. “We are wired to solve problems and create innovative solutions.”

2020 yielded a host of complex challenges beyond the pandemic, from racial injustice to political unrest. We turned to each other to support our mental and emotional well-being, even when we had to be physically apart.

“Just a year ago, it was all about creating spaces that generated an experience. Now, there is a longing to build connections in a new way,” said Karina Silvester, FIIDA, studio director for Gensler’s Boston office.

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Organizations also sought to ensure their culture reflected the communities they exist within. “Between COVID-19 and the ongoing responses to racial injustice, Walgreens has been reaching into our communities like never before,” said Stephanie Peters, director of guest and team member services for Walgreens.

Creating a Lasting Culture

Physical spaces are often the first impression an organization gives a community. They can articulate a company’s “values, branding and corporate culture,” as Durst put it.

During the pandemic, we learned that much of our desk work can be done from home. But that doesn’t mean that workspaces matter less from a cultural perspective. On the contrary, their impact can be heightened, as we may need to give people a strong reason to come back to work in a physical space.

“We need our workplaces to be more than just workplaces -- they need to truly communicate a sense of purpose,” said Jennifer Leighty, manager of guest experience at Walgreens.

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Frances Bruns, co-managing director of IA Interior Architects, shared how her firm helped build community for employees of Draft Kings, a fantasy sports gaming company, by making them feel like they were “in” the game. Its 100,000-square-foot headquarters was defined by “neighborhoods” featuring different sports and teams, as well as a large café that had the look and feel of a stadium, complete with a multicolored LED lightboard.

The Impact of the Built Environment

After months of working from home, many of us miss our offices and the people within them. Eventually, many of us will return to the office. What should our spaces prioritize when we do?

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During the tour, we explored how to intentionally design spaces to foster personal connection. Shared spaces, where we can collaborate and connect with our peers, are paramount. And yet, we understand the need to keep these spaces safe, even on the perceived tail-end of a pandemic.

“You can’t just replace everything with a screen. We still want to make connections with human beings,” said Sandra Tripp, New York managing director at Huntsman Architectural Group. “We shouldn’t always be looking at dead space when we’re having conversations with one another.”

There’s no doubt that Zoom coffee chats and virtual happy hours helped us stay connected this past year. Moving forward, we’ll look to balance meaningful interaction with personal safety as we return to shared physical spaces.

Designing for Inclusivity

It’s important to remember that certain spaces support multiple functions and serve the needs of different types of community members.

“We have to begin expanding our definition of ‘design’ to include the design of services, programs and activities,” said Mandy Tahvonen, managing director of Relish Works, a food service company. “We have to really think about our traditional understanding of design and ask ourselves, ‘What else is happening in this space?’ We have to remember that within any space, there is context and community we don’t see.”

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“Companies and organizations can no longer be disconnected from external communities, especially after the pandemic has blurred our lives,” said David Meckley, principal at Huntsman Architectural Group. “Clients want to know how firms and organizations can actually be a part of the community they are building in.”

Creating a sense of belonging among a diverse group was a central goal for designers in 2020 -- and will remain one moving forward. Bringing more voices from the community can help us design more accessible and inclusive spaces.

“This is a very fragile time . . . we feel alone and fragmented,” said Annie Lee, interior design principal at ENV. “But no matter how apart we feel, we need to focus on creating an equitable future through our spaces.”

Looking Towards a Brighter Future

Many of us have built new communities during the pandemic -- or interacted with old ones in new ways. But community has remained more important than ever.

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We’re hopeful that, someday soon, we’ll be able to gather in person. Until then, keep an eye out for our virtual events. We look forward to you joining the discussion on how we live, work and play.

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by KI Furniture 

KI manufactures innovative furniture and wall system solutions for education, healthcare, government and corporate markets.

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