by Raffi Arzoumanian
"As architects, we are now thinking more consciously about the technicality of making an outdoor space usable year-round because of COVID."
For Chicagoans and others who experience an annual harsh cold-weather season, enjoying the outdoors is sometimes a novel or luxurious experience limited mostly to summertime. But after 15 months of taking strong protective measures against a virus that thrives indoors, and even as the pandemic is now considered "behind" us, we cannot deny that our relationship with outdoor spaces has changed forever. As architects working in the Chicago area, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a shift in our thinking and approach to designing outdoor spaces for our clients, both now and for the long-term. In addition to the retail and service sectors, COVID’s impact on community services has been palpable. Organizations that provide vital social and outreach benefits to local communities have been forced to pivot and adopt digital or other distanced solutions. Unfortunately, for those unable to adapt or where social distancing was not possible, revenue loss, program cuts, volunteer shortages, and closing of sites became the norm, even as demand for social services rose, according to a November 2020 FEMA report. The scientific consensus points to greater risk of COVID transmission indoors. We think if community providers embrace outdoor spaces as an integrated part of their offering, it will enable continuation of vital services during future public health emergencies. Colder climates need not be a hindrance. Creating spaces with passive solar and low energy strategies is not only the responsible thing to do for the environment, but also a smart way of equipping outdoor spaces to optimally function in all kinds of weather. Here’s how we’re approaching outdoor spaces with a post-COVID mindset on two recent projects: Elim Pentecostal Church: For this new construction church in Chicago, our approach to a rooftop space changed when we started to think of it as a possible substitute venue for indoor services, rather than just a spill-over area for events or gatherings. The square footage was large enough to fit a large part of the congregation; the next challenge was figuring out the orientation and details of the rooftop space plan to allow for optimal use. First, to protect from inclement weather, we surrounded the open space with a continuation of the glass walls from the building façade. This will protect against wind as well as provide views. It will also act as support when an overhead protection system needs to be deployed for continual use. In wintertime, we wanted the space to harness natural sources of heat in lieu of relying too heavily on energy-hogging heat lamps or other temporary-feeling surrounding elements like tents. So, we studied appropriate orientation of the plan to allow walls to reflect heat for maximum thermal comfort. We integrated both shielding and passive solar strategies to allow congregants to sit and feel comfortable for most of the year. These measures will make the rooftop naturally usable for services whenever needed. Confidential Community Center: In Lincolnwood, we are currently designing a new plaza as an addition to a new-construction community center specifically in response to the pandemic. This community cultural and arts group moved classes and programs online where possible during 2020 lockdowns. The new plaza will allow extended space for art exhibitions, music performances, and other gatherings. It will provide greater opportunity to outwardly engage with the surrounding community, but it will also offer an alternative to moving programs online, preserving in-person interaction with appropriate safety measures. As with the Elim church, we are studying passive solar strategies, thinking about how to keep people comfortable outside year-round. We are orienting the plan to face south and west so nearby walls can capture solar heat and reflect it for better thermal comfort. We are also carefully considering the aesthetics. The plaza must be as inviting as any of the center’s indoor spaces to engage community members and make them want to linger. Part of our strategy is developing a warm and welcoming lighting scheme that can be controlled and adjusted to serve different uses that are anticipated for the plaza. We are also incorporating shade trees to protect from the sun and wind as well as terraced planters for seating and performance opportunities. As the world makes strides toward moving past the pandemic and getting back to business as usual, it will be important to use the lessons we’ve learned through this crisis to mitigate the impact of future public health disruptions. Architecture and space play an unquestionably important role in maintaining the energy and vibrancy of community interaction, as well as essential services. As architects, we are now thinking more consciously about the technicality of making an outdoor space usable year-round because of COVID. We think community-focused organizations that more closely consider the benefits of integrated outdoor space will create significant future advantages for their operations and the people they serve.